There are more questions than answers: what to watch for at COP26 in research and innovation

28 Oct 2021 | News

As the climate mega-conference prepares to open its doors in Glasgow, Science|Business looks ahead to key issues where science and technology will shape the debate

This Sunday, 31 October, an estimated 25,000 delegates will descend on Glasgow for the official beginning of the mother of all climate change conferences: COP26.

Over two weeks, world leaders (though probably not Xi Jinping of China or Russian president Vladimir Putin, who are reportedly not attending in person) will deliver soaring speeches about their green ambitions and the urgency of keeping global warming below 1.5 centigrade.

The meat of the two-week get-together will be a negotiation over national emissions cuts by 2030. On the basis of current promises, the earth is heading for a 2.7 degree rise by the end of the century, which will lead to “catastrophic changes” in the climate, the UN has warned.

World leaders also need to hash out rules for carbon markets, for example, and decide how to adapt to temperature rises that are already baked in.

The conference kicks off properly with national leaders giving short speeches, which should be no more than three minutes long, on Monday 1 November and Tuesday 2.

COP26 then proceeds with a different theme each day, with green finance, energy, water and oceans, land use, transport and cities all getting attention. Particularly relevant for researchers will be a day partly dedicated to “science and innovation” on Tuesday November 9.

There will also be a jamboree of online and physical events and discussions taking place alongside the main event. The EU has organised a packed two week schedule of side events, all of which should be accessible online.

The Commission has come out with a barrage of green announcements leading up to COP. In 2020, renewable energy overtook fossil fuels as the EU’s main source of power, it crowed earlier this week. 

Every politician at COP26 will agree on the need to cut greenhouse emissions.

But the more interesting question is how it will be done – and that’s where research and innovation comes in.

Nuclear or wind? Hydrogen or carbon capture? Tried and tested fixes like better insulation, or flashy new green tech?

Here’s the Science|Business guide to six key questions that could animate the research and innovation debate in Glasgow as COP26 gets underway.

1. Can nuclear power ever be green?

It’s an old chestnut, but the question of whether nuclear fission - with its associated risks of meltdown and environmental catastrophe - is a fitting part of moves to decarbonise the world’s energy supply, seems likely to feature large at COP26.

France, which generates around 70 per cent of its power from nuclear and takes over the EU rotating presidency next year, is pushing to get nuclear classified as green power in the Commission’s so-called “taxonomy” of environmentally sustainable sources. A number of largely eastern European countries are backing this bid.

Earlier this month, French president Emmanuel Macron bet big once again on nuclear energy, announcing €1 billion by 2030 on small nuclear reactors that advocates say are safer, more cost effective and produce less radioactive waste than traditional, big plants. Macron says renewables can never meet all of Europe’s energy demand, and nuclear must take some of the strain.

But over in Berlin, the German Green party, which has been staunchly anti-nuclear from its inception, is negotiating to form part of a new government. A big Franco-German bust up could be avoided, however, if the Commission makes a decision on its green taxonomy before Germany’s next government, which will very likely include the Greens, takes power.

2. Can star power save the planet?

Nuclear fusion – harnessing the reaction that powers stars – is a notoriously difficult scientific challenge, and the world’s biggest fusion project, ITER in France, has been repeatedly hit by cost overruns and delays during its 36-year history

But a new wave of private fusion start-ups want fusion to be taken seriously as a potential green power source at COP, arguing that if technical difficulties can be cracked, fusion will provide the world with virtually unlimited energy, producing only a tiny fraction of the radioactive waste of traditional fission, and no risk of meltdowns.

As host, the UK government is pro-fusion, including it in the recent net zero plan and promising a relatively light-touch regulatory environment for the technology.

Environmentalists are unconvinced. They doubt fusion will be commercially viable before mid-century, making it an expensive distraction from applying validated technologies that exist right now.

Fusion could also become another technology where the EU misses the boat, as the vast majority of fusion start-ups are concentrated in the US and UK, with only one in France and two in Germany.

3. What colour hydrogen?

Hydrogen has long been touted as a clean alternative to fossil fuels, allowing us to decarbonise parts of the economy where electrification is tricky, like long-haul freight, steel production, shipping and aviation.

The European Commission has invested in the hydrogen industry since 2008, and last year launched a European hydrogen strategy to make the fuel an “intrinsic part” of the energy system between 2025 and 2030.

But divisions remain over how to achieve this. The ultimate goal is to generate ‘green’ hydrogen by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity from renewable sources. The current hike in natural gas prices may help in shifting the balance, but currently most hydrogen is classified as grey, being produced from methane. As an improvement on this, the EU is putting some weight behind ‘blue’ hydrogen, in which the carbon is captured, though there are doubts over how effectively this can be done.

The question is, should production of polluting grey and blue hydrogen be increased, creating a bigger market that would enable the infrastructure needed to support the transition to green hydrogen to be put in place, and for industries to adapt their processes and equipment to use this power source. Or would that defeat the object?

This split is likely to be on display in the new German government. The pro-business Free Democratic Party wants Germany’s national hydrogen strategy to include hydrogen from all sources, while the Greens, unsurprisingly, favour the green variety.

There is also a geostrategic element to hydrogen production: it makes sense to produce it in countries with a lot of sun or wind, and therefore abundant renewable energy potential. In August Germany announced it has joined forces with Namibia, offering €40 million to the south African country to build hydrogen pilot projects in return for future supplies of the gas.

4. How green should EU research programmes be?

With daily images of wildfires, floods and melting ice caps reaching our screens, the natural instinct is to load up research programmes like Horizon Europe with climate-focused targets and conditions so that scientists tackle the problem. 

Horizon Europe’s 2021-22 work programme includes multiple calls for research into green technologies, including carbon capture and storage, biomass for energy, and hydropower, for example.

But can this go too far? MEPs are currently threatening to take the Commission to court over the so-called “do no significant harm” principle, which mandates that grant applicants to Horizon Europe must show their projects won’t harm biodiversity and the environment. University representatives and MEPs say this will create stultifying bureaucracy for researchers, and hurt basic science.

Currently, there is a target to spend 35% of Horizon Europe on tackling climate change. But this is not set in stone and could be increased depending on changing priorities.

5. Will the door be opened to gene editing?

Climate change is nudging the EU towards relaxing strict rules that have largely shut down the commercial cultivation of genetically modified or edited crops. In a report released in April, the Commission concluded the current rules are out of date, not least because of the potential the latest gene edited crops hold to be more resistant to the effects of climate change including warming and increased salinity of soils, whilst requiring fewer pesticides, thus protecting biodiversity.

With climate change likely to pose huge difficulties for agriculture, “it seems unreasonable to exclude possible solutions that may allow us to overcome these challenges,” said the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities in a response to the report earlier this month.

Post-Brexit, the UK has already announced that it will diverge from Brussels and make it easier to research genetically editing crops, in part to make them more resilient to climate change.

6. New technology or old?

It’s another debate as old as the hills, but the broader philosophical divide at COP26 is between those who think we can innovate our way out of the climate crisis and those who think restraint and changing the culture is the way to go. The former are often politicians, who tend to like new, shiny projects, while the more sceptical voices, usually environmentalists, say we need to become more energy efficient and cut consumption.

This divide couldn’t be starker than in the host country. Speaking to Bloomberg in mid-October, prime minister Boris Johnson said the UK is making a “big bet on green technology” and is betting on “wind power, on hydrogen, on electric vehicles, on gigafactories, on carbon capture and storage, all those things.”

And yet almost every day UK roads are being blockaded by the orange-jacketed protesters of Insulate UK, demanding the government urgently roll out a technology that has been around for hundreds of years – building insulation – to tackle climate change.

To be fair, the UK’s recently released net zero strategy does promise “better insulated homes”, and this obviously isn’t an either-or question. But expect Insulate UK protesters to disrupt COP26 with the message that we aren’t fully using the climate-saving technology we already have.

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