The world is well behind the curve in keeping global temperature rises below 2°C — and preferably 1.5°C — this century, says the UN. However, progress is being made too. Jon Herbert looks at what countries, industries and companies are expected to do and the technologies that need to be invented.
The year 2016 seems to have been the warmest on record; preliminary data shows with 90% certainty that the last 12 months were even hotter than 2015. The statistics follow a UN review of carbon-cutting plans agreed by industrial nations at the December 2015 Paris Climate Change Summit to hold global temperature rises below 2°C. The UN now fears these crucial targets will be missed by a devastating 25% by 2030 without major changes.
On the positive side, the UK power generation sector is now well on its way to becoming sustainable or renewable resource-based; more than 50% of energy output now comes from wind, solar, nuclear, biomass and offshore assets, according to a new Imperial College study carried out with Drax, the progressive Yorkshire power generator.
Also on the positive side, a 0.5°C boost is expected from an unexpected source. The UN has brokered an agreement to replace hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — introduced in the 1980s to stop dangerous polar ozone-layer depletion — with alternatives that unlike HFCs are not virulent greenhouse gases (GHGs).
If there is an Achilles heel it is that other parts of UK industry are still off-track to meeting their carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction and green energy targets as the Government prepares to launch its new low-carbon strategy, starting with a plan to phase out unabated coal power.
However, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) also reports that readings from the Mauna Loa atmospheric monitoring station in Hawaii show that the 400 parts per million (ppm) CO2 level breached for the first time in 2015 continued throughout the whole of 2016.
These disparate pieces of information are part of a much larger picture.
Putting the jigsaw pieces together
The UN’s warning may come as a surprise given the recent sharp fall in US coal output and a slowing Chinese economy. Keeping GHG levels low so warming does not break through the crucial 1.5°C lower limit identified by scientists is vital to avoid the runaway heating effects of natural feedback systems calls for innovation technologies that can strip and store CO2 from the atmosphere. Feedback systems include the heating of soils and vast volumes of leaf mould which release carbon to atmosphere, plus greatly increased activity by soil-based life which in turn expires more CO2.
The UN Emissions Group Report predicts that by 2030 global emissions will reach between 54 and 56 gigatonnes of CO2, a long way above the essential 42 gigatonne limit needed to stay below a 2°C rise and even further away from the 39 gigatonnes cap agreed in Paris to remain below the safer 1.5°C horizon. In context, a gigatonne is roughly equivalent to all the emissions released by transport systems across the EU’s 27 states.
Getting better but must try harder
Optimistically or pessimistically, the report notes that a decline in fossil fuel use from industry is on track to keep temperature rises down to somewhere between 2.9°C and 3.4°C. But trying hard is not good enough.
Professor Joanna Haigh of Imperial College, London, is keen for nations to be more realistic and aim for 2°C rather than the more politically demanding 1.5°C at this point. She added, “I think the momentum is such that countries understand that something extra now needs to be done. The thought process has moved on.”
Initiatives to help cut the targets suggested by the UN include more action by cities, industrial sectors and individual businesses outside the remit of governments.
Ambitious targets to radically boost energy efficiency using innovative technology, more efficient construction projects, good buildings management, plus fundamentally different transport systems could shave off a vital few gigatonnes. Investment in this area was up by a not very encouraging 6% in 2015.
More importantly, says the UN, will be the mass development of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). BECCS would work by growing crops that extract CO2 from the atmosphere, burning them as fuel, and then capturing and permanently sequestering the CO2 produced. However, the corollary is that more research is needed to understand the climatic importance of growing biofuels and whether they will displace vital land needed for food crops to satisfy an expanding world population.
A decade ago, only 20% of UK energy came from low-carbon sources; today, the total is some 50.2% when imported electrical energy from France through subsea connectors is taken into account. Wind energy capacity has multiplied by 6 to 26GW; biomass has moved from near zero to 2GW.
Meanwhile, coal power which declined by 38% of the UK’s needs in 2012 has now fallen 3%. Also in 2012, emissions from power production have dropped by 56%, of which a third has been achieved in the last 12 months.
In the same period, nuclear energy accounted for 26% of low-carbon power; wind delivered 10%, solar 5%, biomass 4%, hydropower 1% and French energy 4%.
The UK Government has confirmed that it plans to boost renewable energy investment and uptake through a new round of renewable energy project funding through another Contract for Difference (CfD) auction in April 2017.
This provides a guaranteed base price for clean energy sources and companies will be able to compete for a further £290 million of renewable electricity contracts, enough to power some one million homes, while reducing carbon releases by circa 2.5 million tonnes annually from 2021–2022.
Launching a consultation on the end of unabated coal use by 2025 at the latest, Business and Energy Secretary, Greg Clark, commented, “This is a key part of our upcoming Industrial Strategy, which will present companies with the full support they need to innovate as we build a diverse energy system fit for the 21st century that is reliable, while keeping bills down for our families and businesses.”
USA and China
World emission from fossil fuels rose by an average of 3% annually from 2000 to 2010. China contributed by building some two new coal-fired power stations every week. However, since 2012, Chinese coal use has dropped, pushing releases down by 0.7% in 2015 and 0.5% in 2016. Whether this is down to a long-term successful restructuring of the Chinese economy, or merely a short-term slowdown, is hard to tell.
US emissions were down by 2.5% in 2015 and are projected to drop by 1.7% in 2016 as a result of a fall in US coal demand. With a revival of the American coal industry in the eastern states made as a Donald Trump election promise, the jury is out on future production. There are sound economic reasons to back the continued vigorous growth of US renewables further west — despite the shale gas revolution.
India’s coal use has rocketed by 6% per annum over the last decade; the country intends to double its domestic coal use by 2020.
Therefore, predictions of a future global peak in emissions are still uncertain.
More good and bad news
The WMO also reports that treacherous methane and nitrous oxide levels have risen by 2.5 times over pre-industrial levels for the former, and 1.2 times for the latter. Between 1990 and 2015, there was also a 37% rise in the so-called radiation forcing, or warming effect, cause by the GHG phenomena.
However, the world could see an unexpected 0.5°C gain as another GHG conundrum was resolved recently. HFC gases were introduced through the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to end extensive damage caused to the Antarctic ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) with resulting ultraviolet radiation risks to animals and people. In that they have succeeded.
Regrettably, HFCs used in hairsprays, refrigeration and air-conditioning units have an unfortunate side effect. They are several thousand times more effective in reflecting heat within the atmosphere — the GHG effect — than CO2. This conundrum is made worse by the fact that rising temperatures are raising the demand for air-conditioning systems across emerging economies — increasing demand for HFCs by some 10–15% per year.
On this occasion, governments have taken note. In the wake of the Paris deal, 150 nations meeting late in 2016 in the Rwandan capital of Kigali agreed to speed up a ban on the use of HFCs. It is estimated that using dozens of potential replacement gases, such as ammonia, hydrocarbons, or even CO2 itself, the equivalent of 100 billion tonnes of CO2 (as HFCs) could be taken out of the atmosphere by 2050. The result could be the equivalent of 0.5°C in saved warming. There is still some dissent. Circa 100 nations want peak HFC use to end by 2021; India, which makes a large volume of the gases, favours 2031. Cost is a factor for poorer nations.
A new generation of short-life hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) is being developed. It is hoped that new coolants will lead to more efficient cooling equipment, with a doubling of climate change gains.
Published by Croner-i on 24 January 2017