Good COP, bad COP?

Scott Petersen looks forward to the UN COP26 conference in November and wonders if it will create more questions than answers

In early November, Glasgow will play host to the United Nations Climate Change Conference known as COP26 – an acronym for Conference of the Parties, which will involve 197 nations and territories (the parties). Most of you reading this blog will be employed or involved in some shape or form with tackling the Net Zero challenge in your own organisations, so will already be aware of the massive importance of this forthcoming event.

This is the 26th annual COP conference and it’s scary to realise just how long we have been talking about the climate crisis! However, all the parties are now committed to action, through a Framework Convention to implement measures designed to counteract the impact of climate change, and during the fortnight, their progress will be reviewed and debated.

COP26 follows hot on the heels of the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report on climate change, released very recently and will undoubtedly provide fuel for the debate. The publication of the IPCC Report has coincided with a series of wildfires, floods and natural disasters which have helped focus the minds of both the public and the press. Headlines have described the report in depressing terms, including, “The starkest warning yet” and “Red Alert Time”. Everyone it seems is getting the message about the need for action.

2021 is being described bluntly as humanity’s “last chance” to do something serious to avoid the consequences of climate change. But the omens are not good. Unfortunately, global emissions are at an all-time high and none of the big countries are on track to meet the obligations to which they all signed up in the Paris Agreement of 2015. These are to:

  • Reduce the amount of harmful greenhouse gasses produced and increase renewable types of energy like wind, solar and wave power
  • Keep global temperature increase “well below” 2 Deg C (3.6 Deg F) and to try to limit it to 1.5 Deg C
  • Review progress made on the agreement every five years
  • Spend $100 billion dollars a year in climate finance to help poorer countries by 2020, with a commitment to further finance in the future.

In advance of the conference, countries have been required to submit new and updated national climate plans (known as Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs) with strengthened ambitions on mitigation. Accepting that the COVID-19 crisis has delayed the process somewhat, it’s disappointing that only 110 of the 197 countries have submitted new or updated NDCs so far.

It’s likely that things could get quite heated at COP26 (no pun intended!). The Daily Mail is already questioning why the UK should be leading the charge to Net Zero and burdening the British Taxpayer with the additional costs and turmoil involved in decarbonising our economy, when big economies like China are “burning coal like there’s no tomorrow!”

Does the Mail have a point? The UK is chairing COP26 but is it our moral responsibility to take the lead and drive the change? One could argue that our ability to influence the global reduction in CO2 emissions is negligible, given that we contribute only 1.1% of the total annual output. However, we have had a head start on emerging countries, having instigated the industrial revolution over 250 years ago. And of course, our production of CO2 measured on a per capita basis, puts UK above the average. So, we must accept that it’s our problem as much as anybody else’s, and every nation, and indeed individual, must shoulder some of the burden for solving it. But the question is, what to do.

Although there can be no disputing the data and the incontrovertible evidence of extreme weather events, the challenge lies in delivering cost-effective, realisable solutions, within the short time we have left, to ensure a 2050 Net Zero success story.

On one thing most do agree (and it’s mentioned in the Paris Agreement obligations) and that is that renewables must play a major part in decarbonising the energy supply market. Indeed, the UK is leading the world in part of this strategy through its investment in offshore wind technology. But just look at the numbers – to achieve our own target of increasing offshore wind power capacity from 10GW to 40GW by 2030, we would need to commission one new wind turbine every day, for the next nine years. Can this really be achieved?

Frequently, we are faced with a climate crisis dilemma, where well-meant actions can have unintended consequences. For example, the drive to develop affordable solar panel technology has exacerbated the CO2 problem in China. Solar panels require large amounts of polysilicon, the manufacture of which requires significant amounts of energy and to help local manufacturers obtain a competitive advantage, the Chinese Government has built numerous coal-fired power stations to serve the polysilicon factories. There is a degree of irony in the fact that China now supplies 75% of the world’s solar panel market but also generates 61% of its electricity from coal.

The UK Government has just launched its Hydrogen Plan which envisages a switch to green and blue hydrogen to replace natural gas as a fuel for central heating boilers and as fuel for commercial vehicles. Currently however, the cost of producing the blue hydrogen involves processes that generate 20% more CO2 than simply burning the natural gas itself. Of course, it may become more viable as processes improve, but it just illustrates the scale of the challenge when we get into the detail. No one ever said this would be easy! It’s not just one big simple-to-solve problem, it’s a complex and interrelated series of problems that need to be broken down and tackled by all parties. And quickly.

The specific challenge for electricity production lies not just with how we generate it but more importantly, how we distribute it and manage the grid to accommodate the inherent fluctuations that will occur when we are required to rely so heavily on weather-dependent energy sources. This is why OakTree Power has been focusing on the development of Green Demand Side Response as part of the solution in the electricity market.

Our technology reduces demand in large commercial buildings when the Grid is under stress and reduces the need for dirty, fossil-fuelled power generators to step in as part of the balancing process that allows national Grid ESO to keep the lights on. This is one simple measure that can be implemented now, with no CO2 emissions, no capital outlay and no unintended consequences.

Let’s hope Green DSR will be part of the agenda when discussions start in November.