The Technology Chasm at COP26
In what follows, we are going to start to suggest what the World’s leaders at COP26 actually need to do to fight climate change successfully. We want to provide them with a different way of looking at it, because that might help them and us work out how.
We all know what has gone wrong, and what is going further wrong. We all know what is required in principle. The rhetoric is painfully clear. We need to transition the global economy from a hydrocarbon basis to a non-hydrocarbon basis. Boris Johnson released the Government’s Net Zero Strategy the week before COP started, in advance of COP26 (and is one of the first countries to do so).
It has a commendable clarity of purpose. But the strategy is entirely dependent on the need for others to come up with solutions to the technological problems. It has no answer to the questions begged by the ambition to reach Net Zero.
How do we do it?
There is a yawning technological chasm between UK Government’s and other world leaders’ ambitions for reversing global warming and climate change, and the technological capabilities available for achieving this. Like it or not, the industries that provide the global community with its needs and requirements for life are still, in the main, dependent on traditional fossil fuels. We cannot simply stop, even though continuing makes the situation worse.
Here at GAS, we want to use this article to suggest something simple, however, and steer the discussion towards a framework for solutions rather than problems. The challenge is practical. It resolves itself into a series of detailed, and sometimes interrelated, practical questions, all of which are much the same: how do we adapt or invent technologies that continue to provide us with the resources we currently need for our health, comfort and well-being, but without emitting carbon or other greenhouse gases?
What follows is a description of two of the most significant challenges, with suggestions for action at COP26 by our leaders. It is presumptuous to imagine that we have the answers they don’t. But these are not answers. They are simple practical observations that are within our – and their – grasp.
Here you are. These are written with the UK market in mind, but they are not territorial. They apply globally.
- Domestic Heat
We know domestic heat to be one of our largest problems. It is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions in all Northern climates. But in this sector, more than any other sector, technology lags behind ambition. How can we replace gas boilers? Air source heat pumps, ground source heat pumps, solar, wind, hydrogen, geothermal? These and many other alternatives are being offered, but none is currently fit for purpose. Either they are not adequate to the task, or they are too expensive, or both. So, what should we ask our leaders to do about this?
Focus on the need, please. It is obvious that we need immediate technology solutions. So put energy and resources into finding these solutions, and spare nothing in the effort. What will stimulate technology innovations? Money. How much is it worth? The rapid solution to this problem will save us millions, billions even, collectively, in helping avoid the immense cost of the damage we otherwise do. So, World leaders, why not pool your resources and invest in the inventors, as well as offering a prize for the winning solutions, right now? The sums could be eye-wateringly large, if you group together. Time is of the essence – this time next year, we absolutely must know what the solution to replacing gas boilers is, and have started to implement it.
For those who think this a Quixotic approach, it follows a long tradition of incentivised problem solving – prizes offered to stimulate the right solution. In 1714, British Parliament offered a prize of £3 million at today’s prices to the man or woman who could solve the problem of navigational longitude at sea. It took clock-maker John Harrison sixteen years, but he claimed the prize in 1730 and transformed marine navigation forever.
2. Electric Vehicles
Electric Vehicles are a different problem altogether. They are available, they are on the market, they do offer an alternative to the traditional internal combustion engine. We are led to believe that adoption is already racing ahead. But it is not. September in the UK saw a record month for EV registrations: 33,000. It was also a record low for internal combustion engine registrations in the UK. This was a month which saw petrol and diesel prices hitting historic record highs, and a global shortage of semiconductors affecting all motor manufacturers. The number of new combustion engine registrations? 215,312 according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the worst number since 1998, yet still dwarfing EV registrations. EVs are becoming mainstream, but they are not yet close to overtaking new car sales, let alone dominating the population of cars in use – approximately 32 million vehicles on the road in the UK in 2020, according to the SMMT.
So instead of patting ourselves on the back for the progress made by EVs, we should be asking: why is their uptake growing so slowly? There are a variety of reasons, range and price being the most obvious. These are both being worked on by the manufacturers, led by Tesla, and we can expect both to improve quite rapidly.
But Tesla also embodies what’s wrong with EVs. They are the Rolls Royce of EVs, expected to be beyond the pocket of all but the wealthiest. Beautiful, stylish, incredibly comfortable and associated with everything that is most expensive about new technology, they help keep EVs in a minority niche, just when we need them to become a standard of modern driving.
What can Governments do? Subsidise the cheaper ranges. UK Government already does, but the sums are pitiful. A new Nissan Leaf costs between £30-33,000. The Government offers a grant of £2,500 towards the purchase. This is not enough. Either the Government needs to subsidise the manufacturers to lower the prices on cheaper models, to make them cheaper still, or it needs to increase the grants. But only on the cheaper models. You can get a Nissan Juke for £18,000, and a Micra for £14,000. Help the Leaf compete with these.
There is another problem with EVs though, and the World leaders really need to penalise the industry into putting this right. The infrastructure is awful. There are not enough charge points. Research by UK100 recently revealed that there are 24,374 public charge points in the UK today, which sounds like a large number, but it estimates that the requirement is 10 times larger if the fleet of EVs is to grow to anything like the target expected.
But this is not the real problem. The real problem is that, at any given time, half of them don’t work, they are in inconvenient places, and even when they are at logical sites, like petrol stations, they are not even protected from the rain.
If you want to fill up your car with petrol or diesel, you can stay dry under the protective canopies, but all the enormous wealth of the Oil & Gas industry could not provide an EV driver with any shelter from the elements. Why has the Government not done something to insist on standards of charge point availability and comfort? There is an answer that springs to mind. None of them has bothered to switch yet, so they don’t care.
World leaders, here is another simple and practical step you can take to encourage EV uptake. Get on top of the infrastructure. Penalise the petrol stations unless they provide adequate charge points and adequate cover. This is not a technological problem, you already have the answers under your nose.
I have dealt with two problems so far. Here are another eight for you to think about. What should we be doing about these?
- Food Production
- Land Management
- Ocean Management
- Waste and recycling
I could offer my own answers, but that is not really the point. Presumptuous though this approach may be, it is not intended to suggest that I know any of the right answers, let alone all of them.
I am making a point. The solutions to the massive problem we face with Climate Change are simpler than our leaders gathering in Glasgow imply. The solutions resolve themselves into a series of practical questions. How do we do this? If we examine exactly what we need to do under each heading, we have a chance of finding answers.
But we will not find those answers if our leaders don’t examine the practical questions themselves and take the action necessary to put the answers into effect. There is a terrible danger that they are leaving us to find the solutions, when they will say “Jolly good, off you go”, without doing anything to recognise the urgency and importance of these changes.
That is not good enough now. We are beyond the point when the market can just be left to self-correct and supply the solution. They have to use the political weight they bring to bear in order to enforce the right answers. Penalise the sources of the problems, incentivise the sources of the solutions. We are talking about direct, practical realities. The problems are the wrong ways in which we currently access and use the resources we need for our lives. The solutions are the right ways in which we should access and use the resources we need for our lives. The problems are contributing to climate change. The solutions will help to reverse climate change.