In her latest monthly roundup, Angeli Mehta reports on the the latest round of failed U.S. climate diplomacy, COP26 host UK's difficulty in abandoning fossil fuels and the state of play for funding hydrogen, nuclear, and biodiversity protection
COP26 is almost upon us. Will August’s truly frightening report from climate scientists, alongside ample evidence in a summer of extremes, focus minds enough on the actions needed to save us from ourselves?
The IPCC’s latest assessment shows that it’s not game over – we still do have a good chance to limit average warming to 1.5 degrees. But only if political leaders take steps to ensure a rapid reduction in emissions by 2030, ahead of net zero in 2050.
John Kerry, the climate envoy for the world’s second most polluting nation, was in China last week to try to persuade the most polluting nation to rein in its coal consumption and set more ambitious emissions reduction targets.
But the dire political tensions between the two overshadowed his efforts, and he left empty-handed. Kerry's visit was followed by that of COP26 President Alok Sharma. At the conclusion of their talks on Tuesday, the Chinese side said discussions had been "frank" and "constructive". But China wants to see developed countries increase their efforts to cut emissions and provide "financial, technical and capacity-building support for developing countries."
And it is not just China that is finding it hard to kick the fossil fuel habit: the US wants increased oil production to lower prices for its consumers.
It seems to be a hard task, too, for the COP26 host. Just as UK businesses are being urged to sign up to net zero ahead of the Glasgow conference, the government looks likely to give the go-ahead to a new oil and gas development west of the Shetland isles. The industry argues that without new drilling, the UK will be even more dependent on oil and gas imports with no control over the emissions associated with their production. The UK sector has a plan to cut its production emissions as well as those of methane. This powerful but relatively short-lived greenhouse gas will be the subject of much discussion at COP26 because rapid cuts are needed to keep alive hopes of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.
The UK has also delayed making a decision on how it will decarbonise homes and businesses and make them more energy efficient – a mammoth task expected to require £100bn of capital this decade. A strategy is expected this month.
Buildings are the second largest source of emissions (after transport), although the National Housing Federation recently estimated that England’s 25m homes emit more CO2 than are produced by their occupants’ cars – underlining the urgency and scale of the task.
Adding 20% hydrogen to the grid across the UK would cut CO2 emissions by 6m tonnes a year
Britain’s energy regulator, Ofgem, launched a £450m fund for new ideas that can scale to decarbonise heat, power and transport in Britain. The money will come from the network charges that are levied on consumers of gas and electricity – roughly around 25% of an average bill. Ofgem envisages lots of projects will be funded for two months before whittling options down.
The government hasn’t ruled out using hydrogen to heat homes. Last month it published a plan that keeps options open on where hydrogen could be deployed – in hard to abate industrial sectors, and in heating – in a bid to build both supply chains and the demand required to bring costs down. It is considering whether to support blending hydrogen in the gas grid, which would create early demand, even if not a substantial solution in the longer term – given that the falling cost of renewables makes electrification a stronger contender. Adding 20% hydrogen to the grid across the UK would cut CO2 emissions by 6m tonnes a year, say advocates. Trials are under way.
The strategy envisages 5GW low-carbon hydrogen capacity by 2030 in industrial clusters and aims to attract £4bn of investment. Earlier this year a consortium of 60 businesses said they stood ready to invest £3bn in hydrogen projects and urged the government to set a more ambitious target than 5GW.
The Scottish government has already set out its aim for at least 5GW of hydrogen capacity by 2030, capable of producing 27TWh energy – the equivalent of almost 30% of the UK’s 2019 industrial energy demand.
Westminster is pursuing a “twin track approach” that will support multiple technologies including producing so-called blue hydrogen made from methane, with carbon capture and storage (CCS), or by splitting water molecules using renewable energy (green hydrogen).
Blue hydrogen is not zero-carbon. The government’s climate adviser, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), says in order to qualify for support, blue hydrogen should demonstrate at least the potential 85% life cycle emissions saving it estimates is possible, compared to unabated fossil gas.
The government is consulting on a low-carbon standard that any producer seeking its support would have to meet, as well as working internationally to make sure a global market is based on common standards.
Analysis suggests hydrogen will scale only in the late 2030s – which is too late for hard to abate sectors
Environmental groups have strongly criticised the inclusion of blue hydrogen, because they fear it will lock in consumption of fossil fuels. Indeed, in its latest economic report the UK’s offshore oil and gas industry body, OGUK, argues new investments are needed to help unlock other low carbon energy sources so the “full scale of the government’s hydrogen strategy can be embraced”.
Similar arguments are being aired in the EU, but the Commission has set its sights on 6GW of electrolyser capacity by 2024. Last month, Germany agreed a deal to invest €40m in green hydrogen production in Namibia. The country is home to abundant wind and solar resources but lacks water, so will have to rely on desalinated seawater – adding to production costs.
Norway-based consultants DNV forecast that green hydrogen will dominate over time. However, even if all electricity is “green” from now on, we still won’t achieve net zero by 2050. DNV’s analysis suggests hydrogen will scale only in the late 2030s – which is too late for hard to abate sectors such as shipping, and aviation. CCS development needs to happen faster and that requires policy.
In its advice on the UK’s sixth carbon budget, the CCC recommended a blue hydrogen bridge, to supplement electrolytic hydrogen. This would reduce emissions more quickly in the short-term and develop a role for hydrogen across different sectors. But the CCC wanted the government to set out its vision for the balance between the two – something it failed to do. To meet its net-zero target, the CCC says government will have to reduce the contribution from blue hydrogen by the late 2030s.
In a statement, David Joffe, head of carbon budgets, described the strategy as a “step forward on the path to net zero” but added that “concerns remain around how the UK will go further to reduce emissions from gas-fired powered generation, and we also need clarity on the strategy for decarbonisation of heat for buildings. The next step for the UK government is joining these strategies together to form a comprehensive plan to reach net zero.”
The nuclear option
While many eyes are on hydrogen, nuclear is at a crossroads, suggests energy analyst Wood Mackenzie. China is pressing ahead with nuclear – aiming to have 70GW of capacity by 2025, by building plants around the coast.
In Europe opinion is divided, with Belgium intent on closing its nuclear plants by 2025 and replacing them with gas power plants just as the bloc has signed up to a 55% reduction in emissions by 2030. In eastern Europe, nuclear may be a bridge from coal.
The European Commission is being urged by parliamentarians, and energy and nuclear workers’ trades unions, to include nuclear in the sustainable finance taxonomy that is intended to guide investors on the green credentials of economic activities. (See Policy Watch: Biden climate summit long on vision but short on ‘how’ of getting to net-zero)
In Japan, where the Fukushima disaster of 2011 dented confidence well beyond its shores, some nuclear plants are being switched back on as the country seeks deeper emissions cuts. Its latest energy plan envisages 20-22% of energy will come from nuclear by 2030.
One sticking point around the world is how to deal safely and permanently with nuclear waste. Numerous projects have been stalled because locals don’t want the stuff. Feelings are running high in the north of England, where proposals for long term storage are once more being discussed. Sweden has just agreed to expand its interim storage facility after plant operators warned they’d have to shut down reactors as the facility was almost full. Only Finland has begun to develop permanent storage.
Both UK and Welsh governments are interested in deploying small modular reactors on the journey to net zero. Proponents argue that they will be cheaper and safer than conventional reactors and balance the variability of wind and solar. Nuclear could also be used to produce hydrogen, for example on off-peak times. Such a dual strategy is also being examined in the US and Canada, but whether it can be economically viable remains to be seen.
Before COP26, it had been hoped nations would sign off on a global treaty to reverse biodiversity loss by protecting 30% of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030. However, the pandemic has forced a delay, so the talks (known as COP15) will be split into two parts – one virtual and the second face-to-face at Kunming in China next April.
But a working group has been listening to arguments and questions from governments and NGOs about how the targets can be practically implemented; how new and existing protected areas can be managed more effectively; where protected areas should be located to deliver biodiversity and ecosystem benefits; and how to ensure indigenous peoples and local communities are “in the driving seat” when it comes to designating and managing them.
This week they drove an agreement to protect 80% of the Amazon basin by 2025, at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) world congress.
Scientists have concluded that the Amazon is approaching a tipping point where it ceases to be a forest and billions of tons of carbon dioxide are released, destroying any hope of keeping average warning to within 1.5 degrees.
Indigenous people living in the Amazon now need an increase in funding and rights to help them restore degraded areas and halt forest fires.
Francis Ogwal, co-chair of the Convention on Biological Diversity working group, told journalists the CBD also needs more funding: “We need them to be in an amount that is commensurate with the ambition that we'll come up with.” Access to funding and the speed of disbursement are also going to be key, he added.
Success next year in Kunming now depends on the climate talks in November.
“If climate change is in excess of 1.5 degrees, it's going to be very difficult to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. So we need a very successful COP26 to deliver on what was agreed in Paris. And then in addition, biodiversity can contribute to that effort,” said David Cooper, the Convention on Biological Diversity's deputy executive secretary.
The stakes in Glasgow this November could not be higher.
PICC Alok Sharma coal fossil fuels decarbonisation Ofgem green hydrogen Climate Change Committee buildings emissions nuclear power biodiversity COP15