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Lots of talk but ‘very little real action’ on UK decarbonisation

A GM hydrogen fuel cell engine prototype.
A GM hydrogen fuel cell engine prototype.

A company in the US called ZeroAvia has just installed a hydrogen fuel cell powered electric powertrain in a six-seater aircraft.

It has a range of 500 miles and can be fully refuelled in minutes. In 2022, the company plans to begin supplying the powertrain for use in planes with as many as 20 seats, on flights up to 500 miles long.

Japan is now the world leader in the development and deployment of hydrogen fuel cell micro-cogeneration systems, having already installed around 270,000 and selling around 40,000 annually.

The country’s aim is to have 5.3 million installed by 2025.

The US Department of Energy recently announced funding for 29 projects aimed at enabling affordable and reliable large-scale hydrogen generation, transport, storage, and utilisation.

In Germany a consortium led by Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems is developing a fuel-cell system as an alternative power generation method on ships.

In Norway Sintef, the independent Norwegian research organisation, is expanding its fuel cell and electrolyser research groups and looking especially at new advanced materials and production methods.

Compagnie Maritime Belge bought the UK’s Revolve Technologies, which has been developing hydrogen drive train systems, the aim being to decarbonise all maritime transport. As an aside this would have been a great partner for the Ferguson shipyard in Scotland.

BP has bought a UK electric vehicle charger company that instals chargers around the UK. But battery electric vehicles still only represent around 2.5% of all vehicles sold in the UK and that includes plug-in hybrid vehicles.

The European Investment Bank is planning to cut out all funding for fossil fuel projects by 2020, their intention being to align their investment strategy with climate targets.

Meanwhile, the UK increased its support for oversea fossil fuel projects last year to £2bn. Support for projects in Oman, Kuwait, Brazil and other countries represented over a quarter of the total commitment by UK Export Finance (UKEF), which supports British exports with credit, guarantees, loans and insurance.

Brazil is now allowing the deforestation of the Amazon which is the largest carbon sink on the planet. Whoever signed that agreement to provide support for Brazilian fossil fuel projects has a lot of explaining to do.

New Zealand is also ending all support for the oil and gas industry and some in Scotland are calling on the Scottish Government to do the same, though energy policy is reserved to Westminster.

It’s also fair to say that many major investment companies are beginning to put serious pressure on both governments and fossil fuel companies. Some 415 investors managing $32tn in assets recently published a statement urging governments to speed up action to deal with climate change.

Bloomberg reported that Legal & General Investment Management have been discussing with ExxonMobil how it could address climate change. The firm is one of Exxon’s top 20 shareholders. They resisted any attempt by shareholders to force changes through.

Here in the UK there is typically a lot of talk going on but very little real action. At least, not on the part of the UK Government.

There are, however, companies beavering away in the background developing technologies such as heat storage, heat pumps and others but always fighting low investment levels and government indifference.

Persuading the oil and gas industry to make real changes to deal with climate change is not top of the government’s priority list and the industry realises that. Buying a battery charger company doesn’t make a huge impact on the energy transition.

To make a real difference we need to do things such as ensuring all new houses and other buildings should comply with PassivHaus standards. Couple it with land reform so land prices fall and that could be a winning policy.

All gas reaching our shores should be reformed to hydrogen and the waste carbon dioxide preferably reutilised by converting it to usable products. We could do that now but for the lack of meaningful investment.

Our university research chemists should be working flat out on how to make degradable plastics from the oil we’re producing.

But energy transition efforts here are pretty pathetic. More action and investment are needed fast. Can anyone see that happening anytime soon? I can’t.

Dick Winchester is on the Scottish Government’s Energy Advisory Board

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