A green Covid-19 recovery

Renewable energy
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Building sustainability into the UK exit strategy from the pandemic is a win-win-win for the climate, public health and the economy.

We need to take what the pandemic has hit us with and set in stone new, better developments to make more rapid progress towards a sustainable future.

Voices across the world from the head of the United Nations (UN) through to the UK’s prime minister and leading economists have called for a “green recovery” that “builds back better”, by cutting CO2 emissions as well as boosting the economy. But what does a “green recovery” actually entail?

In short, a green recovery is one that will benefit all of us and our planet for years to come. 

Building sustainability into our exit strategy from the pandemic is a win-win-win for the climate, public health and the economy.

Emissions

Cleaner air quality, healthier water, effective waste management, and enhanced biodiversity protection not only reduce the vulnerability of communities to pandemics and improve resilience, but have the potential to boost economic activity, generate income, create jobs, and reduce inequalities.

There’s been a lot of talk around the seven percent reduction in global CO2 emissions since COVID-19 took hold and stole our ability to travel.

This has been the biggest reduction in emissions of any economic breakdown in history, including after the Second World War and 2008’s financial crash. 

However, in reality, as with the financial crash in 2008, COVID-19 is likely just a delay in the continual rise of greenhouse gas emissions.

If we think of emissions like a bathtub filling up with water then in 2020, the taps were just turned down, not off. The water, or CO2 in this case, is flowing more slowly, but the bath is still filling up to the brim. 

Leadership

CO2 emitted today will remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, and absorbance of it by land and sea takes time, so short term dips in emissions aren’t enough for a sustainable future.

The current recovery plan from the pandemic incorporates two phases - ‘rescue’ and ‘recovery’. Whilst the initial ‘rescue’ phase of COVID-19 focuses on keeping people employed and businesses afloat, it’s the recovery phase that we can choose to make ‘green’ or not.

Of the world’s 20 biggest economies, only the UK, Germany and France as individual countries, and the EU as a whole, are planning for a green recovery in which the benefits to the climate and nature outweigh the negative impacts, according to an analysis for the Finance for Biodiversity initiative.

In the UK, the government has announced more than £5 billion to support a green recovery, and as the host of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021, the government is keen to show leadership. 

Deforestation

It has therefore pulled together a 10-point green industrial revolution plan which includes: 

  • quadrupling offshore wind potential over the next 10 years
  • advancing nuclear power, both large and small scale
  • using hydrogen and carbon capture in industry 
  • advancing electric vehicles
  • making public transport, cycling and walking more accessible
  • making homes more energy efficient e.g. converting gas boilers to heat pumps 

The government also needs to revamp the subsidy system for energy and food industries and set new rules and incentives for farming, deforestation and waste management.

Weather

In December 2020, Boris Johnson committed to ending taxpayer support for fossil fuel projects overseas as soon as possible - promising news, but ‘as soon as possible’ needs a set deadline in the immediate future if we’re to begin to turn the climate crisis on its head.

Renewable energy increased to a record 47 percent of total energy use in the UK in the first quarter of 2020 compared to 36 percent in 2019. This is set to increase to 76 percent by 2050. 

This means that the use of fossil fuels is falling, which is good news. However, the problem with renewables at present is intermittency and storage.

Wind power is only generated when it’s windy, and solar power is only generated when it’s sunny. We need some level of predictability with our energy generation, or we risk mass blackouts or wasting energy when we create more power than we need. 

The solution is a clean alternative to fossil fuels, which, unlike solar and wind renewables, can be used at any moment of the day or night, whatever the weather conditions.

Vehicles

Green hydrogen has the potential to be this clean, predictable alternative. It would work by taking excess energy from wind and solar, and using it to electrolyse water, separating the hydrogen from the oxygen.

The benefits are many, from powering household appliances to electric cars, to transporting renewable energy. 

The catch has always been the cost of making green hydrogen because, even if it is carbon-free, it is energy-intensive. However, that is changing, because for the past two years, improvements in renewable energy technology have seen renewable electricity costs plummet.

While efforts in the renewable sector are commendable, the UK is unlikely to meet its legally binding goal of cutting overall emissions to net-zero by 2050, unless progress in the electricity sector is matched by reductions in other parts of the economy, such as heating and transport.

Electric cars have been on the scene for a while now, and with the ban of new petrol and diesel cars in place by 2030, sales are expected to surge. Plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles accounted for more than one in ten vehicle registrations in 2020, up from one in 30 in 2019. 

Mining

However, it is important to address the huge implications for our natural resources not only to produce green technologies like electric cars, but to keep them charged. 

The government aims for almost every car and van on the road to be zero emission by 2050. This would require just under double the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, 75 percent of the world’s lithium production and at least 50 percent of the world’s copper production.

Professor Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences Department, Natural History Museum said: “Our role as scientists is to provide the evidence for how best to move towards a zero-carbon economy – society needs to understand that there is a raw material cost of going green and that both new research and investment is urgently needed for us to evaluate new ways to source these. This may include potentially considering sources much closer to where the metals are to be used.” 

Currently, electric cars rely on lithium and cobalt batteries to run, which, whilst undoubtedly better for the environment than carbon, aren’t entirely clean. 

At least 60 percent of cobalt comes from the Dominican Republic of Congo where children as young as seven years old are mining it. The mining also causes pollution in local rivers.

Global

Demand for lithium has risen around the world from 250,000 tonnes to 800,000 tonnes in the last few years, and its current deposits are located near some of the most sensitive ecosystems in the world - The Amur River, on the border of Russia and China, the Andes Mountains (Chile) and the Salt Flats in Bolivia.

Deforestation, water shortages and toxic leaks are unfortunately a consequence of lithium mining. 

However, lithium is relatively abundant, and could in theory be generated from seawater in future.

In Britain, there are exciting developments in the lithium industry, with British Lithium and Cornish Lithium in Cornwall potentially holding the key to the UK’s decarbonised electric future.

While the UK may not be a global player, to be able to produce what it needs would place it at a serious advantage over non-lithium- producing countries.

Heat

Of course, we need to do something about the aviation sector too, which is no small feat. There is exciting research being done on the use of ammonia as the aviation fuel of the future for a zero-emission aircraft.

Because of its use across the globe as fertilizer in farming, ammonia is one of the most plentiful chemicals that humans produce, and while requiring considerable energy to make, the process is already at an enormous scale for farming.

This means a fast transition to a sustainable aviation future is possible at low cost.

The government has announced that by 2025, all new homes will be banned from installing gas boilers and will instead be heated by low-carbon alternatives. The main new sources will be heat pumps, or, as mentioned above, green hydrogen. 

Your bog-standard gas boiler uses gas to heat water until it is hot. The hot water then flows through pipes to the various radiators you have in your home, which produce the heat that warms the room.

Incentive

Heat pumps on the other hand, use renewable electricity to move heat from a cool area to a warm one, which makes the warm space warmer in the winter and the cool space cooler in the summer.

Because heat is simply moved (instead of generated), this method of heat can provide up to four times the amount of energy it consumes, giving you an impressive 50-60 percent reduction in your greenhouse gas pollution footprint, and shouldn’t increase your energy bill. 

However, we do need to shift our heating behaviour if heat pumps are to take off. Heat pumps work well in well-insulated houses but the majority in the UK are older builds and poorly insulated.

Heat pumps also work better at lower temperatures but continuously, rather than in short bursts, which is how we use our heating currently. 

Converting from boilers to heat pumps could require complete re-piping of houses too, which requires financial incentive for people to transition, if their current boilers work well.

Production

There are now vouchers worth up to £5,000 or £10,000 to install a heat pump in your home available to homeowners and landlords in England under the Green Homes Grant scheme, and this is progress. 

Asides from boiler replacements, increased insulation and smart heating controls, enabling you to automatically adjust the heating according to the weather and to whether or not you're at home, will pave the way towards greener homes.

The agricultural and food sector, which is among the most vulnerable to climate change, is an important contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, a major water user, and source of pollution. 

The green recovery provides an opportunity to improve long-term productivity, sustainability, and resilience of global food systems by removing price-inflating and trade-distorting measures that discourage production changes and encourage an overuse of natural resources.

Financial support to farmers should be introduced on the success of multiple services rather than one e.g. food production.

Investment

For example, a system that is good at producing food but bad at water management with high pollution output would score poorly; and a system that scores well for water storage, flood mitigation, wildlife, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, pollination and pollution amelioration would receive most support. 

In December 2020, those seeking either a jobseeker's allowance or universal credit was almost double that of March 2020, and UK unemployment is set to reach 2.6 million by mid 2021. 

It is therefore essential that governments work on a green recovery that eases the social divide, and increases job opportunities. 

Various “green” sectors and activities offer significant prospects for job creation. For example, renewable energy such as solar, employs more people per unit of investment and energy than fossil-fuel generation.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that renewable energy could employ more than 40 million people by 2050.

Transition

Energy efficiency also offers significant opportunities for rapid job creation, with the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimating potential of up to 2.5 million new jobs per year as part of recovery efforts. 

The transition to a greener economy undoubtedly requires new skills, both for newly emerging jobs and for existing jobs that are evolving. Without a suitably trained workforce, the transition will be impossible. 

Skills gaps and shortages are already recognised as a major bottleneck in a number of sectors, such as renewable energy, energy and resource efficiency, renovation of buildings, construction, environmental services and manufacturing. Investment in skills and education should be an integral part of recovery plans. 

The UK committee on climate change emphasised the role of people in the recovery journey ahead, with 50 percent of emission reduction requiring consumer choices e.g. heat pumps and electric vehicles. 

Obviously, the government needs to support the transition, but we are fundamentally part of the story.

Future

The key is to take the risk and purchase green energy and transport alternatives where you can, and keep talking about climate change and not let this subject fade on the political agenda post COVID-19. 

One quote that really resonated with me in an article recently from Gaby Hinsloff of The Guardian is: “This crisis could end up being less like the banking crash and more like a war, an event throwing everything high enough into the air that some of it never returns to Earth.”

Despite causing suffering, inequality and unemployment, COVID-19 has also created a strange window of opportunity to think about how we manage our daily lives. 

We need to take what the pandemic has hit us with and set in stone new, better developments to make more rapid progress towards a sustainable future.

This Author

Sophie Johnson is a Zoology graduate and passionate conservation blogger from the UK.

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