November 13, 2022

Challenges in COP 27: Private Greed of Capital vs Society’s Survival

Prabir Purkayastha

COP 27 is underway in Sharm el-Sheikh. Although the Ukraine War and the US mid-term elections have shifted our immediate focus away from how we are faring in our battle against global warming, it still remains a central concern of our epoch. Reports indicate not only are we failing to meet our climate change goals, but we are also failing them by a large margin. Worse, the potent methane greenhouse gas emissions have grown far more rapidly, posing as much of a climate change threat as carbon dioxide, even though methane lasts for a shorter time in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

The net result is that we are almost certain to fail in our target to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degree centigrade. And if we do not act soon, even 2 degrees C target is hard to achieve. At this rate, we are looking at a temperature rise of  2.5-3 degrees C and the devastation of our civilisation. Worse, the impact will be much higher in the equatorial and tropical regions, where most of the world’s poor live. 

In this column, I will address two issues. One is the shift from coal to natural gas as a transitional fuel, and the other is the challenge of storing electricity, without which we cannot shift successfully to renewable energy. 

The advanced countries – the US and European Union – bet big on natural gas, or methane, as the transition fuel from coal. In Glasgow COP 26, advanced countries even made coal the key issue, shifting the focus from their greenhouse emissions to that of China and India as big coal users. The assumption in natural gas as a transitional fuel before switching entirely to renewables is that its greenhouse impact is only half that of coal. Methane emissions also last for a shorter time – about 10 years – in the atmosphere before converting to carbon dioxide and water. The flip side is that its greenhouse effect is 84 times that of an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide, so even a much smaller amount of methane has a much more significant impact than carbon dioxide. 

The bad news on the methane front is that methane leakage from the natural gas infrastructure is much higher, possibly up to six times – according to a Stanford University Study – than the advanced countries have been telling us. The high methane leakage from natural gas extraction not only cancels out any benefits of switching to natural gas as an intermediary fuel but could even worsen global warming. 

There are two sets of data on methane now available. One is that we can measure the actual leakage of methane from the natural gas infrastructure with satellites and planes using infrared cameras. The technology is easy and cheap. After all, we are able to detect methane in exoplanets far away from the solar system. Surely, saving this planet from heat death is a much higher priority! 

The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in the US estimates that 1.4 per cent of all natural gas produced in the US leaks into the atmosphere. A recent Stanford University study using cameras and small planes that fly over natural gas infrastructure found that the figure is likely to be six times higher or about 9 per cent! Even if methane leaks are only 2.5 per cent of natural gas production, it will offset all the benefits of switching from coal to natural gas. “Clean” natural gas may be dirtier than even dirty coal, at least in the hands of capital!

EPA does not conduct any physical measurements. All it does is use a formula that uses a number of subjective factors, along with the number of wells, length of pipelines, etc., to estimate methane emissions. Let us not forget that a large section of the US does not believe in global warming. They would like to dismantle all measures to reduce global warming. 

The impact of methane leaks can be seen in another set of figures. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reported the biggest jump in “methane concentrations in 2021 since systematic measurements began nearly 40 years ago.” While WMO remains discreetly silent on why this jump has occurred, the relation between switching to natural gas and the consequent rise of methane emissions is hard to miss. 

The tragedy of methane leaks is that they are easy to spot with today’s technology and not very expensive to fix. But capital has no incentive to take even these baby steps as it impacts their current bottom line. The larger good – even bigger profits – but over a longer time frame does not interest capital. It has to be forced on capital by regulatory or direct State action.

The cynicism of the rich countries – the EU and the US – on global warming can be seen in their conduct during the Ukraine War. The EU has restarted some of its coal plants, increasing coal’s share in the energy mix. Further, it has cynically argued that developing oil and gas infrastructure in Africa is all right as long as it is solely for supply to Europeans, not for African use. The Africans must instead use only clean, renewable energy! And, of course, such energy infrastructure must be in the hands of European companies!

The key to a transition to renewable – the only long-term solution to global warming – is to find a way of storing energy. Renewables, unlike fossil fuels, cannot be used at will as they provide a continuous flow of energy: wind, sun, or even water. While water can be stored in large reservoirs, wind and sun cannot, unless converted to chemical energy in batteries. Or converted to hydrogen and then stored in either tank or natural storage in geological formations, underground or in salt caverns.

There has been a lot of hype about batteries and electric cars. Missing here is that batteries with current technology have a much lower energy density than oil or coal. The energy of oil or natural gas is 20-40 times that of the most efficient battery today. For an electric vehicle, that is not such a major issue. It simply means how often we have to charge our batteries and how long the charging will take. It means developing a charging infrastructure with a quick turnaround time. The much bigger problem is how to store energy at the grid level. 

Grid-level storage means supplying the grid with electricity from stored energy. Grid-level batteries are being suggested to meet this task. What the proponents of grid-level batteries neglect to inform us is that they may supply power for short-term fluctuations – night and day, windy and non-windy days – they cannot meet the demand from long-term or seasonal fluctuations. This brings us to the question of the energy density of storage: how much energy does a Kg of lithium battery hold as compared to a Kg of oil/ natural gas/coal. The answer with current technology is 20-40 times less! The cost of building such mammoth storage to meet seasonal fluctuations will simply exhaust all our lithium (or any other battery material) supplies.

I will not address the prohibitive energy cost – electric or fossil – of public/mass versus private transport here. But will restrict myself to the larger question of how to store renewable energy so that we can run our electricity infrastructure when wind or sun is not there. 

Maybe, a new technology will solve this problem? Remember, our dream of cheap nuclear energy that will be not only clean but also so cheap that it will not need to be metered? Do we bet our civilisation’s future on such a possibility?

If not, we have to look at existing solutions. They exist but mean alternatives to batteries for addressing our grid-level problems of intermittent renewable energy. It means repurposing our existing hydro-projects to work as grid-level storage and developing hydrogen storage for use in fuel cells. No extra dams or reservoirs, as the opponents of hydroelectricity projects fear. And of course, public transport instead of private transport.

All of these mean societal-level changes that capital opposes, as it means public investments for social benefits and not for private profits. Capital privileges short time private profits over long-term social benefits. Remember how oil companies had the earliest research to show the impact of global warming due to carbon dioxide emissions? They not only hid these results for decades but launched a campaign denying that global warming is linked to greenhouse gases? And funding climate change deniers?

The contradiction at the heart of global warming is private greed over social needs. And who funds such a transition, the poor or the rich? This is also what COP 27 is all about, not simply about how to stop global warming.