Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, director of the University of Cambridge Centre for Climate Repair, advocates for pushing innovation and technology to fight climate change.
Developing solutions to reduce emissions is fundamental for a sustainable planet, such as accelerating the use of batteries and hydrogen, or increasing the development of green buildings.
Dr Fitzgerald participated at the Marketplace about Climate and Innovation organized by ACCIO- Catalonia Trade & Investment, where international experts presented challenges and opportunities to face global warming.
What are the main opportunities in technology and innovation to fight climate change?
There are many opportunities for innovation and technology in tackling climate change. These include developing new ways of reducing emissions with different energy sources or capturing greenhouse gases at source before they are released to the atmosphere, as well as ways which enable us to simply use less energy – in other words to be more efficient.
But there are also significant opportunities for development of technology to actually remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. These include development of direct air capture facilities which can enable carbon dioxide to be removed from the atmosphere and injected into old oil or gas reservoirs or deep saline aquifers.
However, for many companies it is helpful to look at opportunities which can make sense business-wise right now, irrespective of increases in things like a carbon tax. For example, making a system more energy efficient through some capital investment will result in lower energy bills; these are the obvious ones.
But there are other approaches that can be developed which on their own might be overly expensive, but when designed to ride on the coat tails of another process could be very attractive.
For example, if there are ways to treat a greenhouse gas such as methane by using a product that is currently already deployed, but which is not fine-tuned for methane removal, then a small change could be a massive opportunity.
Is the research in climate change developing into business opportunities fast enough? Do we need more mechanisms to help it happen?
Research in climate change, and specifically developing technologies into business opportunities, is simply not happening fast enough.
When we look at the current climate crisis and the current projections for emissions it is absolutely clear that this is wrong – if there were opportunities for businesses right now to make the difference at scale which the climate needs, then businesses would indeed be taking them on.
So, given that this is not happening we need to examine why, and what we need to do differently. Firstly, there needs to be a lot more government funding for research and development into not just emissions reduction, but also greenhouse gas removal and, in fact, solar radiation management too.
Secondly, there need to be schemes which support businesses in rolling out the proven technologies at scale – this could be in the form of fiscal incentives to get deployment happening, rather like the feed in tariffs which were used to stimulate the photovoltaic industry.
And finally, there need to be schemes which incentive customers too. This is particularly important in areas such as housing retrofits where it isn’t just the cost of, say, a refurbishment project, but the upheaval families will have to endure while the work is carried out – there needs to be more work investigating what families require in order to make the decision to have a major retrofit on their dwelling.
Batteries and hydrogen are two enablers for helping reduce emissions. What is the situation nowadays in these two sectors? Are countries in Europe taking steps further?
Batteries and hydrogen are two vectors for energy storage which are very helpful. They are rather different and, in many ways, complementary. Batteries have a significant role to play in cars and other small devices, whereas hydrogen may have a role for, say, future air transport.
However, hydrogen is not on the face of it a sensible pathway for heating of homes when looked at from a primary energy perspective.
If the original energy source is wind power, then conversion to electricity to drive a heat pump is far more efficient than production of green hydrogen and subsequent use in a home to deliver the same benefits.
However, storage is an important feature, and hydrogen can be stored (in, say, a tank), whereas electricity needs a battery or other such form of storage. So, depending on the system consideration, then there may be places where hydrogen can support the energy transition even with heating.
What are the opportunities for innovating in reduced emission buildings?
The most significant opportunity for reducing emissions in buildings is through improvements in insulation and air-tightness to minimize uncontrolled leakage.
This is so important that one could even say that the first three steps for reducing emissions are insulation and air tightness (x3)!
However, once these steps have been undertaken, it is then crucial to examine the ventilation system for a building. Removing unwanted and uncontrolled ventilation is a good thing, but removing it altogether is not; the current Covid crisis has heighted general awareness of the importance of adequate ventilation.
Depending on the heat gains in a building relative to the occupancy there may be very strong reasons to consider installation of mechanical ventilation heat recovery (MVHR) systems for winter. Unless there are high heat gains relative to the occupation levels in a building it is usually the case that an MVHR system is desirable in cold weather.
This system uses electricity to drive fans, but the heating energy saved as a result of the transfer of heat from outgoing hot air to incoming cold air is significant.
It should be noted though that in building types with high heat gains relative to occupancy levels then a simpler mixing scheme is likely to be the most energy efficient option, since these types of system have lower electrical loads.