Driving the transition to Net Zero – can technology do it alone?

IDRIC’s reflections on COP-26 and our post-COP agenda

Innovation in low carbon technologies is key for drastically reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from industrial sites and the UK economy more widely – but can technology alone drive the transition to net zero?

From the high-level negotiations to the protests on the streets, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) held early November in Glasgow, centred on how we can step up our efforts to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors and aspects of our daily lives.

The IDRIC-team at COP-26

The UK Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre (IDRIC), launched this year, supports industry and policy makers in accelerating industrial decarbonisation and unlocking the wider social and economic benefits of decarbonisation.

Working closely with key partners in industrial clusters, IDRIC combines engineering, environmental and technical knowledge with economic, social and policy expertise to develop innovative, inclusive, and sustainable pathways for industrial decarbonisation and mitigating climate change.

During the summit, the IDRIC-team discussed with a range of stakeholders how a systems approach can speed up this journey to net zero, minimising the costs and risks involved of technological solutions, and increasing its economic and societal benefits.

COP26: setbacks and breakthroughs

A key question underpinning the debate at COP-26 was the role that technology and innovation will play in helping to reach the target of net zero emissions by 2050, and therefore our chances of preventing the rise of average global temperatures beyond 1.5C.

The summit was marked by the difficult politics of committing to joint global action. There was unprecedented consensus on the urgency of action needed, and in particular, on the need for departing from fossil fuels as the backbone of economies across the globe.

But how fast this global departure can occur and which countries or sectors should make the biggest contribution, remained contentious. Ultimately, no unanimous commitment to phasing out of fossil fuels was included in the concluding declaration, the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Global warming trends call for urgent action – installation at the UKRI Exhibit in the Green Zone

And yet the Glasgow Climate Pact also embodies an unprecedented ambition for intensifying global efforts. Among other key initiatives, it also calls upon its 127 signatory nations ‘to escalate the development, deployment, and dissemination of technologies and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems’.

The Breakthrough Agenda, a parallel initiative driven by the UK and 42 other countries, mirrors this emphasis on technology and innovation. In the ‘Glasgow Breakthroughs’, a first set of actions was agreed for governments and businesses ‘to dramatically accelerate the innovation and deployment of clean technologies’ in five sectors – power, road transport, steel, hydrogen, and agriculture – which together account for 50% of all emissions.

A technology driven transition

If technology will drive the transition to net zero, what progress have we made in low carbon technologies and how scalable are they?

At COP-26, Prof. Maroto-Valer, UK Champion for Industrial Decarbonisation and IDIRC Director, discussed the most recent advances in decarbonising energy systems and industries with 10 other world leading research centres from the UK, US, Canada, Brazil, Australia and Netherlands.

The discussions at the Technology Driven Transition Summit clearly showed that many technology solutions have already been developed and can be deployed at scale. Besides an unprecedented expansion of renewable electricity, in particular from off-shore wind, major advances have taken place in the production and use of low-carbon fuels like hydrogen and biofuels.

These technologies will be key for reducing emissions from transport, heat and industrial processes and can complement each other, such as the use of hydrogen for balancing the intermittency of renewable energy.

Prof. Mercedes Maroto-Valer

Technologies for carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) will be particularly important for industrial processes, where electrification or complete emissions reduction is not yet possible, for example in cement production.

Important advances have already taken place in capturing carbon emissions directly at the point at which they arise from power generation or during industrial processes, and then either safely storing it in geological formations including deep saline aquifers or depleted gas fields, or turning these emissions into useful carbon-based products and fuels.

Innovative approaches do not need to start from scratch. IDRIC’s collaborations with industry clusters highlight the benefits of building on existing skills, expertise and infrastructure for speeding up the development of the most promising low carbon solutions.

Besides reducing emissions in some of the most energy-intensive sectors of the economy, technological innovation that is tried and tested in industrial settings can also lead the way for decarbonising other sectors.

Conversations with city leaders and the UK Cities Climate Investment Commission and during the UKRI Exhibit at the Green Zone, clearly showed that demonstrating and deploying low carbon technologies in industrial clusters will help to unlock innovations and investment for decarbonising other sectors.

For example, the large-scale production of hydrogen in UK’s industrial clusters will be key to decarbonise heat in cities and providing clean fuels for maritime transport and aviation.

No silver bullet

COP-26 showcased important advances in technical innovations. From small-scale applications that help to reduce the carbon footprint of individuals and companies to large-scale technological change that helps to decarbonise whole industries, technology and innovation clearly play a major role in the transition to a net-zero economy. But technology cannot do it alone.

Political will and leadership will be crucial in managing transitions, securing private sector buy-in and facilitating behavioural change needed for a sustainable transition to net zero. Supportive policies are also needed to balance the economic and societal costs and benefits of technological change.

A major concern at this year’s COP was the need to ensure a just transition which ensures that the change towards clean energy and net zero industries does not entrench existing social inequalities.

The Scottish Just Transition Commission has recently shown the importance of close collaboration between government, industries, unions and local communities for effectively managing transitions, providing safety nets, opportunities for re-skilling and jobs in green industries.

With a research portfolio that combines technological innovation with social, economic, policy and skills research, IDRIC welcomed the opportunity to take part in workshops around the launch of the Scottish Government’s new Energy Strategy and Just Transition Plan. We discussed with policy makers, representatives from the energy industry and the Scottish Just Transition Commission the political solutions that need to accompany technological change.

A portfolio of solutions

Meeting net zero emissions by 2050 will require a drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, including finding ways of removing past emissions which have accumulated in the atmosphere over centuries.

As part of the UK Universities’ Climate Innovation Showcase, Prof. Maroto-Valer chaired a debate on whether nature or technology provides the best solution for carbon sequestration. The lively debate with geologists, industry and rewilding experts revealed the diversity and also complementarity of nature-based and technological solutions.

Tree-planting, for example, has become a cornerstone in carbon off-setting efforts, yet the frequent use of commercial plantations has raised concerns about land use, verification and permanence of this form of carbon sequestration. Alternatives, like protecting and restoring existing carbon-sinks such as peat lands and rewilding native woodlands have gained attention for their additional contributions from biodiversity to flood prevention, but often still struggle to attract sufficient funding.

Technological solutions, such as capturing CO2 emissions from industrial processes, from energy production with biomass, or directly from the atmosphere, require higher up-front investments, but have the potential to remove very large quantities of CO2 and store them safely underground for long periods of time.

The debate clearly showed that given the urgency and scale of emissions reductions required, we need to expand our efforts across nature- and technology based solutions.

Towards a post-COP agenda: collaboration and innovation

Technology and innovation are crucial for decarbonising our economies. But there is no silver bullet. We need a portfolio of solutions to mitigate climate change and we need collaboration to speed up the development and deployment of such low-carbon technologies at the local and global scale.

Reaching net zero is a team effort and IDRIC will continue working with industry and academic partners, with policy makers and local communities, to co-develop innovative, inclusive, and sustainable pathways for industrial decarbonisation and mitigating climate change.