I’m here in Glasgow, at the Sustainable Innovation Forum (#SIF21 in the Climate Action Innovation Zone), a side event for COP26. One issue keeps coming up: Some people claim that we have all the technology we need — we just need the will to implement it.
I don’t think that’s true. For example, I listened to a presentation about shipping that shows there’s a huge cost differential between fossil fuel and alternative energy for powering the large freight ships that transport goods around the world. Hydrogen and biofuels are not ready to carry this load — they’re too expensive and we don’t know enough about these alternative fuel sources to scale them up yet.
As companies in so many other sectors set hard science-based targets, it won’t be sustainable for these companies to just ignore this, as they fall squarely into the Scope 3 emissions that their customers want to minimize. This is clearly an area where we need innovation and we needed it yesterday.
If not oil / propane / methane, then what? Do they stick with fossil fuels but find ways to abate the impact with small-scale carbon capture? Is it hydrogen? Biofuels? A return to sailing days that use wind, perhaps supplemented with one of these alternatives?
This last option may sound like a romantic fantasy but wind turbine technology gets better and better every year, and it could be that we can leverage what we’ve learned from that to find a way to propel ships with power the ships generate themselves.
The shipping companies have a lot of knowledge they need to build as they make these key decisions:
- How do hydrogen systems work in a marine environment?
- How much competition will there be for biofuels, which are themselves limited to the land we can devote to producing them?
- Is there any way to harness the power of the sun, the wind or ocean currents to reduce the energy that these ships have to carry?
- Would localized carbon capture be an easier retrofit than hydrogen?
- Is small-scale nuclear (at the scale of a nuclear submarine) an option? Perhaps not the first option we’d choose, but if we have to go there because nothing else is powerful enough, how do we make it safe enough?
We need to run experiments that answer questions like these, to build the knowledge to guide decisions. We need to pursue multiple alternatives, eliminating potential solutions only when they prove to be nonviable. And we need to avoid committing to final solutions with major investments until they’ve proven themselves, so that those investments don’t consume precious resources.
Cargo ships have long lifespans: 25-30 years. The decisions these companies make about the ships they’ll produce in the next five years will determine whether or not these vessels are able to contribute to a Net Zero future directly, or whether their emissions will need massive offsets. These decisions directly impact the long-term viability of these businesses, and that of global supply chains that were built before we started tracking the carbon cost of all the transportation required.
This is just one example of an area where clearly the solutions we have today are not scalable or sustainable enough. We need innovation to close the gap.
I agree that we need the will to implement the technology that we already have. If you own a building with a roof in an area that gets adequate sun exposure, it’s time for you to install a rooftop solar system. If you have the ability to add charging capacity to your garage, it’s time to buy an electric car.
For the areas of our economy that are harder to decarbonize, and there are many, we need to fund, nurture and accelerate innovation in order to accelerate net zero.