The Strategy of Climate Change - part 2
Posted on 23 Oct 2022
“One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken” - Leo Tolstoy
In our previous article on climate change, we looked into the local-level strategy that the UK government is adopting to create a more sustainable future. We now turn our gaze to the global story.
India and Pakistan are currently experiencing a sustained heatwave, with temperatures rising to 49C in some areas of northern India. A recent study by the UK’s Meteorological Office has suggested that heat waves that used to be a once in a century occurrence, are now thirty times more likely to occur. The heat does not just affect individuals, it creates soaring energy requirements, increased costs of industrial production, and frequent power outages. Global warming is certainly here.
Although the UK does not experience such extremes of temperature as northern India, the issues that the government are facing are no less daunting. Having committed to zero emissions by 2050, the government is under scrutiny to create an effective and achievable long term plan.
Local and global weather patterns are being scrutinized to help us understand our environment, harness our sustainable natural resources, and achieve Tolstoy’s conditions of happiness.
Flights account for 7% of overall UK greenhouse gas emissions, and are proving to be one of the most problematic areas to tackle in the drive for a more sustainable future. In the 2021 budget, the UK chancellor reduced tax on flights by 50%, leading to an estimated increase of 400,000 passenger journeys a year.
The airlines have set themselves a number of goals, however only one managed to achieve the relatively modest target of reducing fuel burn per passenger kilometer by 3%. A report by the environmental charity Possible went on to mention that the much heralded plans for airlines to commission the EcoJet, that would reduce emissions by an impressive 50% have amounted to very little. With the prospect of electric powered flight limited to a handful of small aircraft, the commercial sector is relying heavily on a combination of more efficient aircraft and the adoption of lower carbon fuel. The government targets to create a virtually emission-free air transport sector by 2040 seem increasingly unachievable.
The aviation industry also highlights the common imbalance between the need to reduce emissions in a particular sector, and the desire to create a more sustainable environment for the global population in general. Biofuels have been promoted as the future of aviation, and the single most important way to achieve targets. However a recent report by the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) has highlighted the issues around the limited and complex manufacture of biofuels, along with the impacts they have on food security, biodiversity and land degradation.
A working paper by the World Resources Institute has highlighted the relative inefficiency of using crops to convert sunlight into fuel through photosynthesis, compared with the photovoltaic cells in solar panels. It has calculated that to produce just 10% of the global liquid fuel from crops would take 30% of all the energy required to produce crops for the world in a year. Also, as eclectic motors are far more efficient at converting energy into motion than internal combustion engines, the use of photovoltaic cells to produce transportation energy is 200 to 300 times more efficient per hectare of land used than using the land to grow biofuels.
The Climate Change Committee, who advise the UK government on the most effective strategies to combat climate change, have concluded that emissions from agriculture would need to be reduced by 30% by 2035. To achieve this target, it has estimated that the consumption of meat and dairy products would need to be reduced by 20% by 2030. In addition, we would need to reduce food waste substantially, and move some agricultural land away from food production to trees and restored peatland.
The reduction in food waste can be addressed on many levels, from consumer-level education, to managing the storage, processing and transportation of food from source. We will look into how cities are developing urban farms to help tackle this issue in our future article on creating sustainable cities.
Consumers have shown their willingness to reduce their meat consumption, achieving a 17% fall in the last decade. However a report by the National Food Strategy has calculated that this figure would need to increase to 30% for the next ten years. It has also been shown that although the public are reducing their consumption of red meat, they are actually eating larger quantities of white. All meat production is also not equal, with some having a far higher environmental impact than others.
Meats such as free range turkey and chicken have a far less impact on others such as lamb, which, according to the EWG has the highest environmental impact of all meats, including beef.
Again, as with transport, achieving a sustainable food industry requires both a shift in consumer behavior, government initiatives and the willingness of industry to change.
Trees are an important element in reducing and offsetting our carbon footprint. During the Cop26 global climate change summit in 2021, the UK government pledged to end UK deforestation by 2030, with a target to plant 30,000 hectares of trees per year by 2025. This figure was last achieved in 1989 (mainly in Scotland), and, according to the Forestry Commission has remained at around the 15,000 hectares per year level since 2021. The Commission is running a number of schemes, including the Woodland Creation Planning Grant that is worth £170 per hectare, plus a 70% contribution to any surveys that are required, as well as the Urban Tree Challenge Fund that provides 50% of the cost of planting trees in urban or peri urban areas, especially those with low levels of tree planting or social deprivation.
On a global scale, Pakistan has only 5% forest cover, compared with a global average of 30%. This makes them susceptible to the unpredictability of monsoons, receding Himalayan glaciers and extreme events including floods and droughts. To address this, the Pakistan government has initiated their “Ten Billion Tree Tsunami”, an ambitious project to plant ten billion trees by 2023. This ambitious project that has already planted one billion trees, has been designed not only to benefit the rich and varied ecosystem that Pakistan enjoys, but also create long-term employment for thousands of people. It is partially initiated by the UN Decade initiative, designed to reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide.
Hydrogen is a low-carbon fuel that can be used in a number of scenarios, including transport, power generation and heating. The UK government has plans to increase production to 5 Gigawatts of Hydrogen production by 2030. This is the equivalent to the natural gas consumed by three million households in the UK each year. The industry is still very young, with very little being used either in the UK or globally. The government has published a paper on how it plans to significantly scale up production. This includes a £240million net-zero hydrogen fund.
The UK government sees Hydrogen power as more than just a green alternative to fossil fuels, but an opportunity to create a home-grown industry, creating new supply chains, infrastructure, jobs and export opportunities.
On a global scale, China produces and consumes more hydrogen than any other country, with an estimated usage of 24 million tonnes.
Not all hydrogen is equal, with only ‘green hydrogen’ being produced from non-fossil fuel sources. The European Union’s strategy is heavily focused on this type of emissions-free green hydrogen, with a target to install 40 gigawatts by 2030. However, with Europe’s green hydrogen capacity set to reach just 2.7 gigawatts by 2025, achieving such an ambitious goal will be a challenge.
Carbon Capture and Storage
The ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and capture it before it is released is seen as being an essential part of the government’s net-zero carbon target by 2050. The UK government is aiming to capture between 20 and 30 million tonnes of Co2 per year by 2030. To put this into perspective, one million tonnes of Co2 removal is the equivalent of the levels of carbon capture from 40 million trees.
A new facility capable of extracting up to 1 million tonnes of Co2 is being planned for the north-east of Scotland. The extracted gas would then be stored deep under the seabed off the Scottish coast. This Direct Air Capture (DAP) plan is estimated to be operational by 2026, and is a joint partnership between the UK government, and private UK and Canadian organisations. The technology is already in operation in Canada, where extracted air is exposed to a liquid mixture that binds to the Co2, and is then processed into calcium carbonate pellets.
So it can be seen that achieving carbon emissions involves changes to a multitude of areas of our society. It presents immense challenges, but also new opportunities for both individuals and organisations.
The balance between removing and reducing carbon emissions, but also preserving our environment do not always go hand in hand. Techniques such as regenerative agriculture can improve the quality of our landscapes and food, however might not achieve the pure Co2 offset return on investment that an industrial plant in Scotland might achieve. Training an individual in forestry management is complex, can take several years, and achieve very little in the short term.
Understanding our environment, especially our complex, changeable and dynamic weather patterns we experience can be seen as a bridge between achieving climate goals and preserving our environment and natural habitat.
However as Tolstoy alluded to, understanding the link with our environment, in all its complexities, might well be the key to our future.
In our next article in this series, we look into the race to produce super-crops, and alternatives to the genetically engineered and modified varieties.
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