Green road to a net-zero recovery

A sustainable new normal is important for businesses. But the road to a post-pandemic UK economy that also helps to prepare for a warmer future is signposting challenges, opportunities and examples of much-needed ingenuity. Jon Herbert reports.

Crises focus thoughts. After years of inconclusive environmental debate a green recovery is now a priority for governments, forward-looking investors, and hard-pressed businesses keen to maintain and increase their competitiveness in tough times.

Creating a sustainable economy involves altering attitudes to the expensive wastefulness of waste, avoidable raw material depletion, health and social goals, global warming, climate change and greenhouse gas emissions — especially carbon.

Although low-carbon solutions are now a common policy denominator, many aspects of carbon remain a mystery, including how warm the world could become with a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from pre-industrial levels of 280ppm (parts per million) to 416ppm today and 560ppm by 2060. This therefore makes a new study on climate sensitivity, the link between rising CO2 levels and the world’s susceptibility to climate change particularly relevant. Research published by Review of Geophysics (agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1029/2019RG000678) has revised the link used since 1979 between CO2 and potential Earth surface temperature rises.

Better and worse

Specifically, an expert team has narrowed the most likely range of “equilibrium climate sensitivity” (ECS) — the most probable climatic impacts of warming — with the triple-conclusion that the worst outcomes are less likely, the best case is still a problem, and we cannot rely on luck for an answer.

The UN intergovernmental panel on climate change has assumed since 1979 that doubling atmospheric CO2 will mean a 66% chance of the planet heating by between 1.5°C and 4.5°C. Optimists and pessimists often chose figures that best suit their case.

However, the latest work reduces the 66%–certain range of climate sensitivity to between 2.6°C and 3.9°C — or 2.6°C to 4.1°C with more uncertainties included, and a most likely estimate a little about 3°C.

Clouds get in the way

The 2016 Paris Agreement aims to keep warming below 1.5°C. Sensitivity under 2.5°C is largely ruled out by the new findings. However, the chances of meeting the Paris goal at the high end are minimal. According to one author, the world would “need to go into overdrive to avoid catastrophe.”

Other studies offer different evidence. A worst-case envisaged in a new UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study says a better understanding of the role of clouds could mean that heating scenarios need to be revised upwards (www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-working-group-ii/). Research continues on a broad front.

Recovery oversight

Against this important background, a green recovery is taking place at four levels. The UN’s “Race to Zero” emissions drive is nudging countries towards major carbon cut commitments ahead of the delayed COP26 climate conference to be co-hosted by the UK and Chile in Glasgow in November 2021.

While governments are under pressure to focus on green investments and jobs, thousands of UK businesses are also working hard to cut their energy consumption, use renewable energy, improve energy efficiency, and in many cases take important low-carbon innovations to new markets.

In parallel, an impressive number of low-carbon energy projects of strategic importance with supply chain opportunities are also under way around the UK.

Government promises

The Chancellor’s July Summer Economic Update (www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/a-plan-for-jobs-2020) focused on protecting, supporting and creating jobs in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic with a £3 billion plan to generate thousands of "green-collar" jobs, improve energy efficiency and conserve natural resources.

It includes a £1 billion retrofitting programme to decarbonising public sector buildings, such as schools, hospitals and social housing, which Rishi Sunak says will create short-term jobs and reduce public sector costs while encouraging net-zero progress and better UK “future prosperity”.

A further £50 million will fund early-stage trials in technologies, such as heat pumps for social rented homes with poor energy-efficiency. A £40 million Green Jobs Challenge fund will also help local authorities and environmental charities to create nature conservation and restoration programmes.

A group of UK businesses, mayors and political leaders working through the UK100 want the Government to spend £5 billion on manifesto pledges they say will unlock private investments of £100 billion to improve energy efficiency and create some 300,000 green jobs. (www.uk100.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Local-Energy-Insight-Summary-Report-July-2020.pdf).

The Government is also being urged to go much further by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) which says £3 billion is not enough to fund the 12 million homes that need refitting. Germany and France have allocated budgets of £36 billion and £13 billion.

Political accountability

Two MP-led inquiries are examining whether the UK’s industrial strategy is on track to deliver a 2050 net-zero target with the Covid-19 crisis or if it needs radical adjustments.

Treasury Committee Chair, Mel Stride, is questioning whether green finance, decarbonising the economy and a sustainable industrial strategy are enough to help companies recover from the financial consequences of the virus and if government financial support distinguishes between polluting and non-polluting companies.

In parallel, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee Chair, Darren Jones, says, “we are keen to hear the views of businesses from SMEs and bigger companies too, about their thoughts on the barriers to growth and whether the industrial strategy is working for them … in terms of providing the right environment to deliver sustainable investment, a skilled workforce and high-quality jobs”.

BEIS and the Treasury are under pressure to remove barriers to onshore renewable energy projects in their Covid-19 recovery planning. A new report says “shovel-ready” renewables could give the UK economy a £28.9 billion boost and 45,000 new jobs, if an extra 5.5GW onshore renewable capacity is installed annually between 2021 and 2035 — more than triple the 2019 total (www.thriverenewables.co.uk/media/2196/delivering-a-green-recovery-with-uk-renewable-power-final.pdf).

UK industry support

Energy UK CEO, Emma Pinchbeck, welcomes greater energy-efficiency spending but says moving “further and faster” on advice from “scientists like the Committee on Climate Change (CCC)” is vital because “the other international crisis, the need to urgently decarbonise, has not changed”.

She sees post-Covid-19 recovery as a “brilliant opportunity” for companies to help meet the UK’s “net-zero economy-wide decarbonisation target”, noting that “green choices can deliver the widest benefits for our economy, environment and population”. The energy sector already invests £14 billion annually in the UK and “we stand ready to help further”, she adds.

So, what is happening?

Many important low-carbon energy projects are putting down strong roots around the UK; applications to install energy storage units have quadrupled since 2016.

The National Grid operating company says UK power generation could become carbon negative by 2033 by offsetting or absorbing more carbon than it emits with renewables and carbon capture technologies.

Velocys has won planning permission to construct its Altalto Immingham plant that will turn hundreds of thousands of tonnes of non-recyclable household and commercial waste annually into sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) (www.velocys.com/2020/05/20/nelc-planning-committee-approves-waste-to-jet-fuel-plant/ and www.velocys.com/2020/06/12/government-announces-jet-zero-council-and-confirms-support-for-velocys-waste-to-jet-fuel-project/).

At Holes Bay in Dorset, six Tesla Megapack batteries will form a 15MWh utility-scale energy storage facility connected to the Southern Electric Power distribution network (www.theengineer.co.uk/frv-harmony-energy-tesla-megapack/).

Britishvolt, which plans a London Stock Exchange listing early next year, has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Welsh Government to create a £1.2 billion “Gigafactory” making electric vehicle batteries (britishvolt.com/).

Meanwhile, in Scotland a first-of-its-type giant flywheel will mimic the spinning turbines of a conventional power plant that normally helps to stabilise the energy grid’s electrical frequency at about 50 hertz — but with no emissions.