As part of the marking of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations Environment Programme, the 4th Global Session of its Science-Policy-Business Forum was held in Stockholm on 31 May and 1 June. Topics included possible reform of the UN system, big data and information technology and the environment, bringing circularity to value chains, and the ‘future of energy’, among others. The Science-Policy-Business Forum was founded in 2017 to identify and promote opportunities for green investment informed by science and technology, supported by policy and innovative financing. It knits together more than 2000 organisations around the world and sees its chief value in bringing together a diverse set of actors to discuss solutions in a holistic way. Amongst the delegates speaking about energy were representatives from Equinor, Orsted, Vattenfall, IRENA, solar company Longi, the Qatari-based energy think tank Al-Attiyah Foundation, and hydrogen investment company Saga Pure, as well as Prof Asgeir Tomasgard of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Energy Transition Initiative, Professor Zhang Cunman of Tongji University, James Mnyupe, a Namibian presidential economic advisor, and the Norwegian Minister of Climate and the Environment, Espen Barth Eide. Other sessions had representatives from IBM, Google, Amazon and Microsoft, Volvo, ABB and BMW, H&M and LVMH, Electrolux, the International Copper Association, Signify (the newish name of Philips Lighting), the UN, the EU, and various others, such as economist Professor Paul Ekins of the Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College London, and Johan Rockström of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
There was a definite sense of purpose from the panellists of the energy session. All companies had a focus on rapidly decarbonising their operations, although, against an expectation of hydrogen production being green, the Scandinavian energy companies stated plainly that oil and gas would remain a key part of their businesses, and that blue hydrogen was a big part of their plans. A neat encapsulation of the utility of hydrogen was expressed by Professor Tomasgard, who said that the elemental substance is maybe not the best solution to any single problem, but is a solution to many problems – i.e., its versatility is its key appeal, being able to be used for heavy transport (on-road and at sea), energy storage, power generation and industry. However, there was discussion also of the production of alternative green fuels such as methanol and ammonia, which have a volumetric advantage over hydrogen (but are still at a disadvantage in this respect to LNG). A point made by several panellists was that there was much focus on the production of hydrogen, but not enough focus on the full supply chain, including distribution, storage and use, as well as safety. (Professor Tomasgard stressed that there were only four uses of hydrogen at present.) It was also noted that there will be an enormous demand for electricity if hydrogen production and use targets are to be met.
Barbara Jinks, the IRENA representative and specialist on renewable gases, showed information on the green hydrogen producing potential of different regions of the world, with Sub-Saharan Africa having the highest – an enticing opportunity for the some of the poorest nations on the planet. One Sub-Saharan country already planning on green hydrogen production is Namibia, with the impressive James Mnyupe eloquently outlining the country’s ambitious plans for production, tapping into the advantages of relatively good road and port infrastructure and huge solar potential. There have already been discussions with German government and industry representatives regarding export, though Namibia also sees a domestic use for renewables and a market for export of hydrogen to other African countries. Interestingly, recent discoveries of hydrocarbons in the country has the Namibian government considering if it should pursue their extraction, something of a fork-in-the-road moment.
Professor Cunman told the conference that in China, green hydrogen is seen as an important energy strategy. As with many countries the world over, the barriers to the rise of the industry are cost, policy support and the low efficiency of electrolysers, but China has an aim of driving the cost of green hydrogen down to around €1.70/kg (US$1.82/kg) within the next five years.
Speaking in the context of renewables, Howard Bevan, the Director of Energy at Al-Attiyah Foundation, was clear that for Qatar, decarbonisation of its natural gas industry was the priority. Referencing high natural gas prices, he was realistic in pointing out that the country would not step away from producing fossil fuels, but did stress that it is keenly working on reducing fugitive emissions, and noted also that power used at refineries is produced from solar generation. Blue hydrogen production is in the works in Qatar, as is carbon capture for natural gas production. Mr Bevan highlighted in passing that the monitoring of fugitive methane emissions was “100 times better” than in the past, with satellites and drones doing the work today. This means that there is a much better prospect of reducing those emissions, touching on a theme that ran through the forum as a whole that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” – more on that later.
On the subject of carbon capture, IBM’s presentation on the use of technology to help solve environmental problems was one of the highlights of the conference. The company is already pioneering quantum computing and aims to very rapidly increase its capacity in this area. So powerful is quantum computing that IBM foresees the ability of modelling every possible combination of molecules in a carbon capture system in order to optimise it. If that would be realisable, it would indeed be a powerful and exciting tool.
A sentiment shared by the European power generators was that carbon offsetting was a last resort – only after taking maximum efforts to decarbonise their operations would they look to the ‘net’ part of net-zero. There was also praise for the EU Emissions Trading System, which had enabled companies to get on a suitable footing to drive their decarbonisation goals.
More widely during the conference, there was almost universal support for a carbon price to drive clean innovation. It was often stressed that good policy – workable, reflective not only of socio-economic and environmental concerns but also made with industry input, and preferably, as multi-national as possible – was essential in the drive for efficiently achieving a more sustainable economy. From makers of consumer products, there was an acknowledgement that working on Scope 3 emissions (those incurred indirectly as a result of operations, but not related to energy consumed) was a challenge, particularly working them into business models. With increasing access to renewable power, reducing GHG emissions from operations is becoming easier, though after that low-hanging fruit is picked, further emissions reductions are harder.
A theme that a number of the speakers from the UN raised was there are three interlinked planetary environmental crises – climate, biodiversity and pollution. What was notable was that most of the discussion throughout the conference about solutions was centred around reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with few concrete proposals for the other two. Circularity in the economy was given attention, but it was clear that this is only an emerging field – while there is already some materials recycling, it becomes more difficult technically and less economic with higher complexity components. The certainty, expressed by Steven Kukoda of the International Copper Association, was that if there’s not money in it, it won’t be recycled/upcycled/disassembled/reprocessed. This suggests a number of things that could emerge, given enough consensus, over the coming decade or more: strong financial incentives for recycling, a great deal of design work to make components easier to dismantle, systems put in place to make recycling ubiquitous and easy. Going further, there could be a push to increase the lifetime of products, against the ‘planned obsolescence’ engineering of recent decades, though regulation would again be required here to induce workable business models; it, too, would need to be clever, given that planned obsolescence is not a wholly negative approach. The conference saw a call from Dominic Waughray of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development for UNEP to collaborate with relevant bodies on a global protocol on circularity, producing standardised terms and accounting and processes to usher in efficient sustainable value chains. This could be a major body of work for UNEP in the years to come, if it were to take up the challenge.
Another even more embryonic trend has the potential to become quite consequential, though it is currently somewhat difficult to imagine. Ecosystem services – the role that the natural world plays in delivering the bedrock for human activities – are estimated to underpin something like half of all economic activity. Yet damage to ecosystems is not factored into our financial accounting, and the mirror of that is also true – improving ecosystems is not routinely captured in financial calculus. It has long been recognised that the high complexity of ecosystems makes any pricing of biodiversity extremely complicated, but with a little imagination it is possible to conceive of a future in which such devilish arithmetic is performed through applied statistics (a term less opaque than artificial intelligence) using data collected from sensors measuring the natural world. If – a big if – regulation obliged incorporation of ecosystem value into business cases, then this could change the dynamics for power utilities in unpredictable ways. Perhaps the most obvious would be that it could give additional value to afforestation projects implemented to maximise biodiversity as compared to such projects seen simply as carbon sinks. Pricing biodiversity has long been recognised as desirable (amongst environmentally-minded economists), but the ability to do so has never been there; this may begin to change over the next decade. The close analogy is the incorporation of greenhouse gas externalities through a carbon price, which is now supported by the G7 after years of failure to find a consensus.
Striving for a circular economy and the factoring in of biodiversity into project and system planning would mean a shift in mindset, a shift in culture, and this was acknowledged by a number of speakers. It would likely also mean a shift in profit expectations, too, something that financial asset manager John Streur of Calvert Research and Management touched upon. Such a shift would lift some of the cost pressure off the shoulders of consumers (that is, where costs rise – some sustainability measures will save costs), but it would also affect the hundreds of millions of people with pension funds, not just the highly wealthy. As Professor Ekins put it, it is still possible to make money out of damaging the environment, and that has to end.
This world in which nature is properly valued would also require a shift in data gathering in the natural world. The current base of data gathering is a highly uneven and shaky one. Astonishingly, as Professor Ekins pointed out (having studied the matter himself), a full 68% of UNEPs range of environmental indicators that help measure progress on the UN’s sustainable development goals suffer from a lack of data. Finance and capacity shortfalls across the world are the apparent culprits, though one suspects that a lack of the necessary culture is also at play. To move from this state of affairs to one in which not only those SDG indicators but much more that defines healthy biodiversity, or an unhealthy environment, is routinely measured would be quite revolutionary, yet one needs only look at the growth of the internet over the past thirty years to begin to see that something like it might happen. Such a world would mean much higher transparency when it came to monitoring and reporting, increasing environmental accountability. There is sure to be more that emerges from that space, and the Big Tech companies do appear to be serious in their ambitious intentions, though the governmental and intergovernmental coordination of such efforts is probably lacking, at least at present.
How much progress the world is likely to see in many of these domains is highly uncertain. As Ambassador Collen Vixen Kelapile, the President of the UN’s Economic and Social Council, acknowledged progress on the sustainable development goals for 2030, including environmental goals, is nearly wholly off track. The world is facing many economic challenges at present, with growing inequality and high inflation, and geopolitical tensions are high, including the worst war in Europe since the end of the Second World War. The various incentives and goals that governments, businesses and individuals have remain confusingly misaligned and in competition with each other. The businesses present at the Forum are probably not representative of typical businesses worldwide, and though environmental awareness is increasing across the world, finding the golden path of sustainable development – economic growth without environmental destruction, guided by astute policy setting – is deeply challenging. Yet this forum certainly showed there are grounds for hope.