For many of us, today marks the second Earth Day we have spent in lockdown. We have learnt to overcome the challenges created by working from home (Yes, you’re still on mute), home schooling (I’m sure they didn’t used to teach fractions like this) and, more seriously, not being able to travel or see our loved ones. Since its inception over 50 years ago, Earth Day has grown into a movement in which over 1 billion people participate every year and in 2021 they have chosen ‘Restore Our Earth’ as its theme. It’s a theme that is bound to resonate and inspire reflection, as well as inspiration; it’s also a powerful reminder that although we have all faced difficulties this past year, the world has experienced some hugely positive moments of change. But is everything as it seems?
For example almost a year ago, the UK experienced a watershed moment when, at midnight on 10 June 2020, Britain went a full two months without burning coal to generate power. This was just one representation of a reduction in global energy use as the IEA reported the Covid-19 outbreak “curtailed electricity use and industrial production in most countries”. The reduced use of coal burning power plants was particularly pronounced as alternative power generation means were preferred over coal. The IEA estimated coal generated power declined across the globe, ranging from a 5% decrease in China to a 25% decline in demand in the US and around 20% in the EU. In fact, the remaining UK coal power stations are scheduled to either be shut down, or switch to compressed wood pellets. While this reduction in coal was just part of the emissions story in the UK, the end result is experts reporting the UK is halfway to meeting its target of “net-zero” emissions by 2050 after achieving a record-breaking 11% fall in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.
While this is positive news for the environment, it must be remembered that UK coal power stations were taken offline due to plummeting electricity demand caused by the mandated lockdown. With restrictions easing in the UK and elsewhere many are predicting a rebound in electricity demand along with CO2 emissions. For example, the IEA is now projecting significant growth for fossil fuel demand in 2021, with coal demand projected expected to increase by 60%. In the past, a drop in demand may have been sufficient to allow some coal power stations to be taken offline, but the energy supply distribution in Great Britain may not have allowed for a complete halt to coal burning.
The UK has been investing significantly in other forms of electricity generation to adjust its supply distribution. According to Carbon Brief, coal still accounted for 43% of the electricity supplied as recently as 2012. Meanwhile Oil, Gas, Nuclear, Hydro, Wind, Solar, and Biomass accounted for a combined 54%. Fast forward to 2020 and these sources accounted for approximately 97% of the electricity generated in the UK according to Ofgem. This increase would not be possible without significant investment in the infrastructure and innovation required to make these other power generating means commercially viable, and without significant tariff increases being passed on to the consumer.
However, according to the IEA, the projected increase in coal-generated power is in fact being driven by emerging markets. More than 80% of the anticipated growth in coal is concentrated in Asia. China alone is projected to account for over 50% of global growth. The rapid increase in coal-fired generation in Asia means the power sector is expected to account for 80% of the energy rebound in 2021. This expected increase would reverse 80% of the drop in 2020, with emissions ending up just 1.2% (or 400 metric tonnes) below 2019 emissions levels.
While Boris Johnson is expected to make ambitious new commitments to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions, in order for the theme of Earth Day to ring true investment and innovation is required not only in the UK, but also globally. Developing “clean coal” that incorporates carbon capture technology to mitigate, reduce, or eliminate coal emissions could definitely be viewed as an international project. The UK has already committed to investing in this space when it became the first G7 country to agree to the landmark North Sea transition deal which included a joint government and industry investment in CCUS of £3 billion. The innovative technology borne from this investment will hopefully be shared around the world to help tackle the projected rise in emissions.
Similarly, other forms of existing alternative electricity generation, such as wind, solar, and geothermal must continue to garner investment in order to be realisable for international deployment. Last but not least, new forms of energy such as hydrogen must take their place in the global energy distribution framework of the future. The energy sources of the past cannot be easily replaced overnight as existing infrastructure and regulatory framework require modernization and modification; however, developing technologies, such as CCUS, can work alongside emission heavy generation means to lessen environmental impacts. As described above, these environmental impacts are global and as such, technology pioneers in this space may look to commercialize their innovations internationally. While prejudices of the past may have viewed the commercial protection mechanisms available internationally, and being immature and in development, this is often no longer the case. China’s IP system, for example, continues to improve, with amendments due to take effect on 1 June 2021 addressing patent protection measures, and seeking to bring portions of the Chinese Patent Law into better alignment with US and European laws. Protecting this environmentally innovative technology through intellectual property rights (for example patent, trade mark, design, copyright and trade secret protection) can assist innovators in expanding their business to international markets in order to lessen environmental impacts globally.