Where are We?
The closure of COP 26 in Glasgow was more disappointing compared to the pomp and pageantry leading towards it. The Glasgow Climate Pact expresses alarm and utmost concernthat human activities have caused around 1.1 °C of warming to date, that impacts are already being felt in every region, and that carbon budgets consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal are now small and being rapidly depleted. Unfortunately, the response is simply the monitoring of carbon equivalent emissions or the global warming potential (GWP) that is measured in carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Such measurements exclude the overall environmental impacts including parameters such as ozone depletion, carcinogens, toxicity, acidification, etc. Thus, this supposed solution to climate change may instead pose higher risks in other ways to the environment and eventually humans. A case in point is nuclear energy which will see a good score under GWP and is readily accepted as a transition and future energy solution. However, the negative impacts of nuclear energy life cycle are ignored under GWP.
It was also disappointing that the COP 26 gave in to the demand to introduce a carbon market as such solution does not solve climate change issues. This is due to the reduction in emission by a party is traded for monetary value by those who do not want to reduce emission or participation in such a market is for aesthetic reasons. What will happen when poorer nations trade their emission savings for monetary value that may not even trickle down to their hardest hit communities? On top of that, the media also reported that emission pledges were made based on flawed data and such report also put in jeopardy the Paris Agreement clauses that promised proper tabulation and reporting. The dust may not settle soon as there is no clear transition path yet to reach Net Zero 2050.
What is Ahead?
Before even a real solution comes in, more transition solutions will flood the market. This is mainly due to the still evolving technologies that are not ready to take over traditional resources that has brought us to where we are now. Natural gas will continue to play a significant role as a “climate friendly” partner to lead the world to Net Zero. Meeting the transition that has smart homes, electric vehicles, batteries and many more, will require expansion ofthe mining sector. Vague terms such as “sustainable mining” and underwater mining are already influencing opinions to justify harvesting the vast resources need.
Utilisation of Renewable Energy (RE) will also be ramped up. In order to phase out fossil fuel, we need a replacement and at the moment RE gives us that option. Hydrogen is another fuel that will shape the future, however, its current availability also uses considerable amount of energy. Thus, a transparent energy balance must be done to ensure resources are put in right places and reach end users at equitable cost.
This chaotic situation will also see phasing out of products, services, businesses and jobs that are tagged with higher GWP. However, all of these come with considerable amount of risks which all of us must face moving forward.
What are the Risks?
Fossil fuel-backed technology as well as its base load demand are becoming more undesirable. Consequently, coal technologies will find it harder to get financing. As the world finds a replacement to such technology, it will continue to face intermittency issues. The recent global energy crunch is induced by few factors including higher RE blend in fuel mix, liberalised electricity market, cartel play by OPEC+ (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries-OPEC and non members) as well as unclear transition path. This uncertainty will cause an unwanted crisis and disrupt day-to-day operation globally. A small disruption in supply chain like the monsoon season that disrupted coal supplies from Indonesia to the global market also causes serious harm globally. Collectively, these situations have proven the inability of RE to step in the gap left by fossil fuel.
Loss of Natural Capital
Replacing and retrofitting all the gadgets, industrial tools and vehicles will need vast amount of resources. Battery technology will play a very important role to bridge the gap left by fossil fuel as well. These resources need to be mined and converted into useful materials to catch up with demand growth. This step will cause huge damage to the existing forest and landscape as well as pollution. There are also proposals for underwater mining that will destroy sea ecosystem, thus, affecting the reliability of sea produce. Forest clearing will significantly impact climate adaptation and mitigation as water scarcity and floods will render huge economic impacts.
Poorer Nations will be left out
Many mining zones will be developed in poorer nations to meet the demand of richer nations. Globally, almost all the nations are geared towards Net Zero target by 2050. Thus, the demand for technological solutions will soon be met with a “policy induced” bottleneck. Increase in demand will eventually increase the cost of technology. Cheap components as well as seamless supply chain are also vital in keeping cost of production low. The recent Covid-19 which triggered supply disruption of chips leading to production delays and cost escalation for electronic products demonstrating the fragility of the situation. Increase in transition and Net Zero technologies will cause the poorer nations to be left to the mercy of low-quality products which was clearly evident during the phase-out of non-energy efficient products that begun more than a decade ago.
A Toxic Tsunami
Electronic waste (e-waste) production surge is already happening. In Malaysia, Association of Water and Energy Research Malaysia (AWER) discovered this issue and suggested a holistic e-waste management a decade ago. The transition and Net Zero phases will multiply the surge of e-waste and other forms of waste as more non-climate friendly operations and technologies will be discarded. Failure to capture the surge of e-waste will lead to probable exposure of these wastes to water and produce harmful leachate that may contaminate the water and food chain. The vast amount of e-waste generation is a serious issue that will further aggravate the dumping of such waste to poorer and developing nation under the disguise of “recycling”. The leachate or wastewater will eventually reach the sea, directly compromising the reliability of sea produce for the global market. Will a Minamata disease type of situation be a new norm post-2050 due to current Net Zero foolishness?
Is There a Solution?
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the key to solve our resources need. The LCA database can evaluate resource input, waste generation, by-products and waste disposal in a facility. Alternatives, optimisation and resource recovery can be developed via LCA in the same facility and this is known as “gate to gate” approach. When we combine many “gate to gate” approaches from resource to final disposal, it then becomes a “cradle to grave” approach. Finally, when we link Design for Environment (DfE), resource recovery and waste to resource, a “cradle to cradle” solution is born. Via “cradle to cradle” solution we create a cycle in our consumption pattern.
DfE is vital to ensure products are designed to meet usage needs. The type of material utilised as well as assembly and disassembly planning will improve recovery of resources that we need. Similarly, identification of wastes that we generate and how it can be resource to another industry or operation is also vital to increase the success rate of the “cradle to cradle” solution and creation of “symbiotic” industrial operations. AWER has proposed regional facilities at the ASEAN level to convert wastes into resources over a decade ago. If ASEAN member states have answered our call, there is a lot of revenue and technological advancement for new product development. Perhaps, they were too busy focusing on the ASEAN grid so that poorer ASEAN members can sell electricity to their richer counterparts.
Equal Voices for Facts
While GWP is a fact that we need to take into account, it is not ethical to use only GWP as a measurement to solve climate change crisis and downplay other global environmental problems. It is vital that an aggregated data and evaluation is done (like the LCA process) to develop holistic views of solutions that are coming forward. This will assist in identifying more reliable and sustainable solutions to reach Net Zero targets that will also contribute to solve other environmental problems.For example, the attempt to qualify nuclear energy as green energy is scientifically flawed.There are technology owners and nations that support this technology now using “Low Carbon Technology” as a platform to qualify not only nuclear but also natural gas as green energy. Unfortunately, the negative impacts to environment of nuclear spent fuel, nuclear disaster (eg. Fukushima Daiichi)and decommissioning process are largely neglected under GWP. Therefore, a holistic view of technology and its environmental impacts based on science and data is vital to ensure unscrupulous entities do not misuse the fight against climate change.
Weed out Transition Fleas
Transitioning to Net Zero is a very critical phase and many old and newer technologies will try to qualify to be a transition flea to benefit from the existing situation. One clear example is nuclear power trying to make a major comeback by adopting terms such as“low carbon.” This is similarly observed for fossil fuel powered natural gas technologies. Additionally, other technologies or solution will resort to quick fixes like carbon trading and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Recently, the Malaysian government introduced Green Energy Tariff (GET) where qualifying companies will be given carbon certificates that they are utilising green energy from solar and hydropower. About 82% of the annual available RE generation is allocated for this purpose. This move will cause existing users’ electricity GWP to increase as they will be left to consume ahigh coal power energy mix that will make electric vehicles a useless solution in Malaysia. Connection to grid by power generation companies are done via proper tender process and the benefits of such technologies should be shared to all users for every kWh (kilo.Watt.hour). The Malaysian grid is also facing a high reserve margin that is double the required reserve margin for a developing nation due to an ineffective regulatory agency. Thus, adding more RE generation capacity is not cost efficient and pass on a heavy burden to consumers. Is it ethical for agovernment to impose a “levy” and allows some richer businesses to steal this environmental benefit from others? This sort of carbon scam schemes will mushroom during and after the transition period so that those involved will be able to make money out of nothing. It is also interesting to note that a good number of international companies are drawn to join such environmental scam.
While the idea of reaching Net Zero target is well intended, it is equally important to reach that target by not creating a new environmental crisis. A global push to urge world leaders to come to their senses is needed and they must not to be too focused on Net Zero without looking at the issue holistically. The burden of developed nations to ensure developing and poorer nations can enjoy a fair treatment to mitigate climate change and other environmental risks is a pledge made in the Paris Accord. They should not shy away from the promises they have made.
“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” – Confucius