Getting to ‘net-zero’ emissions

A lively market in carbon offsets is developing, as the need for more renewable power grows substantially.

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  1. Charles Stanley

Getting to ‘net zero’ for many companies and countries means finding plenty of offsets for the greenhouse gases they will still be producing in 2050 – when they aim to meet that target.

Though there are plans for a hydrogen economy using the gas produced from renewable power to fuel ships, HGVs and heating systems, this may not have replaced all fossil fuel transport and heating by 2050 as it is a vast change to many expensive systems. Nor may there be an easy fix to greenhouse emissions by aviation. People may stay wedded to meat and dairy products, which are usually taken up more extensively as people become better off.

The climate change policy planners have been willing to offer carbon offsets to people and companies that simply find getting to zero emissions too difficult.

A carbon offset is an investment or expenditure on projects which either lower other people's carbon emissions or provide carbon sinks to absorb the gases being released by the non-compliant activities.

Carbon offsets are popular with celebrities who want to retain favour with the green section of their fan base, but who are unable or unwilling to adjust their lifestyles. An actress or a sports star can provide cash to invest in trees or renewable energy. Businesses work out how much greenhouse gas their international jet flights, hotel stays, and the rest, generates – and advises them on how much offset to buy.

The same is true of some large corporations. Worried about the views of their investors and customers over their use of fossil fuels in their processes and supply chains, they too buy carbon credits to show they are concerned and end up at net zero for activities they offset.

System needs to be secure

This system of carbon credit provision and trading needs careful policing. There are leaders in providing global certification of a carbon credit. The British Standards Institution offers PAS 2060 as a standard. This requires strict definitions and follow up audit. If, for example, someone pays for some trees to be planted they need to show they paid for the trees, that the trees will not be cut down shortly afterwards but will stay growing as a carbon sink, and assurance that the owner of the trees will not sell another certificate against the same planted trees.

Similarly, if a company provided money for an emerging country to build a windfarm there would need to be proof it had been built, that it was producing power and was being properly manged and maintained to carry on fulfilling this need. The price of carbon – more accurately of greenhouse gas offset – varies. Individuals and companies can choose between providers and methods of offsetting and can seek to find the cheapest ways if they wish.

All this is creating pressure for more entrepreneurs and investors to get on financing a whole range of new projects to green the world and build back better. Putting more trees in is one of the easiest and most flexible ways. Building a new nuclear power station is one of the most expensive and complex. In between are drives to increase fuel efficiency in homes and business, projects to set up more renewable power, projects to convert transport and homes to electrical power and money for technical break throughs for new power sources and new ways of doing things,

The first-round impact of new approaches is usually higher costs until the economies of scale arrive that popular breakthroughs might bring. It is true that once you have built your wind farm running it is cheaper than burning gas in a power station. The big growth in wind energy has brought down the costs of new provision. It is also the case that you need back up capacity because the wind does not always blow, and need to expense the large up front capital investments of both the windfarm and any back up over the lifetime of the facility.

All the major economies need to increase electricity capacity in renewables and ensure sufficient reliable back up which may include large battery resources. Electric vehicles alone will require a substantial increase in power delivered to households, whilst electric heating will increase the strains on grids and generation further.

The more renewable power there is on the system relying on interruptible sources like wind and sun, the more stand by capacity there needs to be. There will be more time management of loads, with businesses offered incentives to stop using power at busy times or required to pay high tariffs if they do. One of China’s defences for having so much coal generation and new coal underway is the need to keep reliable baseload electricity for industry.

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