COP27: Three Things I Would Revisit for COP28

Article by David Simmonds CEng FIChemE

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David Simmonds suggests three ways that could help next year's COP28 deliver real results

LAST month's COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh resulted in a "breakthrough agreement to provide 'loss and damage' funding for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters" and saw progress towards adaptation measures. That said, the "conference achieved only the bare minimum to keep the attempt to hold global warming to 1.5°C on track". Indeed, amongst the emission reduction outputs, the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Expert Group on Net-Zero Commitments published a "how-to" guide to ensure credible, accountable net-zero pledges. This is hardly a step change in reducing emissions. In his summing up, the UK’s Alok Sharma stated: “I said in Glasgow that the pulse of 1.5 degrees was weak. Unfortunately, (today) it remains on life support.”

After the event the President of the EU Commission, Helen von der Leyen, provided another medical simile: “We have treated some of the symptoms but not cured the patient from its fever.” 

Mary Robinson, chair of the Elders Group of former world leaders, was more blunt, but objective: “The world remains on the brink of climate catastrophe. Progress made on [cutting emissions] has been too slow. We are on the cusp of a clean energy world, but only if G20 leaders live up to their responsibilities, keep their word and strengthen their will. The onus is on them.”

The UKCCC’s feedback concludes that"the UK has an important international leadership role to play in driving global implementation, underpinned by action at home".

Having also looked at the output myself let me briefly outline three suggestions to bring Robinson’s words to life so that COP28, to be held in Abu Dhabi next year, can deliver real results. Listen up governments, UN, and UKCCC!

1. Separate discussions on cause and effects

While IPCC and COP have broad remits, there must be merit in separate discussion forums, held say one month apart, for steering the cause and effects of climate change. Yes, there are clearly linkages between both, but nations attending COP have competing agendas, and COP27 was overtaken by the need to provide compensation packages to affected developing countries. This is desperately needed, but success on the latter will only be mitigated if we reduce emissions, which was not concluded satisfactorily. If the separate fora were adopted, the one addressing effects (ie that looking at compensation and adaptation) should also be tasked to look at the impact of rising energy prices on those developing nations who are heavily reliant on expensive imports, and include opportunities for self-sufficiency. The dual fora could power positive change for both emissions reduction and climate change mitigation. 

2. Capitalise on the recent rise in energy costs

The recent rise in energy prices provides a real opportunity to deliver emission reductions. Higher prices are already blunting demand and, through the backdoor, they are promoting energy efficiency measures. More to the point, all existing energy providers are reaping the benefits of these higher prices on their bottom lines, and governments are responding with the imposition of windfall taxes, some with the aim of redistributing profits to consumers. Clearly, easing the pain is essential for many in our communities, but the longer-term wider redistribution of profits reduces the stimulus for energy efficiency, and frankly I would go further to say that for many years we have been paying too little for our energy. The consequences of those low prices are coming home to haunt us as we tackle climate change.  Rather than impose windfall taxes, I would encourage governments to collectively leverage those energy suppliers now benefitting from higher prices.

As many now realise, we cannot move away from fossil fuels overnight, and so fossil fuel energy providers should be tasked to ameliorate their Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions through investment in carbon capture programmes (eg for blue hydrogen) and other measures to reduce direct emissions. Today’s renewable and nuclear energy providers are also benefiting from the higher prices in the marketplace but, as we are seeing, seasonal or daily swings or, in the case of nuclear, baseline supplies, do not directly match market needs. These providers must be encouraged to promote energy storage schemes, creating flexibility to meet actual energy demand profiles (eg through green hydrogen). I realise that this will take time, but the technologies are available, and I believe  that companies are willing to invest in them when the right policies are put in place. With the higher prices and profits, governments should be getting today’s energy providers to commit to such investments while they simultaneously build up funds to pay for them from their windfall profits: if they don’t then by all means tax them.

I realise that not everyone yet believes in hydrogen or its derivative, ammonia, but I would ask what other alternatives there are to provide the flexibility we will still need once we lose fossil fuels? Today fossil fuels, which still provide 80% of our energy needs, are called upon to provide that energy flexibility. Another recent announcement, this time from Wrightbus in Northern Ireland, shares the confidence it has in both electric and hydrogen buses, while a Hydrogen Transition Summit took place in Sharm at the same time as COP27, drawing influential speakers from across the globe. I wrote a feature on energy storage for TCE back in July, and I am pleased to read that Centrica has now recommissioned Rough for this winter, and longer term it is looking to convert this for the storage of hydrogen.

3. Endorse strategies for emissions reduction

Lastly, COP should be endorsing strategies for the promotion of investment into emission reductions. It is relatively easy to identify the "what", the bigger challenge is the "how". I have just provided one consideration above, but my two recent features in TCE, covering the "Role for Big Oil" and the opportunity for "Fast Followers", identified other themes governments can adopt to speed up delivery of the energy transition. Following these features, it is still pleasing to see some relevant new examples with the announcement for offshore wind by Shell in the Philippines, and for hydrogen by BP here in the UK.

However, hard cash is yet to go on the table, as governments are reticent to deliver policy frameworks for the "how". McKinsey has also just published its thoughts on how hydrocarbon-rich countries can push the climate change agenda. I was also encouraged to read TCE’s recent feature on the Royal Academy of Engineering’s National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC)’s report, "Take whole systems approach to hydrogen economy". Nilay Shah concluded with comments on how oil and gas companies can play a role in the future hydrogen economy. Meanwhile, Gasunie in the Netherlands is to be commended by making more proactive plans considering both onshore and offshore hydrogen grids.

Hopefully I can add to this through a future look at supporting skills development and deployment. More broadly, through the pages of TCE, our chemical engineering community has offered many other concrete examples which COP could build upon, to provide strategic direction for governments across the globe. Beyond the scope of our direct community, though, there are marketing policies which could, indeed must be addressed to speed up the transition. For example, here in the UK, we should be looking critically at the reasons for the failure of many of our energy suppliers (as distinct from our successful providers), the benefits of regional energy pricing, relative pricing of the alternative energy vectors, and the future role of Ofgem.

Another consideration is the need to bring everyone along for, as we see every day in our politics, we are becoming ever more polarised. For example, environmentalists question the UK’s coal imports for this winter, while the anti-net-zero lobby questions why we can’t we produce that coal ourselves. The reality is that we need modest quantities of coal to avoid possible blackouts; it may not be used immediately but it can be stored to cover possible needs during subsequent winters. Reopening UK coal mines for these small quantities clearly does not make sense, so the onus is on our government leaders to better explain their strategies and actions to reduce that polarisation.

Time to convert ideas into actions

So again, let me congratulate COP27 for moving forward the agenda on adaptation and mitigation, but please, please can we see if we can get to grips with an acceleration of policies and strategies to reduce emissions, considering both the "what" and, even more importantly, the "how". Unfortunately, post COP27, emissions are still destined to head north, and governments need to convert pledges into an actionable plan which can be communicated. The G20 leaders can only "strengthen their will" by cooperating, communicating, and implementing workable strategies, and our chemical engineering community has a key role to play in developing and expressing these strategies and plans.

Article by David Simmonds CEng FIChemE

Retired engineer. Former director of Simmonds Energy and senior manager at BG Group and Shell

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