Global connections

Cash, coal, cars and trees: reflections on COP26

In the first two weeks of November 2021, official negotiators and civil society observers converged on Glasgow, the British Empire’s ‘second city’ for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, i.e. COP26. Delayed by a year due to Covid, for the thousands of delegates and many more campaigners, it was a first experience of mass, in-person interaction since before the pandemic, and they brought a buzz to the West of Scotland conurbation that’s been my home for 16 years.

By Keith Bell

University of Strathclyde (UK) and a member of Study Committee C1

COP26 was billed as the most important COP since Paris in 2015 (COP21). It had much important business to conclude from COP21: the ‘Paris rulebook’ on monitoring of emissions and treatment of offsets, delivery on promises of finance from high to low income countries and updates of pledges on emissions reductions by 2030 – the ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs). The diplomatic effort leading up to COP26 had delivered a number of significant wins with many countries, including Japan, South Korea and China[1], committing to net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets for the first time with India later following suit[2].

It’s relatively easy to make promises that don’t need to be delivered on for up to 50 years. However, GHGs are already in the atmosphere and continue to be pumped out, temperatures continue to rise and it takes time to make the necessary substantial changes to industries and daily life. Action is needed in the next decade and, sadly, the submitted NDCs failed to add up to what’s needed to meet the Paris commitment, i.e. to keep global temperature rise to well below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels[3]. Finance targets were also missed and a push from poorer countries for strong action on ‘loss and damage’ to help them deal with the consequences of climate change was largely resisted by the wealthier countries that had industrialised first.

More positively, the rulebook was concluded and there was a promise to revisit the NDCs next year rather than wait for 5 years. The UK, holding the COP presidency, choreographed a series of announcements of coalitions – non-binding, but significant if action follows – on methane, energy, EVs and deforestation[4]. This momentum led to the Glasgow Climate Pact, in which a COP made formal reference to fossil fuels for the first time, even if a last-minute change meant mention of ‘phasing down’ rather than a ‘phasing out’ of ‘inefficient’ coal subsidies[5].

Reduction of GHG emissions depends on action across all sectors. Changes on the demand side will be essential in respect of food (having a massive impact on the use of land and deforestation) and travel. The use of energy will also need to become much more efficient. Alongside this, the next decade needs to see an accelerated transition to renewable sources in the generation of electricity. If some governments are hesitating to make this commitment, it might be because they lack confidence that it can be done without risks to the reliability of supply and national economies.

Looking closely at decarbonisation of electricity production, we might identify an ‘exit’ and two main ‘entry’ challenges. The ‘exit’ challenge concerns a managed decline of the coal industry. This is as much a political and economic issue as anything else; it will be especially difficult for developing countries that have few indigenous energy resources besides coal.

Recent history in developed economies provides some indication of the problems ahead. In my own country – the UK – the sudden contraction of the coal industry in the 1980s (which had little to do with climate action) led to decimation of many local economies. Alongside closure of much of the manufacturing sector, driven by globalisation, this has had a long lasting impact on British politics and was arguably a contributor to the public sentiment that supported the Brexit vote. Meanwhile, in the US, President Biden’s huge programme of climate action and economic renewal has seemingly been scuppered by a single Democratic Senator in Virginia with close ties to the coal industry[6].

The first ‘entry’ challenge concerns an energy system dominated by variable renewables: where is the energy going to come from when it’s not windy and not sunny?

Issues around the variability of wind and solar power (and, over the medium term, hydropower) might be summarised as relating to the extremes of residual demand, i.e. the difference at any moment in time between demand and the total power available at that time from low carbon, variable resources. There will be periods of large surpluses – which might lead to ‘spilling’ of energy – and deficits.

Flexible demand will be extremely important in helping to manage within-day fluctuations but it will be of limited value during extended ‘wind droughts’. A country blessed with the right physical geography for hydro power will be in a very different position from one that isn’t so lucky but, even then, the impact of reservoir developments on natural capital and the displacement of local communities should not be underestimated.

Historically, management of the variability of demand has depended on stores of energy, via hydro reservoirs and fossil fuels. With unabated use of the latter eliminated, other forms of storage become essential. With the potential for economies of scale and the ability to move energy through both time and space and support multiple uses, hydrogen might finally have its day as an energy vector, in spite of limited conversion efficiencies.

Another solution is interconnection with neighbouring countries, creating the ability to share complementary resources and diversity in the timing of demand. The idea of a global grid allowing this on an unprecedented scale has been floated by academics and a vision of it was set out by the President of State Grid Corporation of China at the 2012 CIGRE Session, leading to two CIGRE Working Groups on the subject, C1.35 and C1.44. At COP26, the governments of India, the UK, the US, Australia and France launched a collaboration they called “One Sun, One World, One Grid” or the “Green Grids Initiative” with a resolution to “combine our efforts and create a more inter-connected global grid”, a declaration said to have been endorsed by 81 other countries[7].

To a degree, satisfying need at either extreme of residual demand is less dependent on technology than it is on regulatory and market structures: how they influence investment in generation and storage capacity and the enabling of flexible demand.

If my first ‘entry’ challenge lies at one end of a logarithmic temporal scale – hours to weeks – my second lies with things that vary at the other: seconds down to microseconds. This relates to the increasing use of inverter-based resources. The many engineering challenges are often summed up as concerning “system strength”, yet this catch-all term seems unhelpful to me: while inter-related, the different challenges don’t all have to have the same solution and cannot be seen solely from the perspective of a system represented by a single Thevenin equivalent. I believe we should talk explicitly about the issues on their own terms: the impacts of low fault levels on the operation of protection; the effects of voltage dips on angle and frequency stability; and the inter-operability of converters and their effects on regulation of voltage magnitudes and angle separation[8].

CIGRE was founded as a collaborative global community committed to the creation and sharing of power system expertise. We have a clear role to play in developing and demonstrating options to enable the energy system transition, not least helping policy makers to feel confident in committing to a future power system free from unabated use of fossil fuels[9].

The “Green Grids Initiative” envisages a global effort to transfer knowledge between different countries on the design and operation of low carbon electricity systems. How can we actively support such initiatives, especially in enabling more widespread access to clean energy for lighting, cooking and communication, and breaking the historic correlation between greenhouse gas emissions and economic development?

As Working Group 1 of the IPCC stated categorically in August 2021, adverse impacts from climate change are already evident in all parts of the world[10], whether through shortage of water or incidence of forest fires in summer, or increased frequency and severity of storms in winter. The work of CIGRE and its members therefore also needs to address, with increasing urgency, the question of how we adapt to climate change.

Although the NDCs submitted to COP26 fail to add up to enough to give us confidence of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C, it would be wrong to think of it being too late for action: every tenth of a degree of warming that is avoided is crucial to making adaptation easier and minimising the threat climate change poses to life and livelihood.

If too many politicians fail to take the need for action seriously enough, it is left to engineers, businesses and citizens to take the lead. Our children and grandchildren demand nothing less.

Global Connections

Global Connections Section includes invited articles and interviews along with CIGRE articles to broaden global power system expertise. Invited authors and interviews approved by the Electra Editorial Board may express opinions solely their own.

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