The writer chairs the Policy Institute at King’s College London
Climate concerns were top of the agenda just a few weeks ago. Governments were making commitments to transform the ways in which energy is used. Companies from Microsoft to BP were expressing their intention to decarbonise.
None of the fundamentals have changed: emissions will fall a little this year in line with energy consumption but the shift is not permanent. After the coronavirus pandemic ends, a carbon-rich reality will return. The world in 2021 will still rely on hydrocarbons for close to 80 per cent of its energy needs, the chances of extreme weather conditions have not changed and the risk of floods has not receded.
The level of attention being given to the issue has, however, fallen sharply. Preparations for the COP26 meeting planned to be held in Glasgow in November have been minimal and the event could be postponed. Media coverage has moved on to more immediate problems, and companies are focused on responding to dramatic short-term falls in activity and income and on survival.
Recapturing attention will not be easy but it will be necessary. Two practical approaches would match the mood of the moment and help restore lost momentum.
The first is to accept the urgent need for international co-ordination of policy in key areas. That is evident in the coronavirus crisis in terms of both the medical issues and the economic implications. Similar co-ordination is needed for the climate agenda. The International Energy Agency, in the absence of any other serious body equipped to do the job, should be asked to propose how such co-ordination can be put in place.
The process matters but so does the substance. The second thing to do is to shift the focus from the setting of goals for 2050 to what can be done over the next decade — 2050 is beyond the horizon of any government, while 2030 is within measurable sight. Countries can take different actions depending on their circumstances but all can move towards a common objective. A cut of 25 per cent in emissions by 2030 will not satisfy campaigners but it has the virtue of being within reach.
The aggregation of certain steps using proven technology can make a material difference in the short term. These include efficiency gains encouraged through incentives and regulation to close the wide gaps between performance at national and sector levels; the development of infrastructure from strengthened grids to charging systems capable of dealing with growing numbers of electric vehicles; the deployment of smart systems to maximise energy use; and greater use of storage technology that is advancing beyond vehicle batteries and already playing a role in managing volatility at grid level.
Of course, a 25 per cent reduction is not enough and we should also use the next few years to prepare for the bigger steps needed later. That is about testing at scale prospects that are already within sight, for example hydrogen, which could transform the heating sector and potentially many other forms of energy consumption such as in ships’ engines.
Work needs to be done on carbon capture and storage to identify ways in which costs can be reduced and how carbon can be used rather than simply stored. Tidal and wave power must be made more economic and new financing mechanisms found that match their potential to produce power over many decades. Small modular nuclear reactors should be built and tested. Fusion power is a possibility but needs years of further research.
Some of these may not prove to be viable but all need exploring. At the same time the door must be opened to other technologies that can reduce the emissions from the production, processing and use of energy.
Few of these ideas can be deployed at scale until the 2030s but the work should be accelerated once the coronavirus crisis subsides. The effort should be public and private, local and international and should not be delayed by waiting for the most reluctant to sign up.
It is time to move on from proclamations of extinction and vague promises to do something by 2050. Over the coming weeks we should turn our idle, if well washed, hands to producing a practical, pragmatic plan to reduce emissions over the next decade.