Let’s be honest about CO2
Back in 2015, signatories of the Paris Climate Agreement pledged to collectively follow a familiar goal — to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below two degrees Celsius and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. Nearly four years after 196 countries signed on the dotted line, most countries are still way off course. Here, Mats W Lundberg, Sustainable Business Manager at Sandvik Materials Technology, explains why it’s time to open up about our efforts.
The world is nearly one degree warmer than it was before widespread industrialisation, according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), with the 20 warmest years on record having all occurred in the past 22 years and 2015-2018 making up the top four.
While one degree might not sound like it will trigger us to peel off our winter coats and flock to Finland for a sunny getaway, an increase in temperature could cause catastrophic change. Sea levels will rise, ocean temperatures and acidity will grow and ecosystems will irreparably transform.
So, what are we actually doing to prevent these disasters? The truth is, not as much as we’ve promised. Global carbon emissions increased by 1.7 per cent in 2017 and a further 2.7 per cent in 2018, with data from 2019 forecasting levels to reach even higher.
As a global society, efforts to tackle climate change drastically vary. On one hand, the UK reduced its emissions by 44 per cent between 1990 and 2018, but its own government Committee on Climate Change has advised that the country is lagging behind many of its long-term goals. China is on course to meet its Paris targets, yet these are not ambitious enough to limit warming to below two degrees.
Elsewhere, Sweden’s target is to have zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, while the US has notified the United Nations (UN) of its intended withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Together, we make up a mixed bag with inconsistent results.
The bathtub model
Sporadic global efforts and varying goals can make it difficult to visualise our current carbon situation. The carbon dioxide (CO2) measured in the atmosphere is the key marker of progress, or failure, so a clear understanding of our current actions can help us make plans for the future.
Despite not being the most water-efficient hygiene method, a bathtub is surprisingly useful when bringing this vision to life. Articulated by MIT professor John Sterman and author Linda Booth Sweeney, the Climate Bathtub model represents the viscous circle of attempting to remediate our carbon consumption.
Consider a bathtub filled with water. The water represents the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and the bathtub represents the Earth’s atmosphere. The ‘water’ level rises as we add more into the tub, corresponding to the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, and the drain at the bottom of the tub corresponds to the removal of the gas. The water level rises if the flow of water into the bath is larger than the flow out of its drain, and vice versa. The Paris Agreement’s targets of two and 1.5 degrees could be seen as two water level markers on the tub.
But what does a bathtub mean for climate change? First, we need to realise that the flow in is larger than the flow out at the moment. Then, we need to, at a minimum, make the flow out equal to the flow in. This solution seems simple, either turn off the taps or create a greater drainage hole. However, in practice, there are thousands of taps that we need to turn off and just as many drainage holes that need discovering.
While we must all work to reduce the flow of the CO2 taps in our daily lives, we mustn’t forget the responsibility of industry in the effort to tackle climate change. It is here where the truth may hurt even more.
According to the World Steel Association, steel is responsible for between seven and nine per cent of all direct emissions from fossil fuels, and each tonne produced results in an average 1.83 tonnes of CO2. As painful as this may be to admit, honesty is the first step towards change. Steel is a material central to our modern economy and is the second most traded commodity after oil, making it a vital resource.
Just like it has been for the past 150 years, steel will continue to be one of the world’s most sought after materials. As we’re not going to stop producing steel, it is vital that we evaluate its production in order to improve its environmental footprint. There are technology routes that can lower emissions from steelmaking, such as changes to blast furnaces and rethinking its core metallurgical equations. However, the catch is that many of these breakthroughs are a long way from making an impact, and customers must be prepared for the elevated cost of their products that is incurred by these changes.
Humans used more resources than we were able to replenish inside one year for the first time back in 1970. Dubbed Earth Overshoot Day, the date that the Earth’s biocapacity is breached creeps forward each year, falling on 29 July in 2019.
Instead of looking to change the way we make carbon intensive materials such as steel, we should examine how we can improve its existing lifecycle. The circular economy presents an opportunity to tackle the causes of global challenges by effectively making the most out of resources rather than wasting them. Instead of metaphorically adding more water to the bathtub, we need to make sure everything we’ve already put into it is used to its maximum potential to achieve a state of responsible consumption and production.
The energy intensive nature of steel production makes circularity an effective option to maximise existing resources and reduce the amount of carbon added into the atmosphere. With plans to become more than 90 per cent circular by 2030, Sandvik is driving the shift in an industry that not only needs to be honest about its inherent inefficiencies, but must also do all it can to enact positive change and improve its environmental impact.
Now, it is more crucial than ever that we are honest about our CO2 consumption. Not only do our varied global efforts to meet sustainability goals need to be confessed and addressed, but we must also be open about the outputs of some of the world’s most vital industries in order to effectively tackle their challenges. After all, a bathtub can only hold so much water.
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere