Climate Change / Low Carbon Energy

Moonshot or earthbound – what approach for reducing emissions from energy?

Dr Jonathan Radcliffe - BioIn a recent Opinion piece for the Financial Times (FT), Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, and previously a President of the Royal Society,  made the case for an ‘Apollo Programme’ approach to tackling climate change mitigation. The Apollo Programme itself was the American initiative to put a man on the moon in the 1960s, exemplified by John F Kenney’s speech[1], which includes the famous sentence:

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win …”

It is used as a by-word for channelling significant resource into overcoming big challenges. It’s arguable whether the US Government in the 1960s was motivated by the scientific outcomes and societal benefits from human space flight, or if the Cold War and nuclear arms race were more of a factor, but you get the drift.

The proposal for a new ‘Global Apollo Programme’ was described in a report[2] published by the LSE and authored by an eminent group, including Lord Rees, Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, and Lord Nicholas Stern – who wrote the influential 2008 report on the Economics of Climate Change. A further group of “high-profile scientists, businessmen [sic] and public figures” has recently written to the Guardian asking Governments to support the Programme[3]. (Actually three out of the twenty-five signatories are women.)

The Programme asks countries to pledge 0.02% of GDP as public expenditure to meet the aim “that new-build base-load energy from renewable sources becomes cheaper than new-build coal in sunny parts of the world by 2020, and worldwide from 2025.” Solar, electricity storage, hydrogen storage and smart grids are given as the RD&D priorities.

In a letter to the FT published last weekend [4], I, with Professor Jim Watson, Research Director of the UK Energy Research Centre, UKERC,  considered how a wider set of issues affecting low carbon energy innovation should be considered in the run-up to the crucial climate talks in Paris this December. A focus on technology development felt rather one-dimensional when tackling such a complex problem. It may also allow Governments to feel like they are meeting the challenge just by pumping money in, when they need to play a much more active role to reduce carbon emissions from the energy sector. The transition to a low carbon energy system is not simply an engineering assignment; it is an interdisciplinary and societal challenge.

This is not to say that increases in funding aren’t needed – expenditure on energy technology innovation is low considering both the scale of the challenge and the likely consequences of not acting: the Committee on Climate Change estimates that carbon emissions from the domestic energy sector must be reduced by around 90% of 1990 levels to meet our overall emissions target; and the Stern review estimated the costs of unmitigated climate change would reduce global GDP by 5% by 2050. Energy storage in particular will play a key role in decarbonisation, and requires support to bring it in line with generation technologies.

The figure below shows the historical funding for the UK and a few other countries as a proportion of GDP, as collected from Governments by the International Energy Agency[5]. It is noticeable that we are far below the levels seen in the 1970s (mostly on nuclear research), and many would argue that even with recent increases, we are not investing nearly enough[6]. Yet the current spending by the UK and the other countries exceeds the Global Apollo Programme target.

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The programme also takes a rather specific set of technologies as the solution in the current paradigm, rather than examining the needs of the society, and how energy systems could adapt (with a different technology mix) over the coming decades. Simply replacing brown electricity with green sources is not necessarily the best thing to do. In the UK, 40% of energy demand is for heat, and globally the demand for air conditioning could rise rapidly in the 2020s and eventually exceed that of heating[7]. When it comes to providing thermal comfort or cooling for industrial processes, there could be more imaginative solutions than generating power from solar cells and using electricity storage. How thermal energy is converted, used and stored in integrated systems is a theme of our work at the University of Birmingham[8].

Finally, I don’t think that using cost parity with coal is an appropriate measure. The key point is that burning fossil fuels now imposes a cost on future generation, to deal with the impacts of climate change.  This ‘externality’ is not adequately reflected in current prices – some mechanisms put a price on carbon, but at such a low level as to have little effect. [9] (I was struck that the FT’s leader on the same day as Lord Rees’ article was sympathetic to a levy on sugary drinks as part of Jamie Oliver’s Sugar Rush campaign[10]. Again, we could also see this as a case of market failure and the need to ‘internalise the externalities’ – obesity is putting a cost on health services that the producers of sugary drinks do not bear.)

Energy systems and the markets that operate within them, whether liberalised or state-controlled, have a complex web of producers, consumers and intermediaries, with business models evolved over decades. Comparing the ‘real’ costs of energy from different technologies is fraught with difficulties, whether we consider the externalities they impose, the historic subsidies that have allowed them to develop, or their reliability. The first and essential step is to recognise the costs of emitting greenhouse gases in the price of energy.

Deploying new technologies like small-scale generation, storage and smart grids could shift the balance away from suppliers, but in many regions, the regulatory regimes are not in place to allow this. International negotiations should aim to correct for market failures by putting a price on carbon that reflects its longer term cost, and by addressing other non-technical barriers to the deployment of low carbon technologies.

At the same time, Governments should support technology development, and this needs to be discussed in international fora to bring sufficient resources to bear, but it is unlikely to come down to a small number of technologies that we can predefine. Reducing emissions from the energy sector needs a broad spectrum of measures, with innovation across technologies and policies.

Notes:

[1] http://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm

[2] http://www.globalapolloprogram.org/

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/16/david-attenborough-backs-huge-apollo-clean-energy-research-plan

[4] http://t.co/9wLizIDnSW

[5] http://data.iea.org/

[6] See http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2014.01.009 for further analysis on UK energy innovation.

[7] Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2008.09.051

[8] http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/energy

[9] This has been well described in a blog by Richard Howard at Policy Exchange http://www.greener-cheaper.org/blog/2015/9/15/what-exactly-is-subsidy-free-onshore-wind

[10] http://www.jamieoliver.com/sugar-rush

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