40 per cent carbon cuts with smaller scale tech

Greenhouse gas emissions can be cut by 40 per cent in ten years - with no nuclear power and without carbon capture, a new study from the Stockholm Environment Institute claims.

The “40 per cent study” by the Stockholm Environment Institute for Friends of the Earth Europe (FoE) shows that it is possible to cut greenhouse gases emissions from the EU-27 by 40 per cent by the year 2020 and 90 per cent by 2050 with slightly lower economic growth – with no nuclear power and no carbon capture. Some lifestyle changes are implied: less meat, less flying, and more leisure time.

The 40 per cent study cuts most of the emissions in three sectors: electricity, heat, and transport.

Electricity demand is projected to grow fairly rapidly first, and then fall back to 2,800 TWh by 2050, a lot less than the 4,800 TWh in the ECF scenarios (se pages 6-7). The uphill part is motivated by fast electrification to squeeze out fossil fuels for heating.

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is on the whole dismissed, along with nuclear power, as it is “unproven whether it can be commercialised rapidly enough given the urgency of phasing out existing fossil fuel plants. A more general concern is that the promise of CCS could lead to a new generation of so-called ‘CCS ready’ coal-fired power plants which once built will lock society into carbon-intensive power generation.”

As in many scenarios, wind power grows aggressively from some 4.2 per cent of EU electricity today to 22 per cent in 2020 and 55 per cent in 2050. Intermittency is managed by localized energy storage for on-shore wind power. One method is compressed air energy storage, in conjunction with some natural gas for peaks, in the same turbines.

Electric vehicles can, according to FoE, also balance wind power in two ways: they can be charged during off-peak hours, and serve as extra capacity when not used. The cost for wind power with storage can be competitive to coal power with CCS, according to the study. There may be other storage options, such as flywheels, it adds.

The advantage of local storage is that it minimizes the need for new power lines, which are not only expensive but also take a long time to build, assuming a reasonable democratic planning process.

Demand side management (DSM) is also explored:

“New electrical devices and facilities which can be switched down or off when supplies are short also have a large potential to help balance short-term slews in the demand for electricity. Refrigeration, air conditioning, wet appliances and ground source heat pumps are all good candidates for advanced technology centrally controlled DSM and could contribute to significant load levelling.”

The FoE scenario takes 15 per cent of its electricity by 2050 from solar power, both concentrating solar power, some of which is imported from the Sahara, and photovoltaics. Minor contributions are expected from geothermal, wave and tidal power.

As for wind power, “the decade requiring the fastest rate of addition of wind power is 2020–2030 during which time, new wind power is required to be built at a rate of 25 GW/year across all of Europe”. This may sound a lot, but in fact more than 10 GW was added in 2009, so nobody can say it is not feasible.

One of the more striking features of the FoE study is how it projects transport. Car transport is to be reduced in absolute terms. Road transport is to fall a few per cent by 2020 and almost by half by 2050. This is not a large reduction per year, about 1.5 per cent per year on average, but a radical departure from the development we have seen for several decades. Air travel within Europe will follow similar lines. Travel will remain fairly constant, however, because train and bus transport will grow fast. This calls for “a large expansion of the rail network” – more than double the current infrastructure by 2050.

The virtual elimination of emissions from households (from present oil, gas and coal heating) means “an aggressive effort to retrofit housing” to near passive house standards.

Biomass use increases from about 5 exajoules per year to 7 in 2020, but then falls back to 5 exajoules in 2050. Present biofuels (ethanol and rapeseed oil) in transport are given short shrift, though biomass will be used much more widely for combined heat and electricity, until wind and solar overtake it.

Emissions from agriculture are about a tenth of the total now, but have fallen from 579 Mtons CO2-equivalents in 1990 to about 482 today. The reduction so far is not the result of climate policy, but the result of shrinking agriculture. FoE projects that emissions will fall to 363 by 2020 and 213 by 2050, though quite different routes, the first being technical solutions such as changes in fertilizer and livestock practices within Europe, and secondly: “a less meat-intensive diet in Europe would contribute to reduced GHG emissions and allow people to be healthier. The mitigation scenario assumes that by 2020 the average European has switched to a diet which is approximately 60 per cent less meat-intensive than today. This healthier level of meat consumption would result in reduced direct methane and N2O emissions from livestock and lower N2O emissions from fertilizing crops for animal feed inside and outside Europe.” Less cattle, and less land used for growing feed crops, would free up large quantities of land “to growing biomass crops or use for carbon sequestration”.

FoE does not, unfortunately, describe how to achieve this meat reduction, but if it can be done in Europe, through information campaigns, taxation, changing menus in school restaurants or whatever it can contribute to solving several pressing global problems.

  1990 2020 2050
Total 4,786 2,808 549
Electricity and heat production 1,670 760 104
Energy demand 2,404 1,650 259
- of which transport  915 902 159
- of which households 657 332 4

Table: Major emissions development in the mitigation scenario (million tons CO2).

The future projected by FoE also includes an element of dematerialized growth: “While average levels of material consumption would be roughly the same as today (but significantly higher for those residing in the new member states), health care, local leisure opportunities, and other less materials-intensive services would be substantially better for all.”

This may not be a vision shared by everybody, but it makes a good point: Climate policy does not spell the death of politics. The choices are not only about technology but also what kind of society we want.
One problem with the FoE study is that the baseline scenario used as backdrop gives about the same emissions in 2050 as in 1990. This is an unfair representation of European climate politics, inadequate though it is. Not only that. The exponential “more of the same” growth may not be only be unwanted, it may also be impossible, once the oil crunch hits us.

A more interesting comparison is provided by the ECF scenarios. FoE makes a good effort to show that greenhouse cuts are not only about technological fixes. Highly centralized, large-scale solutions in which everybody moves faster are not the only way. But after all it is not all that radical. In the FoE scenario, cement production emissions remain unchanged by 2020 and fall from that level, about 122 Mton, to 75 Mton in 2050.

The reason for using so much cement is that “cement is essential for constructing the transportation infrastructure and buildings that are called for in the mitigation scenario”. The decrease between 2020 and 2050 is dependent on cement substitution for waste products such as slag but also to some extent new “green” cements that do not emit carbon and in some cases actually absorb CO2 over their lifetime. (The much hyped British innovative Novacem claims to achieve this, by substituting calcium-based cement for magnesium-based cement.) It may be wise, as FoE does, not to credit a yet-to-be-developed technology too much. But on the other hand, over a 40 year period it is surely possible to achieve less bulky methods to construct buildings, railways and wind power stations than with Portland cement.

Everything is not small scale in the FoE scenario. It allows for some imports of solar electricity from the Sahara, but not for a ”North-grid” connection of huge amounts of North Sea offshore wind-power, balanced by Scandinavian hydro, between the UK, Ireland, Norway and the continent, though this now looks more realistic for the near term.

Fredrik Lundberg

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