Industry, not government, will stop climate change. Discuss

The UK renewables sector is expanding at pace, but can the capitalism of enlightened self interest save the planet?

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 19 Sep 2019
Also in:
Innovation

The combined efforts of Swedish schoolgirl turned eco superstar Greta Thunberg and the "reasonable protesters" of Extinction Rebellion have succeeded in putting the climate crisis right at the top of many people’s worry lists this year. 

But while pitting the environmentalist goodies on one side against the big corporate baddies on the other may make us sit up and take notice, it doesn’t do much to solve the problem. Such a binary narrative completely ignores the possibility of putting business and the profit motive to good use to achieve positive aims. It is perhaps the most effective mechanism humanity has yet devised for effecting huge changes quickly.

"If you want to address a problem, you have to look at the cause. If the cause is partly what business is doing, then business also holds the key to doing something about it," says Jonatan Pinkse, professor of strategy, innovation and entrepreneurship at Manchester Business School and a long-time student of the role of business in tackling climate change. 

Getting rid of fossil fuels entirely would mean that traditional oil and coal-fired activities, such as transport and heating, would have to go electric. But that electricity is only clean and green if it is low- or no-carbon renewable power so the key to moving the dial on climate change is renewable energy. 

"Deployment of renewables is going to be vital," says Sam Hollister, director of economics and corporate services at trade body Energy UK. "We’ve already had massive changes in the way we produce our electricity. Last year we produced over half of our requirements from low-carbon sources, like offshore wind, solar and nuclear and it hasn’t really affected customers or businesses. You still get secure, reliable electricity but it’s greener and less carbon-intensive electricity."

A growth sector

Climate change doesn’t offer much for anyone to cheer about – carbon emissions are rising globally, with coal-fired power generation the biggest single source, mainly in Asia, which accounted for around one third of emissions in 2018. But the UK can at least claim to be leading the charge on renewable energy. We have 21GW of installed wind capacity – which supplied 18 per cent of our needs in 2018 – 13GW of solar power and 10GW of nuclear, making the UK’s power already some of the greenest in Europe. We are also a major exporter of green energy expertise in the fields of law, finance and engineering. 

"The UK has been the good boy in class when it comes to electricity. Its market opened up much more quickly than the French and German markets, for example," says Pinkse. That opening up does mean it has become rather an international venture – like much of modern British manufacturing industry, many of the big names in renewables are foreign-owned – but that speeds up progress and the rewards are mutual. "When I studied the French electricity market it was boring, but the UK market is interesting because it is so dynamic," Pinkse notes.

So the eyes of the globe are on us when it comes to developing a low- or no-carbon energy economy, which is good news for UK business. And there’s more positive news to report, according to Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the Blair and Brown governments and emeritus professor of physical chemistry at Cambridge University. "It’s a huge engine for growth," he says. "The fastest growing sector of the British economy over the past five years has been the new clean growth sector. Turnover is in excess of £50bn and it employs about half a million people." 

Nevertheless, 40 per cent of our power still comes from fossil fuels, mostly natural gas. High-level government intent is an important part of the decarbonisation agenda and here, too, the UK is taking the lead, on paper at least. The Climate Change Act of 2008 originally set a goal of 2050 for emissions to be cut by 80 per cent compared with those of 1990, and in June this year the UK became the first major economy to commit to achieving "net-zero" carbon emissions by the same year.

Some say the new target is impossible to meet. It’s a stretch but it can be done, reckons King. "The report was slow in coming through," he says. "They should have emerged with a net-zero emissions target two or three years ago, but now they’ve done it and quite a serious project has been built around it. It’s doable, it’s not pie in the sky at all."

Political intent, however, has not been matched by sustained and consistent policy. Generous tax breaks for renewables introduced by the last Labour government were abolished by the incoming Conservatives in 2015, and the Brexit debacle has had a similarly destructive impact on the resources available for climate negotiations, as King, who led the UK’s stance leading up to the Paris Climate Accord in 2016, points out.

"I had 165 climate attachés in our embassies around the world when I rejoined government in the Foreign Office. By the time I left government at the end of March 2017, that had been reduced to 65. And that was on [then foreign secretary] Boris Johnson’s watch." Whether Johnson will be able to provide that consistent policy framework now he is PM remains to be seen.

Novel approaches

It’s not just the sources of power that will have to change but the way we distribute it. Traditionally, electricity supply and demand had to be matched in real time by the National Grid because storage was not an option. Batteries simply weren’t large enough to do the job. Now, thanks to new technology driven largely by mobile phone and electric vehicle developers, the capacity of batteries is going up at the same time as the cost per unit stored is coming down. 

So could grid-scale storage, something of a Holy Grail for renewable power given the issue of what to do when there is no sun or wind, become a reality? According to RenewableUK, storage is really taking off – from an effective zero base in 2014, there is now 3.3GW of storage capacity installed with a further 5.4GW in the pipeline. And major investors are getting in on the act – UK grid storage business Zenobe recently won a £25m investment from Japanese power giants Jera and Tepco. 

Alternatively, surplus renewable energy could be used to create hydrogen to cope with peaks in demand. Known as the "green gas" because it does not emit any CO2 when burned by conventional gas turbines, hydrogen is complex and currently expensive to store. But UK start-up H2GO Power – spun out of Cambridge University – has developed an innovative nano-material that can store the gas in a solid state, eliminating the need for high-pressure tanks and pipework.

Of course, our reliance on fossil fuels is not going to disappear overnight, and the oil and gas business is busily working out its own place in a low- or no-carbon future. BP group chief executive Bob Dudley recently told the audience at a major London conference that the company was supporting calls by climate activist investors for more detailed reporting on the sector’s transition to low-carbon status. And no fewer than 13 oil companies, including Saudi Aramco, Exxon, Petrobras and BP, have joined the Oil & Gas Climate Initiative since its foundation in 2014.

The OGCI’s flagship project in the UK is a carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) scheme in Teesside, whereby the CO2 emitted by local power stations and factories will be captured and piped into empty gas fields under the North Sea, rather than disappearing up the chimney as before.  

Drax power station in Yorkshire also has a CCUS trial under way that could keep up to 16m tonnes of CO2 out of the air by the mid 2020s. And in Cheshire, Tata plans to use captured carbon to make sodium bicarbonate, which is used in everything from eyedrops and indigestion tablets to Pot Noodle. 

Although CCUS is workable technology that could help keep the lights on when the wind isn’t blowing, it requires government support and that has been highly intermittent – a much trumpeted £1bn CCUS competition was scrapped by the then chancellor George Osborne in 2015. That needs to change, says Energy UK’s Hollister. "If we are going to move faster toward net zero, we do need CCUS to extract the carbon from emissions and bury it in caverns under the sea. But that is something the market is not going to deliver on its own – it will need a steer from the government."

The technology of the electricity grid itself is also part of the transition – the most likely upgrade being either to a two-way "smart grid" that is still centrally managed and controlled, or the more radical decentralised peer-to-peer model. 

The smart grid would enable better load management – a supermarket chain could turn off its freezers for a few minutes to help the grid cope with a spike in demand, for example.

"If you can get 100 large users all contributing 1MW, that’s 100MW – equivalent to a small power station," says Hollister.

The peer-to-peer option could result in a kind of eBay for electricity, where you sell power generated by the solar cell on your roof directly to your neighbour via smartphone app. This is blockchain/AI territory, with UK start-ups including Moixa and Origami Energy vying to provide the required marketplace technology. The cost of such power is uncertain, however.

"I couldn’t tell you if it is going to be cheaper than today or if you will be paying a premium for that kind of service," says Hollister. "But you will have options."

Meanwhile a smart-grid trial taking place in Oxfordshire enables customers to "book" their electricity consumption the day before, priced in half-hour chunks according to demand. It’s already yielding interesting results. "The biggest impact was on owners of electric vehicles," says Hollister. "They really did change their consumption, charging their cars in the middle of the night when it was cheapest and greenest."

While there is plenty of business potential in the enlightened self-interest of slowing or stopping the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere, there may be an even greater necessity – and economic opportunities to match – in another area. "The science is telling us that we are not getting there quickly enough simply by switching to wind and solar," says King. "We’re currently at 410ppm [parts per million] of CO2 in the atmosphere and rising. We have to get down to 350ppm. It’s not enough to stop emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, we have to start removing some of what is already there." 

Climate repair

So-called climate-repair technology does not get much mainstream attention, perhaps because it can seem too much like science fiction to be taken seriously. But ideas to refreeze the Arctic or grow vast new underwater forests in the ocean deserve to be given a fair hearing, says King – when the stakes are this high, you have to look at all the possible options, however far-fetched they may seem. "Eighty per cent of the world’s cities are on coastlines – they will all be under threat from rising sea levels if the Greenland ice goes," he points out.

King plans to establish a climate-repair research centre at Cambridge University to test the viability of planet-sized climate-repair proposals. "Scalable technologies are the major focus. To examine every technology that’s been put forward to pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere at the billion-tonnes-a-year level." For instance, could algae and kelp forests in the oceans really be seeded with super-fine sand from the Sahara? King thinks this is worth looking at, and fishing these new ocean oases could help offset the costs. 

Another even more left-field idea is replenishing melting Arctic ice by pumping sea water into the upper atmosphere to create cloud cover and keep the surface temperature below freezing for longer periods. "Refreezing the Arctic may be possible. A number of technologies have been put forward – we need about $100m for a demonstrator," says King. 

With running costs in the $1bn-a-year bracket, climate repair would require huge taxpayer support. It may work – eventually. In the shorter term, however, working to provide more cost-effective solutions seems like the more practical option. 

While the climate protesters might be missing a trick when it comes to the vital role of business in tackling climate change, they are right about one thing at least – this is not someone else’s problem, we all have to do our bit and work together for a solution. "Businesses only produce what we as consumers consume," says Pinkse. "We need to change our behaviour; supply and demand need to work together."

Image copyright: Getty Images

Tags:

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime