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Leaders must set course for net-zero energy at COP26. What tech do we need to get there?

Decisions need to be made soon on investments that will enable us to cut the last 10% of carbon emissions by 2050.
By Jason Deign

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World leaders face high expectations as they gather in Glasgow, Scotland for this year’s United Nations COP26 climate talks. After even Covid-19 failed to curb the accumulation of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere last year, policymakers are under pressure to put forward massive, rapid decarbonization plans. Research shows that nations’ current commitments are still nowhere close to closing the gap on climate change.

Some countries will be tempted to make bold pledges predicated on the promise of miracle cures for carbon pollution. Exhibit A: Australia, which this week announced a goal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 largely based on unspecified low-emissions technologies.” Overreliance on untested technologies could thwart attempts to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees or 2 Celsius.

Part of the challenge is that the world’s top energy experts do not agree on the best way to get to a zero-carbon future. 

While there is broad consensus on how to decarbonize up to about 90 percent of electricity generation, considerable debate surrounds how to deal with the remainder. For energy used in sectors outside electricity, the uncertainty is even greater.

It’s pretty clear a concerted national rollout of wind, solar and lithium-ion [battery storage], plus some incremental efficiency and demand response, could get us to 80 percent to 90 percent [clean] electricity in the 2035 timeframe,” said RMI Senior Principal Mark Dyson in an email.

But the last 10 percent to 20 percent of the grid, not to mention the last 20-plus percent for the overall economy, are much less clear,” he said. There are multiple ways to do it.” (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

Cleaning up electricity

After years of discussing carbon reduction even as CO2 levels have continued to rise, we now need to build clean power infrastructure at huge scale and breakneck speed. But what technologies should we rely on?

Stanford professor Mark Jacobson argues that solar, wind and other renewable-energy technologies can get us just about all the way to a net-zero electricity system. We need technologies that are available today and eliminate 80 percent of emissions by 2030,” he said in an interview. That limits us to renewable energy.”

He dismisses tech solutions that haven’t yet been proven at scale, like small modular nuclear reactors, which are advocated by the nuclear industry.

Jacobson’s team has developed model pathways to show how 143 countries, accounting for 99.7 percent of global emissions, could eliminate fossil fuels from the energy mix and run instead on renewables. It’s not rocket science,” he said.

But other experts question Jacobson’s approach.

There’s a lot of reasons why people are skeptical about getting all the way to 100 percent” clean electricity with current renewable technologies, said Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at The Breakthrough Institute.

One of the big ones is that to get to 100 percent you need to very significantly overbuild your system. You need roughly twice as much wind and solar for 100 percent renewables as you would for 80 percent renewables. And that also significantly increases the land use.”

Schalk Cloete, research scientist at Norway’s Foundation for Industrial and Technical Research, also pointed to concerns over land use. Wind and solar currently generate just a few percent of global primary energy production, but public resistance and complexity are already serious problems in several regions,” he said.

Emerging tech: Credible solution or excuse for inaction?

Some industry groups are wading into the debate by pushing technology solutions that are unproven and uneconomical. 

The oil and gas sector, for example, is advocating for tech approaches that will allow it to keep pumping out fossil fuels. It’s a big proponent of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which could theoretically capture emissions from fossil-fuel-powered facilities. But a huge Chevron carbon-capture project in Australia recently fell far short of its promises, raising big questions about the viability of CCS. The oil and gas industry is also promoting low-carbon hydrogen, which, unlike green hydrogen, would be made with natural gas plus CCS.

The industry continues to argue that there’s a role for natural gas as a bridge fuel” to help get us from oil to renewables, despite ample evidence that gas is a dirty distraction, not a real solution. Even the traditionally industry-friendly International Energy Agency is now calling to end fossil fuel funding.

Yet Shell’s net-zero strategy unveiled in February includes near-term investments of $8 billion a year in upstream oil and gas operations, compared to up to $3 billion in renewables.

Critical sectors such as shipping, aviation and heavy industry are the trickiest to decarbonize. Plans to get them to zero emissions rely on technologies that have yet to be made cost-effective, including CCS and hydrogen — and their transition to net zero could cost trillions of dollars.

Not much time left for debate

This lack of clarity would not be an issue if there were infinite time to ponder the problem. But there isn’t.

We have no time for trial and error anymore,” said Thomas Boermans, head of foresight at the German energy giant E.ON. We only have one shot.”

And differences of opinion — which might be seen as a sign of healthy debate in another context — could be a problem for policymakers tasked with selling a course of action to the public, said Dyson at RMI.

For most audiences, the message We know how to get to 100 percent’ is way catchier than We know how to get to 80 percent and we’re working hard to figure out the last 20 percent,’” he said.

From a storytelling perspective, the focus on breakthrough tech is a comforting fallback,” he said. If it exists, it makes the problem solvable in the heads of engineers and executives.”

The challenge for world leaders at COP26 will be to make sure such narratives do not overshadow the need to take urgent action with the technologies at hand — because there are no guarantees that breakthrough technologies will become viable in time to avert a climate catastrophe. 

Jason Deign reports on global trends in climatetech, energy storage and wind. He is based in Barcelona, Spain.