• Absolute Zero: House of Lords debates report that stretches the imagination

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      Patrick Lavery

      Combustion Industry News Editor

The House of Lords (the upper house of the UK’s Parliament) last week began debate on a report by UK FIRES, a government-sponsored research collaboration of engineering and economics academics across the UK, which argues that technologies such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), and hydrogen as an energy vector will take too long to be deployed to aid the UK’s goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  Published in November last year, the ‘Absolute Zero’ report takes as its basis the assumption that because there are currently few proven technologies to take significant amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the UK’s target of net-zero emissions by 2050 is in fact a target for ‘absolute-zero’ (or ‘gross-zero’) emissions: “obeying the law of our Climate Change Act requires that we stop doing anything that causes  [greenhouse gas]  emissions regardless of its energy source”.  Given these stark statements, and the attention paid to it by the members of the House of Lords, it is illuminating to read deeper into the report to examine how reasonable the assumptions made within it are.

A positive feature of the report is that it is highly thought-provoking, as it contains a number of arresting assertions and arguments, as well as interesting data.  A radical picture of a UK society operating – or at least trying to operate – without emitting any greenhouse gases is presented in a way that forces a reconsideration of one’s ideas of the future.  In several ways, however, the arguments are unconvincing: in the apparently breezy way in which the report assumes large behavioural changes will occur; and in its insistence that certain technologies will not be widespread by 2050, while allowing for others to be mature.

One does not need to read far into the report to discover just what a different UK the authors are suggesting.  A striking early example comes in the executive summary, where it is stated that although “there are lots of new ideas about electric planes, they won’t be operating at commercial scales within 30 years, so zero emissions means that for some period, we’ll all stop using aeroplanes.”  (Shipping, too, is to stop by 2050.)  Given that in 2018, more Britons travelled abroad by plane than any other nation, this is quite a statement, yet the way it is written conveys an impression of straightforwardness.  This attitude is reinforced during the discussion of transitions, in which the report states that the behavioural changes “required to deliver zero emissions by 2050 are already being practised by some people in some places: some people already choose not to fly, to be vegan, to car share, to lower the temperatures in their homes and offices.  If large scale social amplification could occur, as it did with the ‘Me Too’ movement, surely a cultural change could occur to enable zero emissions by 2050?”

There is little doubt that many people do wish to lower their environmental impact and that British society is increasingly (and justifiably) concerned about climate change.  But as the report itself demonstrates, there are just as many contrary signs that, as a whole, Britons are not changing their behaviour to reduce their environmental impact.  Indoor heating temperatures, for instance, are increasing, while people are also opting for increasingly heavier cars (as well as taking more and more flights).  Expressing support for a social cause is in a different category to cutting out air travel, which to some is more or less a necessity, and to others a source of pleasure.  When the report states that “we need to discuss these challenges as a society” because we have to “face up to the fact that breakthrough technologies won’t arrive fast enough”, there is the impression that, if only people are given the facts, their behaviour will change.  Yet elsewhere in the report there is more realism (perhaps because of the number of authors contributing to the report): “Evidence from behavioural science, and the long experience in public health of changing behaviours around smoking and alcohol, shows that information alone is not enough to change behaviour.”  This latter statement is good reason, to me, why it would be better to institute technical change such that there is a minimum of behavioural change to make.

The report’s approach to technological change is somewhat inconsistent and at times rather puzzling.  Technologies are, not unreasonably, categorised into three:

  • “Today’s technologies”, those that are current mass-market technologies
  • “Incremental technologies”, those that could be delivered today if customers asked for them, and
  • “Breakthrough technologies”, which are not yet mass-market, such as fuel cell vehicles.

While the report argues that breakthrough technologies “cannot be deployed rapidly”, and because of that, it is better to plan on life without them to meet the 2050 absolute zero emissions target, this reasoning is not consistently applied throughout the report.  For battery storage of renewable electricity and for matching demand to intermittent supply, for instance, there are “already many developments in this area in the UK, and we assume that they can operate at sufficient scale in 2050 to prevent the need for excess generation.”  This has knock-on effects onto other assumptions, as will be discussed below.

To support the idea that breakthrough technologies should be discounted in plans for 2050, examples of the long gestation periods for energy technologies are presented – almost 20 years of research, development and demonstration for nuclear power, followed by another ~20 years for deployment and commercialisation, for instance, and about 30 years all together for combined cycle gas turbines.  This is the report’s general reasoning of why 2050 is too soon for such technologies, but it overlooks the fact that there are already perhaps 15-20 years of research under the bridge for breakthrough technologies such as CCUS and hydrogen as an energy vector. Another 20 years until mature commercialisation would still mean readiness by 2040, or even 2050 at more of a stretch. Moreover, leading up to mature commercialisation there can be significant deployment of technologies.

Some of the more specific reasoning behind why certain breakthrough technologies – most relevantly CCUS, hydrogen as an energy vector, hydrogen-powered blast furnaces for steelmaking, and emissions reduction from cement manufacture – cannot be relied upon to contribute to the UK’s 2050 target is questionable.  Hydrogen as a zero-carbon energy vector will not be able to contribute, the report states, because “we  [will]  have no spare non-emitting electricity” to produce such hydrogen.  (This has a knock-on effect of excluding hydrogen-fuelled blast furnaces for steelmaking, leading the authors to conclude that all future steel use should be through recycling steel in electric arc furnaces.)  This would only apply under a number of conditions – all excess electricity from intermittent renewables could be stored (in batteries) if it was not used immediately, and all battery-stored generation would be used as electricity.  The latter might hold under the report’s assumption that all possible processes are electrified by 2050 – transport, industry, heating and cooling, cooking, etc. – but this, in itself, is quite a large assumption.  Its severity is demonstrated by the statements that shipping and aviation will have to have ceased by 2050 because of a lack of means of electrification.  Surely, at least for shipping, a more reasonable industrial strategy would be to support early development of hydrogen- or ammonia-powered ships (see today’s latest IFRF blogpost on this here) rather than to assume ocean-going trade will simply cease for some time.  Train transport is the report’s alternative, but, at best, this would connect the UK with continental Europe and perhaps India and China, meaning no trade in goods with the Americas and Oceania, and probably much of Africa and some of Eurasia. (Capacity might also be an issue with train cargo, too.)

Another oddity with the idea that there would be no spare non-emitting electricity for producing hydrogen is that the report envisages a large expansion of wind and solar power generation capacity.  Under this scenario, the assumption that battery storage and demand matching (to supply) will use all available electricity stretches credulity.  A report a month prior to ‘Absolute Zero’ suggested that, by 2050, the UK would be producing 185 TWh of excess electricity, even with 20 GW of short-duration energy storage, if it was to try to meet the net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target.  Even if only a quarter of that amount was produced, that would still be roughly the equivalent of a 1.3 GWe hydrogen-fuelled power plant operating every hour of the year, if the conversion from excess electricity to re-generated electricity was 25% efficient.  Given that it would only be used for a smallish portion of a year, that would mean a considerable amount of electricity generation capacity for the times when solar and wind were not generating sufficiently.

Another justification for the need to plan on absolute-zero emissions by 2050 used in the report is that limiting the role of future innovation helps delivery of an objective.  The example given is the 2012 London Olympics, where delivery relied only on proven technologies to reduce risk of failure.  This analogy only really makes sense in a strictly legalistic interpretation of the UK government’s 2050 net-zero target.  While it is legislated for 2050, the target in practice will have some leeway, unlike the staging of an Olympics, which must take place at a certain date because of the intricacy of planning involved.  An obvious alternative analogy is the moon landing of Apollo 11, which relied on much innovation to be achieved, but did not have a rigid date for completion.

Whether no technological option for removing greenhouse gases from the air in significant quantities, e.g. direct air capture (DAC), will be available before 2050 is also debateable. (A 2017 summary paper, for instance, saw significant potential worldwide).  The report assumes the UK itself has too little available land for reforestation to matter, yet on the other hand does envisage that a reasonable amount of biomass firing will be taking place (and that biomass firing is carbon neutral).  Applying CCUS to these facilities would mean ‘negative’ emissions. DAC, a currently less developed technology than CCUS, is ruled out by the authors, but there is at least reasonable potential in its use within the next 30 years.  Agricultural techniques such as biochar and no-till farming are also discounted, although they may also bear fruit over this timeframe.  The ability to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere would revert the UK’s target to being net-zero by 2050 rather than absolute-zero.  Activities which the report sees as having to stop or be at a trickle for some time – aviation, shipping, and cement making (as well as eating beef and lamb) – would become feasible again.

One wonders, too, how the report would have been written twenty years ago, when wind and solar power generation technologies had not been significantly deployed.  Would they have been rejected as unreliable, if the aim had been to produce the bulk of the UK’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030?

These criticisms aside, the report does include much that is worthwhile.  It succeeds in identifying areas of change across society that do not always get a lot of attention – materials substitution and building practices, changes to mining practices, and the fact that leisure activities (apart from those involving a lot of travel) should not be significantly affected.  But it should be read with a critical mind.

Prediction is notoriously difficult, and the authors do acknowledge that the breakthrough technologies in question will probably eventually be commercialised (even suggesting a post-2050 future for fossil fuels with CCUS).  There is indeed a tendency to be overly optimistic about how quickly technology can be developed and commercialised – one only needs to look at the classic case of nuclear fusion.  Reality will probably bring something in between, where some technologies under-deliver and others meet or exceed their potential.  Why this report matters is that, at a time when increased governmental support is sorely needed for breakthrough technologies, it carries a danger of effecting a reduction in such support.  When the alternative to backing those breakthroughs is a society without shipping, aviation and cement manufacture, it is difficult not to conclude that backing the breakthroughs is a better strategy.