27/03/2021

Clean energy - the more the merrier

3 min
Energy, if it is clean, the more the better
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The EU has committed itself to zero emissions (in clean terms) of greenhouse gases. As with the quintessential moonshot, the project to reach the moon before 1970, or the Olympic Games in 1992, we have set a date: 2050. There are, however, two differences. One is that it is much more important: the failure of the other projects would have affected our self-esteem, but life would have gone on and we would have recovered. On the other hand, if we fail to meet zero emissions, we will not avoid climate disaster. The other is that it is much more difficult to achieve, because it does not just depend on having money and creating an implementing body full of competent people. It also requires a strong majority conviction that the project is worthwhile: achieving zero emissions will depend partly on individual behaviour and partly on creating through politics a demanding and democratically accepted regulatory framework. Without the permanent and active involvement of the citizenry, we will not be able to do it.

Imposing objectives bordering on the impossible, with the idea that the more we commit ourselves, the more we will end up doing, is bad practice. If we cannot be convinced that the objective is serious, we will not make the effort. So let's ask ourselves: is it a possible goal?

If possible only means that at the present state of knowledge it is feasible to achieve the goal by acting as necessary on the economy, then it is quite clear that the answer is positive. We could - with taxes or bans - raise the price of dirty energy in such a way that its emissions would fall drastically, if not to zero, then to a level that could be compensated by the use of CO capture techniques. But this sense of the term possible is inadequate. A technically feasible plan is not enough; it must be socially and politically feasible. It will not be possible if changes in the economy lead to less energy consumption and economic decline. Citizens are not at all likely to accept permanent material impoverishment. And except, perhaps, for the most prosperous countries, it would not be legitimate to expect even stagnation.

The challenge is thus even more difficult, because the question of possibility is now whether with the current state of knowledge we can formulate policies that are socially acceptable and that will lead us to zero emissions in 2050. This will certainly have to be compatible with no small increase in energy consumption. So the challenge is not to consume less energy but to consume less dirty energy. Or, to put it another way, the increase in renewable energy production has to compensate for the decrease in dirty energy production but also for the increase in energy demand that, at a reasonable price, would occur in the coming decades.

There are reasons for optimism and for thinking that we do not have to choose between two hellish situations. Everything indicates that the 2050 target is achievable in a politically feasible way if there is a significant, but realistic, degree of citizen complicity.

The research on this topic is well presented in Bill Gates' recent book How to avoid a climate disaster. It is a book full of information, very well laid out, a good read and - thankfully - no clutter. It is clear from reading it that the spectacular advances in solar and wind power generation will not be enough, partly because not everything can be electrified. For example, long-haul aircraft: the batteries would be too heavy. Fortunately, 100% electric cars are possible. And very desirable: hybrids are a timid step, it's better to go straight to electric. I'm glad Seat is taking this path.

Gates lists 18 key technology areas where we still need breakthroughs: green hydrogen (i.e., produced without adding carbon to the atmosphere), electric powertrain, electrofuels, biofuels, green cement, green steel, green meat and milk, green fertilizer, safe nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, carbon capture, green plastics, water pumping, geothermal energy, thermal storage, flood- and drought-resistant agriculture, green palm oil, and non-fluorine-emitting refrigeration.

Securing the breakthroughs calls for far greater public investment in R&D than is currently the case, not small adjustments. Gates estimates it would have to increase fivefold. This is not nonsense: in the US, doing so would barely match the spending of the NIH (National Institute of Health). We hope that the EU realises the implications of what it is committing itself to. And, incidentally, that it will not be as risk-averse as it has been in negotiating vaccines.

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