Energy Transitions Commission's latest research sets out a blueprint for decarbonising plastics, cement, shipping, aviation, and steel by 2060, but is its optimism justifiable
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) alarming recent report on how to keep global temperature increases below 1.5C injected both greater urgency and clarity into the drive to deliver a net zero emissions global economy by around the middle of the century.
Now, with the implications of the scientific community's daunting climate models and related carbon bugets still sinking in, the Energy Transitions Commission coalition of NGOs, academics, and business execs has turned its attention to those areas of the economy seen as the hardest to decarbonise.
Namely, that means the high-carbon heavy industries and heavy duty transport technologies which provide the bedrock of both the global economy and our daily lives. The cement, steel, plastics, haulage, shipping, and aviation that literally construct the modern world. Altogether these carbon intensive sectors represent 30 per cent of energy emissions today and experts believe their share of emissions could well increase to over 60 per cent by mid-century as other sectors decarbonise.
But, based on six-months of work taking in consultations with more than 200 industry experts, the ETC today delivered a "pragmatic" blueprint for grasping these higher-hanging fruits in the Paris Agreement tree, complete with pathways and policy recommendations for ensuring they emulate the power and automative sectors and deliver a technoligically and economically feasible decarbonisation path.
It's overarching and broadly optimistic conclusion is this: fully decarbonised heavy industry and heavy duty transport is completely achievable globally by 2060 based on technologies which either already exist or are nearing commercial readiness. Not only can the 2060 target date for net zero emissions be met globally, it could be delivered significantly earlier in developed countries.
And what's more, the cost of decarbonising these sectors could amount to less than 0.5 per cent of GDP between now and mid-century, according to the ETC, or even lower if improvements in energy efficiency, resource efficiency, and reduction in demand for carbon intensive transport is delivered.
Given those involved in the ETC include influential figures from major corporations such Shell, BP, Drax, HSBC, Vattenfall, Veolia and Saint Gobain - in addition to representatives from the UN, green NGOs, and academics such as LSE Professor Lord Nicholas Stern - it's findings should make policymakers and business leaders sit up and take note.
Lord Adair Turner, co-chair of the ETC - and previously the first chair of the UK's Committee on Climate Change back in 2008 - described today's research as "optimistic but realistic". "We can build a zero-carbon economy with a minor cost to economic growth," he said. "We should now commit to achieving this by 2060 at the latest, and put in place the policies and investments required to deliver it."
So what exactly does the ETC suggest? How does it envisage such high carbon, and still growing, industries delivering deep decarbonisation within the space of a few decades?
Cheap zero carbon electricity
Perhaps unsurprisingly, at the core of ETC's report is the crucial assumption that electrification can be delivered right across both transport and industrial sectors, boosting electricity's share of final energy demand from 20 per cent today to 60 per cent by 2060. Such a scenario would means a sharp increase in power demand, which it estimates growing around four to six times over from today's 20,000TWh to reach around 100,000TWh. But it would also open up the possibility of carbon intensive sectors tapping into low cost renewables and low carbon generation.
The report also raises the prospect of strong policies on energy efficiency, resource efficiency, circularity, and managing demand for heavy-duty transport helping cut this projected electricity requirement by up to a quarter.
Yet even so, meeting the greater power demand created by the electrification of so many processes would make the development of zero carbon power infrastructure an even more daunting challenging. Engineers may known how to develop low carbon power grids in theory, but the ETC conceded meeting surging demand for clean power would prove "challenging". Specifically, it would mean a 10 per cent annual increase in today's deployment of wind and solar and a huge strengthening of power grids. It could ven see emissions rise in the sort term if the electrification of industry and transport takes place at a faster rate than the decarbonisation of power supplies.
However, the report estimates that with renewables increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels, within 15 years it will be possible to run electricity systems in which 85-90 per cent of power demand is met by a mix of wind and solar, combined with batteries for short-term back up. Meeting the remaining 10-15 per cent of power would be more challenging, certainly, but it could be met by dispatchable peak generation capacity, such as hydropower, sustainable biomass, or fossil fuels with carbon capture, the report states.
In short, with far larger amounts of renewables and zero carbon power sources, the decarbonisation of industry and transport suddenly becomes far more achievable.
A major role for hydrogen
Far higher levels of clean electricity would also unlock a key role for hydrogen, which the report argues is "highly likely to play a major cost-effective role in the decarbonisation of several harder to abate sectors, and may also be important in residential heat and flexibility provision in the power system".
More specifically, achieving a net zero emissions economy will require an increase in hydrogen production from 60Mt annually today to roughly 425-650Mt by the middle of the century, even if hydrogen fuel cell vehicles only play a small role in the light-duty transport sector, the ETC estimates.
To produce that hydrogen, electrolysis drawing on renewable power sources will become increasingly cost-effective as clean power prices fall and equipment costs decline. The report predicts this 'green' hydrogen could make up around half of the expected demand for the gas. Meanwhile, for the other half CCS infrastructure will likely need developing to enable production of "near-zero carbon" hydrogen from steam methane reforming plus carbon capture - although under such a scenario it would additionally become crucial to drastically cut methane leakage throughout the gas value chain in order to meet net zero goals.
To develop this hydrogen-heavy economy, cost reduction in fuel cells and hydrogen tanks are a priority, the report states, and international trade in H2 or ammonia is also likely to play a key role, potentially requiring significant infrastructure investment.
Hydrogen certainly has its challenges - BNEF founder Michael Liebreich and former Policy Exchange research fellow Josh Burke are just two who have set them out - but for rapid decarbonisation, proponents of H2 will certainly find much in the ETC's findings to fuel their ambitions.
Transition pathways for transport are "less complicated" than for industry, according to the ETC. But that does not mean they are in any way straightforward.
On the roads, adoption of cost-effective electric vehicles are seen as crucial, bolstered by a shift in heavy duty logistics towards rail and shipping to cut demand for trucking, the report states. Electric drivetrains will "almost certainly eventually dominate given their efficiency advantage over internal combustion engines" it predicts, with biofuels and natural gas only playing a "transitional" role.
However, the decarbonisation of shipping and aviation is expected to prove more challenging. Here, electric engines using batteries or hydrogen can play a role over short distances, but for longer-haul journeys the ETC points towards bio or synthetic fuel for planes, and ammonia or biodiesels for ships. Such fuels are likely to be more expensive than existing fossil fuels, but it argues technological progress and economies of scale could bring costs down.
Overall, heavy-duty transport, electric trucks and buses are likely to become cost-competitive by 2030, ETC concludes, while a concerted focus on low carbon long-distance shipping and aviation fuels R&D remains one of the top priorities for efforts to deliver net zero transport.
More resource efficient industry
At the heart of operating net zero carbon heavy industry lies a major focus on energy efficiency, material efficiency, recycling and, for cement at least, developing CCS.
Yet contrary to some other models, a net zero economy can be achieved without "very large quantities" of CCS, the research suggests, with potentially only around 5-8Gt per year needed overall, and this largely for industrial processes such as cement production rather than power generation.
Moreover, the storage needs required for CCS could be less than many scenarios suggest, due to the opportunity through concrete, aggregates and carbon fibre production to store the CO2 in products and materials.
Meanwhile, a more circular economy that makes better use of existing stocks of materials alongside recycling and reuse could reduce CO2 emissions from four major industry sectors of plastics, steel, aluminium and cement by 40 per cent globally, rising as high as 56 per cent in developed economies, the report calculates.
Currently the biggest scourge of the environmentally-conscious consumer, plastics production could be reduced by 56 per cent through more extensive recycling and reduced use of plastics in key value chains, the ETC reckons. In addition, greater recycling and reuse could help cut primary steel production by 37 per cent and primary aluminium production by 40 per cent - and all at an affordable cost.
"Regardless of the route, our analysis makes us confident that it will be possible to decarbonise the harder-to-abate industrial sectors at costs per tonne of CO2 saved of $60 or less for steel, $130 or less in cement, and $300 or less in the case of plastics," the ETC concludes.
At what cost?
To make all these scenarios possible, however, investment needs leveraging without too high a cost on the consumer or business, and the report acknowledges the biggest challenges - plastics, cement, aviation and shipping - could be relatively costly to decarbonise.
Yet these costs could be cut significantly in the coming years thanks to falling renewable energy costs, much greater energy and resource efficiency, and future technological development, it argues. Adequate carbon pricing - ideally as comprehensive as possible and internationally agreed - is also seen as key by the ETC. With all these measures taken together, it estimates decarbonisation is achievable at an affordable cost.
In the industrial sectors, total incremental capital investment from 2015 to 2050 could amount to between $5.5-8.4tr, representing only about 0.1 per cent of aggregate GDP over that period and less than 0.5 per cent of probable global savings and investments. The investment required in road transport recharging or refuelling infrastructure, meanwhile, could amount to just five per cent of usual transport infrastructure investment. And, for aviation and shipping, "no major capital investment would be needed" if decarbonisation is achieved primarily through zero carbon fuels in existing engines, the ETC claims.
"Investments in infrastructure and industrial assets required to transition heavy industry and heavy duty transport to net-zero CO2 emissions are therefore not large compared to global savings and investment, and there is no reason to believe that shortage of finance will constrain the path to net-zero CO2 emissions if adapted financing mechanisms are developed," the report concludes.
Once again, a close reading of the numbers, the technology, and the science demonstrates that a zero carbon economy is within the global economy's reach within a single generation. The technical challenges are undoubtedly significant, but so are the business opportunities in terms of efficiencies and savings, even before you consider the huge new markets as yet unimagined innovation could unlock.
As Lord Nicholas Stern notes: "With the breakthrough evidence provided by the ETC, there is real momentum for all sectors of the economy to embark on the path to net zero CO2 emissions and meet the Paris objectives."
The challenge, as ever, is ensuring business and political leaders hear the message and start to develop the credible net zero strategies that are so urgently needed.
UK insurers will be called upon next month by the Prudential Market Authority to stress test their business against a range of climate and transition risks
As ClientEarth warns too many councils have missed deadlines to submit air quality plans, government confirms fresh support from its Clean Bus Technology Fund
Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd's speech at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development - in full
Britain has its first new deep coal mine in decades - a result of pretending climate change isn't political
Rebecca Willis argues the controversial decision to approve a new coal mine in the UK is symptomatic of a wider political failure