Clean GrowthDevelopmentEnvironment & ClimateRenewable energySustainability

Net-Zero. Buzzword or essential reality to combat advancing climate change?

By February 24, 2022 No Comments

net zero – noun

a target of completely negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by human activity, to be achieved by reducing emissions and implementing methods of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“global net emissions of carbon dioxide will need to fall to net zero by 2050”

Net-Zero has become an international buzz phrase, adopted globally as a target Governments & companies alike are using to combat climate change & reverse the potential catastrophic impact of a 1.5oC+ global temperature.

Net-Zero refers to the balance between the amount of greenhouse gas produced & the amount removed from the atmosphere (1) International companies & Government are pledging to reduce their emissions as close to zero as possible & then use carbon offsets to net out the remainder of their emissions. China for example has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060, but it’s current trajectory shows it’s emissions will continue to escalate until peaking in 2030.

The United Kingdom has already begun the Green Revolution striving ahead of the curve with their ambitious Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution & focuses on:

  • advancing offshore wind
  • driving the growth of low carbon hydrogen
  • delivering new and advanced nuclear power
  • accelerating the shift to zero emission vehicles
  • green public transport, cycling and walking
  • ‘jet zero’ and green ships
  • greener buildings
  • investing in carbon capture, usage and storage
  • protecting our natural environment
  • green finance and innovation (2)

The supporting Net-Zero strategy strengthens the resolve of the UK Government in aiming for a Net-Zero emissions country by 2050, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson assuring the UK people that:

“In 2050, we will still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes, but our cars will be electric gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission allowing us to fly guilt-free, and our homes will be heated by cheap reliable power drawn from the winds of the North Sea. And everywhere you look, in every part of our United Kingdom, there will be jobs. Good jobs, green jobs, well-paid jobs, levelling up our country while squashing down our carbon emissions.” Rt Hon Boris Johnson (3)

The energy sector is one area which has a relatively clear path to Net-Zero with the introduction of renewable energy provisions such as solar, wind & in the case of the UK, nuclear. With the UK currently providing 35.9% of all the UK’s electricity from renewable sources in the third quarter of 2021; the transition to Net-Zero in this sector is already well under way.

However, despite the phraseology surrounding the drive to Net-Zero being largely focused on energy & electricity supply, in a global arena it does pose some contradictory & equally challenging questions. For example:

Manufacturing – If a product is manufactured as a Net-Zero commodity, how can supply chains, (which are internationally interwoven), prove categorically that this is an accurate assessment of the entire supply chains carbon footprint?

The infrastructure for global manufacturing & in particular for heavy duty commodities such as steel, have various options open to them for alternative ways of manufacturing.

Steel manufacturing (UK & EU) relies on two manufacturing processes:

(1) Blast Furnaces, with iron ore & coking coal as inputs, producing iron into Basic Oxygen Furnaces (BF-BOF); and

(2) electric arc furnaces (EAF), using scrap steel and electricity as inputs (4)

Alternatives such as Hydrogen from low-carbon sources can be used to produce sponge iron from ore via DRI for input to EAFs. However, current cost estimates are high & therefore cheap renewable sources at scale would be required. Producing the current level of BF-BOF using hydrogen would require 17% of UK renewables generation, or 6.5% of UK electricity generation, at present. (4)

Carbon Capture Usage & Storage (CCUS) for steel would capture the CO2, with depleted oil & gas fields in the North Sea offering disposal sites. However, CCUS does involve extra costs & reduces overall efficiency (4)

GHG’s – Does Net-Zero have methane & other GHG’s in it’s scope, or is it primarily based on carbon emission reductions?

In a pioneering study undertaken by Scientists at Imperial College London, methane emissions from ten UK biogas plants were monitored & were found to account for up to 3.8% of the UK’s total methane emissions. (5)

Methane (CH4) is the second largest greenhouse gas produced by human activity & is a powerful climate warmer, trapping 32 times more heat than carbon dioxide. (5)

ICL researchers have warned that without rigorous monitoring & clear guidance, biogas emissions risk the UK not meeting its UK Net Zero targets. (5)

Renewable energy (parts & materials) – How long will it take for wind turbine blades buried in landfill to offset?

Despite the fact that in their operation wind turbines produce clean energy & produce no emissions; their manufacturing processes still have some way to go to be emissions free & environmentally Net-Zero.

Wind turbine blades are currently non-recyclable. Being constructed of a complex composite of plastics, including fibreglass & polyurethane coatings, currently makes the blades impossible to recycle.

With an average lifespan of 25 years the majority of wind turbine blades are currently being either stored or sent to landfill due to the composites lacking a circular economy for disposal.

Written & cited by Katy-Jane Mason for & on behalf of Dolphin N2.