How unpopular but necessary technological solutions and shifts can be deployed to meet head-on the growing challenge of climate change mitigation and equity.
WHEN it comes to climate change, one thing is certain – everyone will be affected. Rising global temperatures and more frequent weather extremes will lead to irrevocable environmental disaster and economic suffering. Different regions of the planet will experience these effects in different ways. The disparity in climate change consequences, and the need to balance the weight of obligation to take remedial action between those worst affected and those most responsible, can be defined as climate equity.
In 2015 the Paris Agreement (PA) successfully attained signatories from 195 countries, compelling them to take action to limit average global temperature rise to less than 2oC above pre-industrial times. A key step to achieving this is the reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and, crucially, carbon dioxide (CO2).
The energy sector has been the largest contributor to GHG emissions, accounting for 75% of global CO2 produced. The case for transition – moving away from fossil-fuel based energy towards a net-zero carbon economy – has never been clearer and will only become more so with every passing year of broad inaction. To achieve the <2oC target and wider decarbonisation on a global scale, major disruptions to energy development are required.
There is consensus that the rate of the energy transition will not be equal across the world. Countries that have benefitted most from being carbon emitters – these typically being more developed nations – are generally best placed to combat climate change. Developing countries are often constrained by resource scarcity, lower education levels, and less-developed infrastructure. Developed countries can help remediate this disparity, especially where there are opportunities for mutual benefits – such as the development of a sustainable, decarbonised energy landscape.
Climate equity encompasses the ability to withstand climate change effects, the localised severity of environmental impacts and the continuation of economic development. All these factors are prejudiced against developing countries. But on the other end of the scale, the high fossil fuel usage associated with industrialisation places much of the historic emissions burden on developed countries. Least developed countries (LDCs) have less such baggage and emit less equivalent carbon than their more developed peers with, even today, the typical lifestyle incurring a vastly lower per-capita energy consumption. Therefore the aim of climate equity is to bring about sustainable benefits in the fight against climate change, to most of the planet’s population and reject, by its nature, self-interested or individualistic attitudes.
Bold, ambitious technological solutions are required to decarbonise the energy sector without hampering economic and social development. The chemical and process engineering industries are in prime position to drive such advances, and recent initiatives suggest it will be possible, though not easy, to meet the climate equity challenges.
At the heart of the PA is the principle known as the fair share benchmark, which inexorably links the fight against climate change with the principle of equity. Through the implementation of individual strategies known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), each country is obliged to set their own GHG reduction targets and plans to meet the overall goal of the PA1. The fair share principle allows there to be a disparity in NDCs, based on the diversity in climate equity between countries.
Through NDCs, countries will take steps aimed at reducing their GHG emissions, limiting global average temperature rise, as well as increasing resilience to a world with more heatwaves, floods, droughts, wildfires and more powerful storms. To allow national ambitions to progress, a key principle of the PA is that nations’ targets must become more stringent every five years. 2020 marks five years since the PA was ratified, which is why recent and upcoming climate summits have been part of wider public concern.
At the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in September 2019, more than 70 countries committed to deliver more ambitious NDCs in 2020 and 75 countries pledged to deliver 2050 net-zero emissions strategies by 2020, with LDCs setting out ambitions to reach net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 in the context of resources being available to do so. A majority of the main GHG emitting nations have stated intent to be more ambitious in their plans, including developing long term strategies in 2020 that describe the phasing out of GHGs from their economies by the second half of the century1.
According to outlook reports by the United Nations, developing nations are front-runners in preparedness to develop more ambitious plans to combat climate change and decarbonise their energy sectors, in keeping with the PA. Despite significant challenges, financing being most prominent, the will to address the modern climate crisis has never been stronger1.
If the small island nation of the Marshall Islands, which accounts for only 0.00001% of global emissions, but is particularly vulnerable to climate change, can make significant strides in attempts to reduce its fossil fuel use and grow its decarbonised energy infrastructure, such as implementing wind technology, coconut oil biofuels and solar panels floating on lagoons, then this can serve as an example for all1.
These kind of ambitions on a small national level are matched with trends on a global scale. In many parts of the world, renewables are now the lowest-cost source of new power generation. It is prudent then that the engineering world – through investment, research, and development – continues to see the growth of low-carbon, renewable energy technology. Despite the progress on providing emissions-cutting solutions through NDCs, it is expected that stakeholders will want to see nations do better at the next set of climate change Conference of the Parties (COP), including the oil and gas industry2.
The current climate change mitigation measures set by the PA, in the form of NDCs, will greatly involve the use of renewables. The roll-out of zero and low carbon technologies has a direct influence on national energy supply-demand relationships. Government policies and financial investments are predicted to increasingly align, enabling cost-effective renewable energy to disrupt markets where fossil fuel-based energy has dominated for years6, 7.
Localised, sometimes off-grid renewable energy has the potential to revitalise or revolutionise national energy grids, resulting in microscale climate equity gains. Bioenergy, such as biomass combined heat and power (CHP), or anaerobic biogas CHP, can be tailored to suit locally-available resources where traditional fossil fuel supply chains are protracted. In countries with high solar irradiance, concentrated solar power plants can supply domestic markets. Morocco, for example, has built solar plants on the northern edge of the Sahara, and is combining these with wind farms to provide a decarbonised energy grid. A success story of modern clean energy development is wind energy and the use of wind turbines, which has become increasingly popular in the past two decades due to technical advances and cost-effective operations6, 7.
Green hydrogen and ammonia, as energy-vector fuels, are increasingly viewed as having great potential to broadly replace or offset fossil fuel usage across the energy spectrum. Deployment of these carbon-less fuels within the context of the clean energy transition shows great potential.
As a direct combustible fuel, hydrogen can decarbonise industries that traditionally use fossil-fuels for heating, such as steel and cement production4. Hydrogen can be mixed in with natural gas to help decarbonise a heating grid. The transportation sector, in which fuel cells replace conventional internal combustion engines, represents one of the most accessible route for hydrogen utilisation5. Steam methane reforming (SMR), a carbon-based emissions-intensive process, produces around 48% of the 55 Mt/y hydrogen produced globally today. But if green hydrogen, generated from electrolytic reduction of water, is used then carbon-based feedstocks become increasingly obsolete. The greenest option would utilise a carbonless electrolytic power source, such as solar power. Decreasing electrolyser costs are expected to make hydrogen production via electrolysis one of the cheapest hydrogen production methods within five years4.
The table below gives the global weighted average levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) of selected renewable energy technologies9 and the levelised cost of producing hydrogen (LCOH) from selected technologies10, 11. LCOE represents the cost of electricity required for revenues to equal costs. It varies by technology, geographical region and project depending on the efficiency of the technology, capital and operating costs, and the weighted-average cost of capital (discount rate).
Much like hydrogen, ammonia can also be used as a direct fuel as it has similar combustion properties to natural gas8. Its widest use is as a chemical feedstock for products like fertiliser but it is increasingly viewed as a vital energy transition fuel. Traditionally, ammonia is produced by reacting hydrogen with air-extracted nitrogen via the Haber process. GHG emissions from the fossil-fuel driven SMR and Haber processes, which are collectively responsible for ammonia being one of the most emissions-intensive chemical products, can be comprehensively offset using green hydrogen and renewable energy power sources.
Provided hydrogen (and other clean energy) programmes effectively offset carbon emissions in developing and emerging-market countries, they represent valid NDCs to use towards meeting the requirements of the PA. Recent trends illustrate this potential. In Sao Paulo, fuel cell buses and hydrogen refuelling infrastructure were commercially demonstrated as part of a joint Global Environment Facility and UN Development Programme initiative. Locally-manufactured fuel cell buses were used by the general public alongside conventional buses in Sao Paulo’s transport corridors. This programme demonstrated the potential to reduce the city’s GHG emissions, and to initiate development and commercialisation of fuel cell buses and adjacent fuel cell technology in Brazil3.
The coming energy transition will undoubtedly drive improvements in economies of scale, providing fertile conditions for green hydrogen and ammonia to be produced and used in developing countries. Countries with high solar irradiance can become carbon-neutral energy-vector exporters, with photovoltaic electrolysers integrated into hydrogen or ammonia production sites. Locally-utilised green hydrogen and ammonia can reduce the demand for fossil-fuels, paving the way to benefit further from access to the green hydrogen-ammonia economy.
Working with developing nations to reduce GHG emissions, improve sustainability, and address the climate change debate can benefit every nation. With the growth of the world’s population in the coming decades, this presents opportunities to provide organic sustainable energy development in new markets. Once there is fertile ground for opportunity, financing is logically the next key variable in need of deployment.
Joint enterprises, through public-private agreements and multilateral development institutions, can be used to take advantage of the fact that population growth, which is expected to be overwhelmingly in the developing world, can drive a rise in clean energy development.
For these ventures to succeed, multiple stakeholder alignment is needed. Even in projects located abroad, public concern will be fixated on return on investment criteria as well as decarbonisation gains, with respect to NDCs. Central to the approval and success of these projects is a set of outcome-guiding principles:
As difficult and complex as these collective joint agreements are likely to be, they allow the opportunity to organically build-in sustainable and clean energy systems in growing populations, enabling micro-scale transitions in those regions. The benefits are thus jointly-reaped, with improvements in emissions, pollution, and decarbonisation while delivering on economic and social development in regions that are at a climate equity deficit.
The energy landscape is changing and there is a global effort on all fronts to see that the next steps of generation do not undermine our fight against climate change or exacerbate existing problems. Questions about climate equity prompt unified collective action towards the common goal of reducing GHG emissions and therefore the impact of global warming. We will increasingly see the expectation, particularly from our youth, that we as engineers and professionals in academia and industry are doing more to stay on target.
There is overwhelming evidence that to cling wholeheartedly to conventional energy paradigms is short-sighted. The desired level of outside engagement from global technology leaders is catalytic in nature. Companies that embrace this period of transition will undoubtedly reap benefits; not just those that seek short-term profits, but those that facilitate social enrichment and sustainable development in new pastures. With these acclaimed benefits, it is hoped, will come an overarching sense of fulfilment among both the benefactors and recipients of these sustainable projects. New markets are emerging and the knowledge and wisdom gained from engaging with least developed regions are bound to drive innovation across the developmental spectrum.
The world is entering an energy age that will be defined by its ability to successfully transition from a carbon-emissions-based model to one that is significantly less so. The roadmap to the mitigation of the climate crisis requires a wide consensus of commitments. It is entirely reasonable to believe that the next generation of energy projects and technologies will be measured by their ability to deliver on this need to transition. Now more than ever, to be static is to be going backwards.
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