5 tech-highlights from COP26 – in the midst of political struggles

Guest writer: Nick Butler, Visiting Professor at King’s College, London

5 – 1.  Not the score from a Premiership football match between Liverpool and Manchester but a judgment of the achievements of the COP 26 meeting in Glasgow balanced between technology and politics.

It would be wrong and unfair to disparage the valiant efforts of the officials and Ministers who have spent months and years seeking to construct a global deal which would keep emissions to levels below the threshold at which global warming could exceed 1.5 degrees.  The prospect of such a deal being reached in Glasgow never seemed real. National interests diverge too much, particularly when they involve the millions of jobs and livelihoods associated with natural resource businesses.

Advances in international cooperation come slowly and are always partial.  That was the case in Glasgow.   New declarations from countries such Poland, Vietnam and Ukraine brought the total number of states committed to phasing out their use of coal to 40 but most of the world’s main coal users and producers including China, India, Russia, the US, and Australia did not participate.  100 nations agreed to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 but Russia and India did not sign up, and the Chinese commitment remains unspecific.  An agreement on international finance was promoted involving the suspiciously high large sum of $ 130 billion but on closer examination turned out not to involve a direct shift of capital into low carbon projects.   The joint statement from China and the US to work together on the issue of climate change was welcome but lacked any hard targets.

In the end the level of progress was limited that the clearest conclusion from Glasgow is that there will be another meeting next year.

All this showed the limitations of political dialogue at the global level and the need for different forms of climate diplomacy with the necessary dialogue held in private and focused issue by issue rather seeking an all-embracing solution.

At best the COP 26 event confirmed the direction of change – a confirmation which is of course welcome.  On any realistic assessment it served, as former President Obama stressed in his speech, mainly to display the wide divergence of urgency felt about the issue of climate change between the different participants.

Technology moves fast

The sense of relative failure with which COP26 ended should be balanced, however, by the palpable evidence of progress on the technologies which will in the end provide solutions.  Great steps forward are being made towards low-cost low carbon solutions which, through the simple operation of market forces rather than any political consensus, will encourage even the most reluctant participants to embrace the energy transition.  To justify the score line I quoted at the beginning here are five examples which caught my attention in Glasgow.  There are numerous other advances which I could have quoted.

  1. The announcement that small modular nuclear reactors, capable of being built in factory conditions and of being used on existing nuclear sites are being given the go ahead to proceed to the development stage.  Rolls Royce believes the first SMRs, each one of which can produce 470 MW of power can be onstream in ten year’s time.  Built in series with reduced construction times and materially lower costs SMRs offer a viable alternative to the large scale reactors such as the European Pressurised Reactors at Flamanville and Okiluito which remain under construction years late and billions of Euros over budget.

  2. The development of low carbon steel using green hydrogen instead of furnaces powered by coking coal. Among the many projects under discussion in Glasgow were the joint venture between the Swedish steel manufacturer SSAB, the iron producer LKAB and Vattenfall and the plans by Mercedes Benz to deliver a carbon neutral fleet of vehicles within 20 years.

  3. The plan by Aker’s wind and clean hydrogen businesses to use 10 GW of floating wind capacity in the North Sea to produce green hydrogen for onward transmission to a net zero hydrogen refinery in Shetland.  That facility will produce zero carbon energy solutions, including ammonia, liquid hydrogen and synthetic fuels for local use and for export.

  4. The fourth, also linked to hydrogen was the plan announced by Mitsubishi to use the base of its existing large frame gas turbines by develop 30 percent hydrogen co-firing  gas turbine technologies for the decarbonisation of thermal power generation and to continue research work on the potential for 100 per cent hydrogen combustion.

  5. The fifth encouraging sign is the development of several serious investment funds capable of picking up new advances from universities and small businesses which they believe can be built and applied at scale across the world.  The proliferation of such venture capital activity is reminiscent of the process through which both the development of both IT and medical technologies have advanced in the last twenty years.  The list of potential investors in new projects now includes the major traditional energy businesses including BP and Shell who see change in the energy market coming and who have the resources and the global reach to turn scientific technical advances and turn them into large scale businesses.

Not all these ventures will succeed but the range of activity evident in Glasgow should be a source of genuine optimism. Extinction is not inevitable. When it comes to human survival and progress, scientists and engineers are proving to be more important and more successful than the politicians.