How can we tackle the climate emergency through energy, and will the solutions arrive on time?

The energy transition is riddled with complexity, but we need to tackle the complexity head on in order to mitigate the climate crisis currently threatening future generations. What actions can we take to fight climate change? Are we in time to stop the climate tragedy?

By EsadeGeo

Listen to this podcast in Spanish

In this podcast, Marie Vandendriessche, a senior researcher at EsadeGeo, delves into the energy challenges and possible solutions to tackle the climate crisis with Mariano Marzo, Professor of Stratigraphy, Energy Resources and Petroleum Geology at the Faculty of Geology at the University of Barcelona.

Marie Vandendriessche: Good morning. My name is Marie Vandendriessche, I'm a senior researcher at the EsadeGeo Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics. Today Mariano Marzo, a professor at the University of Barcelona, is joining us to talk about climate change solutions. Mariano, thank you very much for being here with us.

Mariano Marzo: Good morning, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Marie Vandendriessche: Recently, the United Nations Environment Programme published some very worrying data about the emissions gap: in order to limit the increase in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, CO2 emissions would have to be reduced by 7.6% annually over the next ten years. What solutions are available to achieve reductions of this magnitude?
 
Mariano Marzo: Although it may not be obvious at first, energy efficiency is the first and most important option that is technologically available to us. This is the first solution: the cleanest energy is the energy we do not use. After efficiency, or at the same time, come renewable energy sources. Together with efficiency, these add up to about 80% of the technical solutions that are currently within reach.

Mariano Marzo
Mariano Marzo and Marie Vandendriessche during the interview at the Faculty of Earth Sciences in Barcelona (Photo: Esade)

Other measures of lesser significance would be the switch from coal to gas and nuclear energy. Nuclear energy needs to be on the table to address the climate change issue, although it is true other resource problems are involved. We also have great expectations regarding new technologies such as carbon dioxide capture and storage, and others are still in the experimental phase.  

Having the ability to reduce emissions by 7.6% annually in ten years’ time will depend on the speed of deployment of new technologies

Having the ability to reduce emissions by 7.6% annually in ten years’ time will depend on the speed of deployment of these technologies and how much we manage to do. I am not optimistic. I believe that this goal remains distant. It's true that we have technologies that could do the job, but not at the pace and speed we need, for several reasons.  

Renewable energies, with the exception of biofuels, are making great progress but there is still no possibility of storing the electricity they generate on a large scale.

Energías renovables
Wind turbines in Austria (Photo: Zbynek Burival/Unsplash)

My answer to the question of whether it would be feasible to reduce emissions at the rate proposed is that I am rather sceptical about it. In fact, I'm afraid we can’t. It might only be possible if, God forbid, we had a lasting global economic recession: to date, periods in which CO2 emissions have dropped have coincided with economic crises.

Another key factor is that everything depends on the technological progress that can be made. We need disruptive innovation that will allow us to develop models that give us a chance to become carbon neutral by 2050 or 2060. If we achieve this goal, we could start working towards reaching negative emissions by the end of the century, by removing from the atmosphere the gases we have already emitted. And this is the only way to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius.

To date, periods in which CO2 emissions have dropped have coincided with economic crises

Marie Vandendriessche: Could you explain what technologies exist to reach negative emissions such as the capture, storage and use of carbon dioxide?

Mariano Marzo: These technologies essentially prevent the CO2 resulting from energy usage from reaching the atmosphere and accumulating there. Energy is at the heart of the problem of climate change because it represents around 65-70% of the total greenhouse gases. C02 is the largest chunk of the pie, but there are also other gases, such as methane and nitrous oxides... 

There are two ways to prevent CO2 from reaching the atmosphere and causing the greenhouse effect: the first is to prevent emissions of carbon dioxide and, if that is not feasible, to clean them up. How? Carbon capture is based on the premise that the best way to remove CO2 is to reuse it. That is, to change it from a harmful waste product to a resource, following a circular economy scheme.

There are several pilot projects under way: companies are removing CO2 from the air through machines that, although they consume energy and are expensive, enable us to reuse the captured CO2 to grow plants, make cement and make biofuels. It is, in some way, turning a problem into an opportunity, through technology.

If we are able to put a price on this waste at a global level (this will not work if some participate and others don’t), this may lead to a great boom in carbon capture and utilisation technologies. There are also other chemical, physical and even natural climate solutions, such as reforestation, which can temporarily prevent the rise in CO2 emissions in order to buy time to develop the technologies that can provide the disruptive progress we need.

Renewable energies are making great progress but there is still no possibility of storing the electricity they generate on a large scale

Marie Vandendriessche: Commercially speaking, how are these negative emissions technologies faring?

Mariano Marzo: There are several plants in operation, but they are very specific. For example, in Canada and the United States coal power plants were built near former oil fields. The carbon dioxide the power plants emit is captured and then re-injected into the subsoil to enhance oil extraction. These technologies of course make electricity production more expensive, but if this cost increase is compensated by more oil extraction, the accounts could balance out.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS)

Carbon capture and storage
Source: European Commission/DG TREN

There are also other plants that re-inject CO2 in abandoned oil fields. In this case, the captured carbon is not reused, but rather stored. One could think that this would be a risky technique as re-injecting gas could build up pressure and lead to seismic events, but at 800 meters underground, CO2 becomes liquid and, if it reacts with carbonates, it can be turned into a mineral.

We are at the beginning of an era of carbon engineering management, but the scale needs to increase, and prices need to come down. Perhaps one of the measures that could be taken at the international level would be to involve all humankind (with those who have more and have caused the problem contributing more) in a "Manhattan project" – of sorts of course, because in that case the purpose was to manufacture the atomic bomb in the United States.

We need to make an enormous investment in accelerating technological breakthroughs, which we most urgently need. If we do not remove the CO2 we have already emitted from the atmosphere, it will be impossible to stay below a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees, even if we stop emitting, which is the prerequisite for removing the already existing emissions.

Marie Vandendriessche: We have known about climate change for many years. In fact, a recent study shows that climate models 50 years ago already had a quite high level of accuracy in their predictions about global warming. And at the international level, we have been discussing climate change for more than 25 years, since the Rio Summit in 1992. What would be different today if we had acted earlier?

Mariano Marzo: The scientific knowledge is available, but we have had to wait to see the first distressing manifestations of what we had anticipated this global warming would come to in order to start reacting. It took the new generations to begin applying pressure, and they were helped along by the revolution of communication technologies and the digital revolution.

Some politicians prefer inaction because they could lose votes by sending messages that are perceived as distressing

I think that, deep down, science often causes a sense of uncertainty because the scientific method is congenital. Scientists do not seek the absolute truth, rather, they aim to decrease uncertainty in a continuous search for truth. And that creates anxiety. Many people do not accept uncertainty easily. They prefer to believe in black and white instead of seeing all the shades of grey unless they begin to feel the consequences for themselves.  

On the other hand, if society does not demand actions, politicians, who have to make the decisions, prefer inaction because they could lose votes by sending messages that are perceived as distressing. Politicians work on a four-year time frame, while we work with a sense of urgency, but over the long term. It is time to be realistic for once and for all. Climate change is a long-term job that requires a scientific approach. The scientific method is good for science, but it doesn't motivate people and that has been the problem.  

Marie Vandendriessche: In essence, climate change is a problem of horizons: There is a too large a gap between emissions, their consequences, actions to mitigate emissions and their benefits. Difficulties abound.

Mariano Marzo: What you just mentioned is very important because lately we are shifting from talking about the energy transition to talking about a climate emergency. Young people in the streets tell us that we must act now. They’re right, but I wonder if they are aware that we are probably not in a place to act immediately, because the time to respond has caught up to us.

We have wasted a lot of time. Possibly, what we have to do is to stop arguing and really start with a rigorous analysis of the problem in order to get a jump on the solution, because this issue is becoming too politicised. It is leading to excessive populism. I think the first step toward solving a problem is to formulate it correctly. 
 
Marie Vandendriessche: Which is the essence of the scientific method. Let’s talk about the energy transition and decarbonisation...

Mariano Marzo: Decarbonisation, as well as decoupling economic and demographic growth from emissions. Last year, the International Energy Agency took stock of emissions growth and found that the main driver of emissions growth is economic growth.

It follows that the economic growth experienced between 2017 and 2018 is what has led us to an increase in emissions in 2018. In other words, yes, we need decarbonisation, but another fundamental aspect must also be taken into account: our socioeconomic growth model is a very important driver of greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, we must also decarbonise the economy. This idea goes far beyond the purely technical issue of decarbonisation. We must fully tackle the socio-economic model. This problem is systemic.

Marie Vandendriessche: We have discussed several technologies to address the problem. If we implemented several of the measures you mention, what kind of political, social and economic consequences might we expect?

Mariano Marzo: The energy transition forces us into uncharted waters. Despite this added layer of urgency, the energy transition will not happen at the same speed throughout the world. There will be multiple speeds according to countries’ specific socio-economic and political realities. 30% of humanity is consuming or has consumed most of the world's energy resources, while 70% of the world's population aspires to similar levels of development. In energy we use the model of the Maslow pyramid, which reveals some priorities that should not be forgotten. The first level of priority is energy access: today more than 2 billion people do not have access to modern energy sources.

Marie Vandendriessche: And the forecast is not good for Sub-Saharan Africa.

Mariano Marzo: Once access to energy is guaranteed, the next step is to ensure that the supply is reliable. The next concern is economic costs. And finally, when you reach the top of the pyramid, the concern is the acceptability of that energy. We may be at the top of the pyramid, but much of the world is still climbing it. We will therefore inevitably see action at different speeds and some will have to pedal faster than others. And that will cause tensions. Another important issue is who will govern the transition.   

The oil of the 21st century will not be hydrocarbons, but the minerals and the new chemical elements that we need to realise the dream of the energy transition

Marie Vandendriessche: There is no global government.

Mariano Marzo: Exactly, there is no global government and in this transition there will be winners and losers. Among the losers, for example, will be the economies that depend on oil and gas exports to survive. And that also base their internal political equilibrium on using the profits from those exports to subsidise the population. Traditional oil will generate geopolitical tensions of enormous magnitude. But the oil of the 21st century will not be hydrocarbons, but the minerals and the new chemical elements that we need to realise the dream of the energy transition, not only for renewables, but also for digitalisation and all that entails. 

And those resources, for better and worse, are in the hands of those who have been able to look ahead: China. The West does not want to open mines, with the exception of some countries such as Australia and the United States. Europe is looking at this phenomenon from a barrier: the population does not want to open new mines, nor do we have a common policy to make investments abroad.  

These minerals will also change the geopolitics of oil and gas, creating another source of tension. In this landscape of geopolitical change, who will govern the transition? 

Marie Vandendriessche: The European Union is beginning to focus on the geopolitics of the energy transition. The priorities of the Commission reflect this shift.

Mariano Marzo: It is very important that the European Union promotes policies to achieve a fair energy transition, but we are racing against the clock: the urgency to act means that all measures have the potential to result in social uproar. That does not mean, however, that there is no awareness or social concern.

To solve this energy emergency on time, the future of the transition rests on two pillars: R&D and good governance. And I would like to end with an important question: are political leaders aware of the governance challenges that lie ahead in attempting to successfully carry out the transition? 

Marie Vandendriessche: And so we end with this question. Many thanks. We have covered a lot of ground, but the message is clear: urgency, innovation and governance will be crucial to success. Thank you very much for the conversation.

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