With COP26 still fresh in the minds of many in the energy industry, let us start by imagining a single policy, that if imposed on the fossil fuel industry, could if enforced consistently stop their products from causing global warming within a generation.
Scientists at Edinburgh and Oxford Universities claim the so-called Carbon Takeback Obligation, if applied to the oil & gas and coal sectors could achieve exactly that.
It would demand that fossil fuel extractors and importers dispose safely and permanently of a rising fraction of the CO2 they generate, with that fraction rising to 100% by the year Net Zero … roughly 2050.
Critically, this would include the CO2 emitted by the products they manufacture and sell. It basically boils down to making the polluters pay at source.
As such it does not require a suite of new technologies. Rather it is action that could be implemented globally now, if the political will can be mustered.
The Edinburgh/Oxford research explores implications of imposing a Carbon Takeback Obligation on the global fossil fuel industry.
It claims to demonstrate an “affordable and low-risk route to net zero emissions”, particularly if complemented by conventional measures to reduce near-term fossil fuel demand.
According to Oxford study lead, Stuart Jenkins: “Despite the perceived high cost of carbon dioxide capture and storage, we show that the cost to the world economy of a Carbon Takeback Obligation, even if entirely passed on to fossil fuel consumers, is no higher than the cost of mitigation in conventional scenarios meeting similar goals driven by a global carbon price.”
Edinburgh’s Professor Stuart Haszeldine, a familiar name to Energy Voice regulars and report co-author, reports: “Investment in carbon dioxide capture and geological storage has, to date, been dependent on state subsidies, and consistently far below what is required to meet Paris climate goals.”
He argues that carbon takeback provides the fossil fuel industry itself with the strongest possible incentive to get its house in order.
But, according to Oxford’s Prof Myles Allen, Carbon Takeback has consistently been dismissed by the climate policy establishment.
That basically means civil servants and politicians reckon it to be a lot more costly and risky than the alternative of driving down consumption by changing consumer behaviour or through a global carbon price.
But the Edinburgh/Oxford team point out that such alternatives are hardly risk-free. Getting to Net Zero means carbon prices rising to $1,000 per tonne of CO2 by 2050: 100 times the hike that brought the “gilets jaunes” out onto the streets in the first place, Allen noted, refering to the French protest group against taxes on petrol and diesel.
According to Margriet Kuijper, who formerly worked for Shell and is regarded as an independent expert on carbon capture and storage (also a speciality of Haszeldine), and who reviewed the Edinburgh/Oxford work, a carbon takeback policy as proposed in the paper would provide a safety net to make sure net zero emissions are achieved, even if a reduction in the use of fossil fuels is slower than hoped for.
“It extends the responsibility of producers to take care of the waste generated by the use of their products,” says Kuijper.
“The polluter pays to clean up. And the costs are included in the product price. As it should be.”
Cooling temperatures through long-term wind planning
Sticking with strategies/policies ideas, but this time focused on wind energy, Cornell University researchers are claiming that smart planning around upscaling offshore wind deployment could “achieve a reduction in global warming atmospheric average temperatures of 0.3 to 0.8 DegC by the end of the century”.
Moreover, early action will reap dividends, according to Prof Rebecca Barthelmie at Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
“In terms of averting the worst of climate change, our work confirms that accelerating wind-energy technology deployment is a logical and a cost-effective part of the required strategy. Waiting longer will mean more drastic action will be needed,” she warns.
To avert environmental disaster, other greenhouse gas reduction strategies will also need to be implemented, according to the research which, although US-centric, has a direct global relevance.
That the much vaunted 1.5 degC target limitation will now be missed by a mile apparently lends an urgency to the implementation of such research; especially as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s latest output calls for “transformational change” in the way we seek to halt and reverse anthropogenic climate change.
“Our work shows that it is feasible for the United States to accelerate its deployment of wind energy,” Barthelmie said, “to substantially reduce CO2 emissions and that will make a real difference to the kind of warming that the world endures”.
It is well known that global wind resources considerably exceed current electricity demand and the cost of generating power using turbines has declined sharply.
“It makes perfect sense to rapidly deploy wind energy as a key part of decarbonising the electricity supply,” she says.
Barthelmie notes that wind turbines are now deployed in 90 countries, generating about 7% of global electricity.
“Sectors like solar and wind have become less expensive than fossil fuels.
“So there really aren’t any arguments anymore for not making this kind of change,”
“Both technically and economically, advanced deployment scenarios are feasible. It needs more political will.”
Cornell had a significant involvement in COP26 … students, staff and alumni. No less than 45 undergraduates and graduates plugged in from Ithaca through select channels, listened and held digital front row seats at the Glasgow events.
Lignocellulose – mega-feedstock of the future?
Arguably the biggest challenge to overcome as pressure mounts to kill off the oil & gas industry is feedstock substitution. Biodiesel production is perhaps the leading example of substitution failure because of the huge impacts of fuel crops on the environment and food production.
Related, current industrial processes for bioethanol production also include feedstocks, such as corn, wheat, cassava, sugar beet, and sugarcane, and so that too is in direct competition with the food sector.
Therefore lignocellulose biomass is found to be one of the most promising potential renewable resources for the production of bioethanol
Today’s digital, urbanised world consumes huge amounts of raw materials that could hardly be called environmentally friendly. Oil & gas and coal are prime commodity examples.
However, scientists worldwide are working on the substitution problem including a team based out of Aalto University, Finland; University of Turku, RISE – Research Institute of Sweden; and University of British Columbia.
They are looking at how lignocellulose — or plant biomass — can be used for a variety of applications, potentially replacing commonly used materials like sand and plastics in the world of optics, including finding substitutes for materials currently favoured in the manufacture of photo-voltaics.
“We wanted to map out as comprehensively as possible how lignocellulose could replace the non-renewable resources found in widely used technology, like smart devices or solar cells,” says Jaana Vapaavuori, who is based at Aalto.
Lignocellulose, the term that encompasses cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, is found in nearly every plant on Earth.
When scientists break it down into very small parts and put it back together, they can create totally new, usable materials. It is basically a copycat of what has been going on in the oil & gas industry for well over a century.
In their extensive review of possibilities, the researchers assessed the various manufacturing processes and characteristics particularly needed for optical applications, for example, transparency, reflectiveness, UV-light filtering, as well as structural colours.
“Through combining properties of lignocellulose, we could create light-reactive surfaces for windows or materials that react to certain chemicals or steam. We could even make UV protectors that soak up radiation, acting like a sunblock on surfaces,” says Vapaavuori.
“We can actually add functionalities to lignocellulose and customise it more easily than glass.”
According to Kati Miettunen, professor of materials engineering at Turku, if it was possible to replace the glass in solar cells with lignocellulose. The team was able to improve light absorption and achieve better operating efficiency.
Because forest biomass is already in high demand and vast carbon sinks are crucial to the health of the planet, as a source of lignocellulose the researchers point to what’s not being used: more than a billion tonnes of biomass waste created by industry and agriculture each year.
Several types of lignocellulosic biomass, such as agricultural crop residues, forest residues and grass materials, are relatively inexpensive, highly abundant in nature, and also do not compete with the food or feed industries.
There is therefore massive untapped potential in the leftovers of lignocellulose from other industries. It happens that it is now also being investigated as a feedstock for bioethanol production.
But back to the Scandinavian-Canadian project where, just now the team are continuing to studying bio-based materials and creating prototypes. At Aalto, for example, they have developed light fibres and light-reactive fabrics.
Vapaavuori says that the leap to scaling-up and commercialisation could be achieved in two ways.
‘Either we create new uses for bio-based waste through government regulations or research brings about such cool demos and breakthroughs that it drives demand for renewable alternatives for optical applications. We believe that we need both political direction and solid research.”
But there’s another problem and that is the cost of developing and commercialising lignocellulose-based innovations.
At the turn of the Millennium, interest in the potential of nanocellulose had already been kindled.
But Vapaavuori says it is only now that the energy consumption and cost of production have dropped enough to begin to make industrial use possible.