24th October 2023 - In our previous piece, “The Net Zero Race,” we delved into the seemingly paradoxical situation of escalating fossil fuel dependence even as we champion aggressive net-zero goals. A striking highlight from that exploration was the potential of Waste-to-Fuel technologies, which leverage Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) as a carbon-dense resource, particularly promising for de-carbonizing the aviation sector.
The aviation sector frequently finds itself under scrutiny for hindering efforts towards achieving net zero targets. Politicians are lambasted after they arrive to global summits in private jets – and rightfully so
- the hypocrisy is palpable.
Yet, if we zoom out and view the aviation sector as a part of the bigger picture – in 2022 the aviation sector was reported to make up only 2% of global energy related CO2 emissions.
It begs the question - what makes up the other 98%?
Figure 1 - Global CO2 production by sector (Source: Our World in Data based on Climate Analysis Indicators Tool)
According to data from the Global Climate Action Partnership (Fig. 1), Electricity and Heat production rank first, emitting nearly 16 billion tonnes of CO2 and equivalent greenhouse gases in 2019. It's unsurprising that Electricity and Heat lead in CO2 emissions, given their pivotal role in powering our modern world's activities.
During the European industrial revolution, it was coal that fueled the forges and powered the engines that set humanity on its trajectory of technological advancement at an unprecedented pace, culminating in the Technological Revolution of the late 1800s and early 1900s that saw our appetite for electricity grow exponentially.
Even with significant advancements in renewable energy technologies, coal remains a substantial player, accounting for just over a third of global energy production, despite being the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. The ever-increasing demand for electricity appears to fly in the face of Net-Zero objectives. Highlighting this challenge, Germany recently approved the reactivation of coal-fired plants until March 2024 to prevent potential electrical shortages this winter.
How does this coincide with EU targets to ban the sale of CO2 emitting cars from 2035?
There's no denying that the automotive industry is undergoing a massive transformation. With companies like Ford, Volvo, Honda and Nissan committing to halt the production of internal combustion engine cars by 2035 or sooner, the intent is clear. They aim to align with the European Parlia
ment's mandate and support a cleaner environment.
Moreover, pioneers like Tesla have already set the benchmark by exclusively manufacturing EVs, emphasizing a sustainable future for road transport.
We must take a moment to critically assess: To what extent can these measures truly contribute to the reduction of global CO2 emissions?
It's important to note that EVs are only as clean as the electricity that powers them. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), as of 2020, coal still represented about 37% of global electricity generation, with renewables accounting for around 29%. While the latter figure has been on the rise, the substantial reliance on coal poses a significant challenge.
Transitioning to electric vehicles means an increased demand on our electrical grids. If a significant portion
of that electricity is derived from coal-fired power stations, the net environmental gain from EVs could be minimal. Emissions might be reduced at the tailpipe, but if they're increasing at the power plant, are we genuinely making progress? We'd merely be relocating emissions from tailpipes to smokestacks.
The effectiveness of the shift to EVs in reducing global CO2 emissions hinges on parallel advancements in renewable energy sources. As per the data from the European Environment Agency (EEA), in 2019, the share of renewable energy in the EU's gross final energy consumption was 19.7%. While this represents an upward trajectory, there's a need for accelerated efforts to ensure that the electric future of transport is backed by clean energy.
While the world is swiftly advancing towards electric vehicles, it's essential to consider other viable options that may offer more immediate sustainability benefits. One such avenue that's garnering attention is the use of E-fuels or carbon-neutral fuels.
E-fuels, also known as synthetic fuels or electro-fuels, are produced using carbon dioxide (captured directly from the air or from industrial processes) and hydrogen (sourced from water using renewable electricity). When the CO2 and hydrogen are synthesized using renewable energy, the resultant fuel can be considered carbon-neutral, since the CO2 emitted during its combustion is offset by the CO2 captured during its production.
Banning combustion engines might seem like a logical step when envisioning a green future, but the real goal is carbon neutrality. E-fuels offer a compelling argument to retain combustion engines while still achieving environmental targets. By exploring e-fuels as an interim solution, we could
buy time for the electric infrastructure to mature and the grid to become more sustainable.
However, for e-fuels to be the bridge to a green future, governments, industries, and research institutions must collaborate to invest in research, infrastructure, and public awareness. This multi-pronged approach can ensure that the transition to a sustainable transport sector is smooth, economically viable, and truly beneficial to the environment.
Another aspect to consider is while the environmental advantages of electric vehicles (EVs) are evident, the socio-economic dimensions often lie beneath the surface. One significant concern is the affordability of EVs, especially during these current times of financial instability.
Any push towards greener transport solutions must consider not just the environmental but also the socio-economic implications. Policies need to ensure that the green transition is not just sustainable but also socially just.
Subsidies, tax breaks, and incentives could be diversified to include not just those who buy new EVs but also those who adopt e-fuels or other green alternatives. Additionally, creating financing solutions or affordable leasing options for EVs, enhancing public transportation, and investing in shared mobility can ensure that the path to a sustainable future is accessible to all, irrespective of their financial standing.
In conclusion, as the world grapples with the immense challenge of climate change, our approach to achieving net-zero emissions must be holistic, inclusive, and forward-thinking. While electric vehicles and renewable energy sources present promising avenues towards a greener future, they must be evaluated within the larger context of global energy consumption and infrastructure.
E-fuels, among other innovations, remind us that there are multiple paths to sustainability. It is essential that policies reflect not only environmental considerations but also socio-economic realities, ensuring that the transition to a more sustainable future is equitable and accessible to everyone.
As we stand on the cusp of major technological and societal shifts, it's our collective responsibility to drive change in ways that are both environmentally conscious and socially responsible.
Authors - Toby Williams & Bob Laslett
24th October 2023