We’re now more than halfway through our Opportunities & Challenges In The Energy Sector 2023 series and having previously looked at energy at home, for business, and for travel, it’s now time to turn to one of the other key aspects: our climate.
The UK government has committed to the target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, and now in 2023, we’re just over 51% of the way through this target – a big jump from 43.1% in 2018. The net zero target was first announced as part of the Climate Change Act 2008 with figures based on the greenhouse gas emission levels from 1990, which were estimated at around 800 mtCO2e (metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent). Despite some countries making steady process towards their individual targets, we are not on track to reach global net zero.
As the energy, manufacturing, and transportation sectors are three of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the UK (as well as globally), these are the sectors we must focus on to help us achieve net zero faster and reverse the negative effects on our natural environment. Over the last decade, increased awareness and education around these topics have paved the way for change, however, full-scale adoption is still in the works as incremental changes are being made across the industries.
Emerging technologies are now making it possible to create fuels from algae and the byproducts of wastewater recycling, with early estimates suggesting these natural fuels could cut carbon by 80% compared to standard fossil fuels. This type of fuel is being trialled as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and could make up as much as 12% of fuel used by aircraft as soon as 2030 – substantially reducing carbon emissions and changing the way we travel and transport goods.
Alongside this, we may soon begin to see a rechargeable evolution of zinc-air batteries, with scientists in India, Bangladesh and Spain researching new methods of electrical recharging of zinc-air batteries which could lower costs (as zinc is more widely available than lithium), as well as providing more capacity, longer shelf-life, safer use, and improved recyclability. At present, zinc-air batteries cannot be recycled as the chemical reaction that provides energy for the battery is not reversible, however, evolutions in technology have enabled the creation of prototypes which can be recharged, but further development is required to make this technology market-ready.
This could be a huge step forward across all sectors, as well as making way for further innovations in the digital space. One of the most powerful tools leading the changes we’re observing is software: it helps measure changes in our surroundings, analyse large data sets to create reports that support decision-making, optimise resources in real-time, and lots more. A research paper by The Royal Society discusses this connected approach further by looking at the idea of digital twins and how this concept is helping integrate IoT technology into current systems to generate data across a range of touchpoints and streamline processes – ultimately reducing waste as well as overall business expenditure.
At present, GE is using this technology across several projects including wind turbines to measure the speed of the blades, the air temperature, weather conditions and more. This data is then processed and applied to a digital version of the turbines where the software works to generate simulations and predicated outcomes to suggest improvements in real time. The use of digital twins in this way can improve output, detect damage and system failure sooner, help maintain stability, and prolong the lifespan of the infrastructure. Over a two-year study of digital twins in practice, GE reported a 93-99.49% increase in reliability and savings of $11 million due to failure prevention.
Many industries have embraced the use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools for business, and beyond writing-based versions such as ChatGPT, AI presents an even bigger potential for optimising resources due to the processing speed of modern technology. Last year, in a whitepaper on the changing face of digital health, we explored the possibilities of AI in relation to big data and the expedited detection and treatment of a range of conditions which becomes possible when AI technologies are employed. In a similar vein, businesses within the energy sector can use data inputs from across the world to broaden their understanding of the long-term environmental impacts of infrastructure, monitor changes to air quality, use detailed imagery analysis, and lots more. Combined, these tools can help us react faster to fluctuations as well as predict the best course of action much faster, assisting crisis prevention.
Speaking on the topic of technology in an environmental context, David Hunter, CEO of the conservation company, The Habitat People, walked us through some of the tools used by his team to monitor and preserve natural spaces. Some of the key technologies include “mapping software like ArcGIS, AutoCAD, or MapServe to outline different ecological metrics,” as well as “a range of hardware such as camera traps, live-feed security cameras to observe different species”. These advanced tools together can work to monitor ongoing progress in an area as well as track the effects of carbon offsetting in a wider context, which allows The Habitat People to help businesses become net zero. Alongside physical monitoring, conservation companies can also use AI to predict outcomes in different areas as well as recommend the most suitable actions depending on the local ecosystems and land conditions.
Having worked with a vast range of companies to help them minimise and offset their carbon, David also talked about the difference between clients who use mostly green energy versus clients who solely use traditional fossil fuels and the impact this has on their carbon emissions as well as the environment overall:
“Changing to a renewable energy firm has a massive impact on a company’s carbon emissions. Often this is the largest part (outside of the supply chain) of a firm’s carbon emissions, and the sooner we can get off of fossil fuels, the better chance we have as a species of surviving the climate crisis. Nowadays it is cheaper to run solar and wind than to burn coal, so there really isn’t an excuse for not changing over!”
With the steps being taken by individuals and businesses right now, we also wanted to know how soon (feasibly) the UK could reach net zero and what could be done to speed up this process – David said:
“Right now I am sceptical about the UK reaching net zero by 2050. There is a shift, but it is very slow (although gathering pace!) and too little too late. Respectfully, 2050 is far, far too late for net zero. By 2050, over a billion people are estimated to be climate refugees, and large parts of the world will be inhospitable. We need to act now, as fast as we can. 2030 or 2035 would mean we can still mitigate most of the damage. The economy can do it, we as businesses can do it, it just has to happen now, or there are going to be severe consequences for businesses and us as a whole.”
While the uptake of sustainable and “green” initiatives is observable, there is still a strong resistance against change and further education in these areas is required if we are to meet our net zero goal as well as maintain this momentum moving forward. Reaching net zero is not enough if the plan isn’t sustained beyond this to ensure further damage to our environment is minimised. As UN Climate Change High-Level Champions, Nigel Topping and Mahmoud Mohieldin, explain, “there is no net zero without nature” – predicting that “nature positive policies” could generate in excess of $10.1 trillion in business opportunities as well as create over 395 million jobs by the end of this decade.
Alongside this, Nigel also predicts that global net zero could be possible by 2042. In an interview at COP26, he commented on governments’ fast responses to COVID-19 and stressed that the same emergency response is required to address the climate crisis now – adding that strong relationships between governments and the private sector are critical to executing this plan successfully.
These changes will undoubtedly require technology to enable them to deliver measurable impact and long-term results as there is no one-size-fits-all solution internationally. Predictions by McKinsey additionally suggest that collaborations will be key in the plan to get to net zero – with first movers seeing the biggest benefits of investing in climate technologies (and fast movers potentially struggling to keep up in this rapidly-changing landscape).
Find out more about how technology is changing the energy sector and helping provide better services to clients throughout our article series or contact our team to start your project.
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