Common issues across nations on path to carbon neutrality

opinionCommon issues across nations on path to carbon neutrality

While they will put up symbolic resistance, richer countries, including China, can afford to altogether cease burning coal by 2045. India, which intends to announce its ambitious goal of 450 GW of renewables capacity by 2030, should aspire to follow suit, latest by 2050.

Undoubtedly, the journey to carbon neutrality for each nation is going to be unique. The ingredients and priorities will vary, as will the resultant pace of progress. Yet, there is a fair degree of commonality when it comes down to the issues at hand. As expected, this is more amongst similarly placed countries—be it on the basis of population, mineral-wealth or stage of development.
In most countries, a majority of the harmful greenhouse emissions emanate from electricity generation and transportation. The five issues currently causing consternation are 1) the energy-mix, along with the feasibility of replacing “dirty” fossil fuels with cleaner fuels, 2) the development of storage batteries to facilitate a transition to renewables, 3) replacing conventional energy sources with newer options like hydrogen, 4) capturing the released carbon dioxide (CO2) through the creation of carbon sinks including forests and 5) effecting changes in food intake, especially meat and water-guzzling plants.

The foremost concern most have is doing away with the burning of fossil fuels like coal to generate electricity. With these fuels causing high atmospheric emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) their deleterious effect on the health of the planet is recognizably rampant. Yet, they have continued to be used as the primary source of energy since the industrialization process began. While well-off countries might have reduced their fossil fuel dependence in recent years, poorer ones continue to tap into it incessantly to meet their ever-expanding requirement for energy and electricity demand for their enlarging population. Making coal-combustion cleaner and more efficient by incorporating new emerging technologies has not been widely adopted because of the significant additional capital costs involved.
Reducing carbon emissions by a significant 45% in the next 10 years (a goal COP26 is likely to adopt) will necessitate a global call being taken not to build any new coal-based capacity. Only those generation stations for which implementation has already begun in earnest should be permitted to be completed. Consequently, all additional demand would have to be met using cleaner fuels, particularly renewables such as solar, wind and hydro.
Towards this warranted, larger objective of reaching carbon neutrality, each participating nation at COP26 will have to further enhance its voluntary declaration of contributions. John Kerry, the US Climate Change Special Envoy recently observed that the “89 new national submissions ahead of the summit would only cut emissions by 12% and that the sum of all 191 submissions as they are currently written would increase emissions between now and 2030 by 16%.” Given these numbers, revisiting the country declarations is imperative.
Effectively and sizably reducing GRGs is a prerequisite to reducing the mean global temperature by 1.5% degree Celsius by the turn of the century. In practical terms, this requires the world to become carbon neutral no later than 2050. For that to materialise, eliminating the burning of coal to generate electricity has to be the objective, though it will undoubtedly hurt poor nations disproportionately.
While they will put up symbolic resistance, richer countries, including China, can afford to altogether cease burning coal by 2045. Two-thirds of USA’s GHGs arise from coal burning; however, given the political shift in the country and the devastation caused by the manifestation of climate change in the last couple of years there, they should not resist replacing coal with renewables and other cleaner fuels. Australia, with its huge potential for both solar and wind power, is well-positioned to manage the switchover. India, which intends to announce its ambitious goal of 450 GW of renewables capacity by 2030, should aspire to follow suit, latest by 2050.
More genuine difficulties are likely to be experienced by African nations, as well as a handful of Asian and Latin American ones. Liberal financing to incentivize their transition to renewables and clean fuels will have to be simultaneously agreed to at COP26 if these countries must raise their pledges. Industrialized countries attending the Summit must assure them with binding financial commitments, technology and wherewithal with clear timelines and deliverables.

The pace of large-scale transition from fossil fuels to renewables will be primarily dependent upon the availability of storage batteries. Solar and wind-based power is not evenly available and has a strong seasonal characteristic. To tide over their intermittency and make them dependable sources, electricity-grids have to be strengthened with large and versatile storage batteries. All high voltage lines carrying large quantum would need to be interlinked to provide greater flexibility and grid-stability.
Currently available batteries are too small in capacity, too heavy in weight and too expensive in price for routine usage. Most are based on lithium, whose global reserves are limited and located only in a few countries. Due to scale advantages, the costs of lithium-ion batteries for grid-scale storage have declined by 90% lately to $350 per kilowatt-hour. However, the worry about their depleting stock remains. While their usage has caught on with most portable devices, electric vehicles and energy storage facilities using them, the widespread recycling of lithium batteries has yet to catch up on a commercial scale. Additionally, there is a scarcity of other metals used in the manufacturing of such batteries viz. nickel and cobalt—these too have limited reserves and are increasingly coming under closer environmental scrutiny while being extracted.
An alternative to lithium ion is iron flow batteries. Their raw materials (iron ore, salt and water) are abundantly available, and such batteries are cheaper and more appropriate to use for grid scale storage of renewables. Since they do not use corrosive materials, their life is appreciably longer. However, the technology remains nascent and needs scaling up with battery size reduction also required for their usage to truly diversify.
Hydrogen is the cleanest available fuel, particularly when renewable power is used in its production. Given hydrogen is capable of being produced from elements available liberally in nature viz. air, water and fossil fuels, it is amenable to large scale production. Natural gas and coal used in producing “grey hydrogen” however have high CO2 and methane emissions, necessitating their production be stopped and replaced with the cleaner option of green hydrogen.
In addition to being a worthwhile substitute for grey and blue hydrogen in the manufacturing of steel, fertilisers, chemicals, and refined liquids, green hydrogen can be deployed in heavy duty, long-distance transportation. This makes it preferable to batteries which usually have low energy-to-weight ratios and take a long time to charge when compared to the fuel cells. Even for inter-seasonal storage of electricity that is spread over several weeks or months, it is an appropriate media.
Hydrogen fuel cells last much longer than normal batteries, including the popular lithium-based ones. Despite their high energy content, no chemical process occurs during storage since hydrogen is inert. It is also amenable to transportation through pipelines or turned into cells for transportation. Another advantage is that it may be blended before use with other gaseous fuels.
The two common extant processes to produce hydrogen are “steam reforming” (a high temperature process) and electrolysis. Currently, 95% of all hydrogen is produced from steam reforming of natural gases, since installed capacity globally for electrolysers is only about 2,000 Mw. The limited scale of production of electrolysis based green hydrogen consequently makes it expensive at USD $4-$6/kg; to be a meaningful competitor, the price must decline to $2 by 2025 and $1 by 2030.
Besides deploying advanced technology to reduce cost and enhance its reliability in use, the hydrogen energy end use technologies also require further development. Most existing hydrogen energy systems for power and heat production remain in the demonstration or prototype stage. The possible integration of hydrogen energy storage with renewable energy sources has to be fully established in order to offer the prospect of economically efficient remote power systems, as well as effect reductions in the external costs of energy associated with fossil fuels.

The pivotal milestone of carbon neutrality is reached when GHG added to the atmosphere does not exceed the quantities taken away. Therefore, to reach this goal, focus has to be on the other side of the equation. In carbon capturing, CO2 from a power station or industrial plant is pulled out through a range of technical options, stored away in underground caverns for subsequent alternate usage, or simply put away forever. Such capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) has significant potential in the process of decarbonization, though progress made in such sequestration has hitherto been meagre and uneven across nations. All the 2,000 facilities happen to be in industrialised countries.
Another viable option, particularly in technologically deficient nations, is undertaking widespread afforestation. This is based on the age-old science of carbon removal (CR) from the atmosphere and has known additional advantages. Though inexpensive, it requires an abundance of land, which in populous countries is a major constraint. There is also a long gestation period given the time to grow trees.
Recognising such characteristics of afforestation, if CR were to be used in India exclusively instead of CCUS, the forest cover would need to be increased by a third from 22% to 30% of the country’s geographical area. With considerable input of effort and finances, the last decadal Indian CAGR for forest and tree cover has been 0.5% compared to a decline of 0.18% around the world. Since finding additional land in such acreages in future would be infeasible in India, as well as most underdeveloped nations, both CCUS and CR have to be pursued simultaneously.

With the world’s population growing rapidly, the pressure to produce certain crops and rear specific animals to produce meat and milk has multiplied. Excessive water usage to produce cereals such as wheat and rice or grow sugarcane has exacerbated the water scarcity, besides drastically lowering the sub soil water tables. As per the UN World Metrological Organisation, this is happening at a time when as many as “107 countries remain off track for a target to sustainably manage their water resources by 2030,” and the “number of people with inadequate access to water will top 5 bn by 2050 versus 3.6 bn by 2030.”
Raising water intensive crops instead of those native to a region has caused an injection of harmful chemicals from fertilisers and pesticides into lands. Chemical farming uses more energy per unit of production than organic farm, with synthetic nitrogen fertilisers in soils producing nitrous oxide, GHG that is about 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere. Organic farms that rely on natural manure and compost for fertilizer on the other hand, store much more carbon in the soil while keeping it out of the atmosphere. Not making use of the local germplasm by going against agro-ecological farming has increased the water needs for irrigation and reduced the resilience and sensitivity of land to the frequent variations in rainfall. Climate change, in fact, is producing many unexpected, though interlinked consequences such as the release of certain pathogens into agriculture due to permafrost melting.
The rising demand for milk, dairy products and meat has also had a significant impact on climate change. A staggering 18% of global GHGs come from livestock. Bovine, milk-giving animals release a high amount of methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. The production of meats such as beef and pork for human consumption is preceded by huge consumption of water and food—for instance, over their lifetime, cows eat 5 to 7 kg of food to produce 1 kg of beef.
Moving to more benign foods that are organically grown is warranted from both a humanitarian and climate change point of view. However, such a change in consumption calls for a cultural shift in habits. This would take time to produce noticeable results and would need to be accompanied by extensive scientific and technological support, backed by meaningful financial resources.
In sum, meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, which are likely to be raised even further at COP26, will require the global community to explore all the above cited options to the exclusion of none. New policies to spur innovation and private investments will be required. Establishing a durable regulatory and legal environment world-wide, as well as in each nation, will also be imperative.

Dr Ajay Dua, a progressive economist and a public policy expert, is a former Union Secretary.
This is the second part of a series of four articles on the issues at hand at the forthcoming COP26.

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