This article was written by Research Postgraduate Jonathan Bosch, co-author of a report for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on key technological innovations for a low-carbon economy. Read the original version of this article on the Grantham Institute.
The United States aside, climate scientists and policymakers don’t argue much these days about the pressure to take steps to safeguard the prosperity of the earth for future generations. With the Paris Agreement, negotiated at COP21 in 2015, nations came together and thrashed out a framework strategy to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. But how does one get from an economically expanding, population-growing, fossil fuel-guzzling world, to one that uses resources sustainably? And how can greenhouse gas emissions be reduced to net-zero by 2050?
Reducing emissions is complex. Almost every sector of the economy contributes to carbon emissions and each sector is, to varying degrees, important to the functioning of the global economy. The UK may be making strides in reducing the carbon emissions of its electricity and heat sectors, but that only accounts for 23% or so of total UK emissions. Much less progress is being made in other sectors, such as aviation and heavy industry, to name a few.
Emissions reductions in these sectors simply can’t be achieved without significant technological advances. Fortunately, many technologies under development today have the potential to make substantial contributions to reducing greenhouse gas emissions – as outlined in our recent OECD report. Here, I’ve selected three technologies that could be deployed in three key, energy-guzzling sectors to help us reach net-zero emissions this century.
Civil aviation: how to avoid burning carbon
In 2014, the aviation industry alone was responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions. If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters – and it’s growing fast. Flying is essential for business, freight and leisure, and shows no sign of declining popularity. By 2050, carbon emissions in the sector could have more than quadrupled from today’s levels.
Jet fuel is, quite simply, the most feasible way of getting upwards of 300 passengers and luggage into the air, because of its incredible energy density compared to alternatives such as batteries or fuel cells. However, there are some low-carbon options on the table for aviation. The most mature of these solutions is replacing fossil fuel-derived kerosene jet fuel with biojet. Biojet is simply biofuel made from a wide range of organic materials but processed to stricter quality constraints for use in aircrafts. The most common source is vegetable oil, but several emerging processing technologies could create biojet fuel from forestry and agricultural waste, specialised energy crops, and even industrial by-products.
Biojet is already considered one of the primary means for airlines to reduce their emissions, but production needs to be significantly ramped up to make a serious contribution to the jet fuel supply chain. And if it is to become a commercially viable alternative to traditional fossil fuels, short-term legislative incentives will be needed to help biojet producers accelerate their production scales and make cost savings. Read more on aviation biofuels in Imperial College’s briefing paper.
Electricity generation: the age of energy storage
With renewable energy on the rise, so comes the age of energy storage – an essential partner to solve the intermittency of renewables sources. It enables the storage of surplus energy generated when wind or sun is plentiful, to be used when these renewable sources are not available. Modern electricity grids like the UK’s have already shown they can cope and adapt with upwards of 29% share of renewable electricity without significant access to electricity storage technologies, so further growth in renewables shouldn’t pose much of a challenge for energy planners. However, developing the best technologies requires careful preparation and targeted investment.
With the improved affordability of electric vehicles, the advent of Tesla’s Power Wall, and indeed our steadfast attachment to smartphones, lithium-ion batteries have enjoyed much prominence in recent years. However, they are just one of several potential electrical energy storage options – some of which, paradoxically, don’t even store electricity! Take Flywheels for example. These rotating discs have the potential to store significant amounts of kinetic energy. Able to store energy over short time periods, and charge and discharge much faster than battery storage solutions, they are ideal for frequent-response or high-power applications – an important feature when supporting a grid largely supplied by renewables. And, although flywheels remain an expensive storage option at the moment, improvements in material choices could significantly reduce costs in the future.
Heavy industry: bury the carbon
Some of the most carbon-intensive activities belong to the heavy industries categories, which make up a hefty 30% of global greenhouse gases. Their main energy consumption is not necessarily electricity, but heat. Lots of it. This means that energy sources for industry can’t simply be replaced by a renewable source of energy like wind, because it simply isn’t an efficient way to generate high-temperature heat.
One of the most promising technologies in this sector is carbon capture and storage (CCS). It allows vast amounts of carbon dioxide to be captured from exhaust chimneys and redirected to underground reservoirs indefinitely. Prototype facilities show that over 90% of carbon emission from industrial processes could be captured by CCS technologies, and this could grow over time. The International Energy Agency forecasts that, by 2050, 30% of all carbon emissions captured will be from industrial sources. But the technology is still only demonstrable at small-scale. If it is to contribute substantially to reducing emissions, it needs to be demonstrated at a larger scale – and quickly. This requires government backing, and support thus far has been intermittent, to say the least!
Environmentalism is not only a question of technology
These technologies, along with the other 15 from our report, have the potential to make a considerable contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In some cases, they offer the only known way to reduce emissions in a given sector. For the more mature technologies, early demonstration is essential to show that it would be feasible to commercialise and roll out at scale.
While industry and government should continue to back proven technologies, such as solar power, simultaneous investment in these new early-stage mitigation technologies is vital. Support now will help ensure that there are affordable options available in the long term to help us reach net-zero emissions – and avoid dangerous levels of warming.