14 May 2019

Think Big – why the enormous climate challenge needs an even bigger response

This year we saw school-children protest throughout the country to demand urgent action to address the climate challenges of today, to protect their future.  Action this decade will decide the fate of our climate, which is already deteriorating at an alarming rate.  We must deploy existing solutions at epic scale, starting now, while we wait for new technologies to emerge.

Size matters

Gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2), billions of people, trillions of dollars.  The scale of climate numbers is enormous.  But, what can we do to make a difference when there is so little time available?

Our Carbon Budget is nearly gone

Releasing greenhouse gasses is already changing our climate.  Global average temperatures have risen by one degree Celsius since we started burning fossil fuels and our climate is now as warm as at any time in the history of our species.  We are dangerously close to the tipping point where this man-made shift triggers natural processes and becomes unstoppable.  This means there is a limit to the amount of greenhouse gasses we should ever allow ourselves to release.

This limit is known as the Carbon Budget.

Whilst we cannot know exactly how much is left, the best available science tells us that if we don’t reduce emissions from today’s 37GtCO2e/yr, the remaining carbon budget will be gone by around 2030. That’s just over ten years.

This year globally we will burn about 10% of all the remaining fossil fuel.
Each year we delay makes the speed we must change even greater.

Speed and scale

To have any chance to keep within this limit we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately and dramatically. And by at least half in the next decade. That means deploying all the available technologies, at scale, now.

Experience tells us it takes time to transform economies.  Imagine if we had a miraculous, low-carbon alternative to natural gas central heating. If we put it in a million British homes each year, it would still take nearly a quarter of a century to replace the 23 million boilers in use today.

Businesses also take time to grow.  A simple calculation shows that if you need something to grow to giga-scale by 2030, i.e to have a billion of something in 2030, even with a very healthy growth rate of 25% per year, you would already need to have 100 million of it today.

New technologies emerging from the laboratory and research facilities today will be vital for a sustainable world later this century. We should continue to invest in them.  But they will be too late to deliver a viable economic solution during this crucial decade.

Similarly, with most of the GB nuclear fleet due to retire and only one new build project in progress, its contribution to low-carbon power will be much lower by 2030.

Time and economics are against us.

The first action is to stop making the problem worse. Energy efficiency must be a high priority in every part of our economy.  But it won’t be enough on its own.

Our last chance to avoid run-away global warming on an unprecedented scale depends on mass deployment of existing low-carbon technologies this decade to buy us time.

Four vital energy technologies

In the field of energy, this means we need to deploy

Lots more renewable energy – wind and solar power to decarbonise existing supply and meet the growing demand for electricity heat and transport.  The UK government is already planning for 20GW of new offshore wind in the next decade, we need to at least double that ambition.

Lots of large-scale energy storage – for times when renewable power is less available or to manage more power through our existing grid.  Something of the order of 10TWh by 2030 with more to follow.  This is not just batteries but technologies like compressed air, chemical and thermal storage.

Lots of low-carbon hydrogen – for industry, heavy transport and heat as well as power.  Again, this needs to be of the order of tens of TWh each year by 2030.  10TWh is quarter of a million tonnes of hydrogen a year or nearly 700t/day.

And lots of carbon capture and storage (CCS) – to make some of the hydrogen and to decarbonise some chemical processes such as cement manufacture.  The Committee on Climate Change expects 75-180MT/yr carbon storage by 2050 – we need to build the first clusters and operate at a scale >10MT/yr by the mid-2020s.

Delivering infrastructure on this ‘giga’ scale takes time and commitment, but things like it have been done before.  From 1918 to 1968 the GB power system doubled each decade.  Today’s grid will need to double again to support low-carbon technologies, but we may have 30 years to do it.

One thing is for sure.  If we are to take climate action seriously, and we must, then we need to start ramping up the scale of delivery of each of these technologies.  We have no more time to waste.

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