8 June 2020

Until we get a proper roadmap, Net Zero is a goal without a plan

By Professor Michael J Kelly

The world of superfast computing and miraculous hand-held devices that most of us now take for granted did not appear by accident. It was the product of a very clear roadmap, agreed across the electronics industry from 1970 to 2015. An equally clear and widely agreed roadmap will be essential to achieving the target of a net-zero emission global economy in 2050.

Intel founder Gordon Moore’s empirical observation that the transistor count on chips was doubling every two years, while the chips stayed the same size, morphed into an industry-wide target that held for nearly 50 years. By the mid-1980s, a Technology Roadmap became a feature of the whole industry.

Technical people from all parts of the industry – chip manufacture, the fabrication facilities, the circuit design teams, the power constraint teams and so on – met, debated and produced a substantial report every 24 months that looked out ten years in detail and 20 years and more in overview. These reports described, in great detail for the short term and lesser detail for the longer term, what needed to be ready (researched, developed and available for use in production) by when and by whom. Thanks to this approach, Moore’s Law went from being a description of the industry to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The formal ‘International Technology Roadmap for Silicon’ was the bible of the industry and a clear statement of where the industry as a whole, and every part of every supply chain would need to be, in five and more years’ time, and what needed to be invested by whom and when. It is fair to say that the progress across the electronics sector would have been much less smooth and relentless in the absence of the agreed Roadmap.

The target of a net-zero global economy by 2050 is every bit as complex, and on a much greater scale than the silicon chip industry. But as yet, there are no detailed technology roadmaps for this project. In contrast to the electronics sector, we have a positive tower of Babel – many people are doing their own little thing, but with no sense that what others are doing will be coordinated to make an overall successful whole. One cannot even get a national standard, let alone an international one, for the plug for recharging car batteries! 

My own attempt in 2008 to raise research funds to begin to construct such a roadmap to 2050 was rejected by my academic peers as wishful thinking and way over my head in complexity: I think this remains the case today, over a quarter of the way now from 2008 to 2050.

Without such a plan, we face all kinds of trouble in delivering successfully an exceptionally complex project on time and to budget.

Consider the possibilities of electrifying transport and heating as key elements of the 2050 economy. What happens if the electricity grid and distribution systems are ready, but there are not enough materials to make the batteries needed for all the cars? How much further progress can we go with intermittent renewable forms of energy in the absence of an affordable technology that can store the excess electricity at the national scale for use at night and/or when the wind is not blowing? What about weekly and seasonal electricity storage at the metropolitan scale? What are the plans if some elements of the overall package are not available?

A university consortium of engineers has generated a document entitled ‘Absolute Zero’, describing in very high-level terms what an actually zero emissions UK would look like in 2050, and a very high-level description of what is needed. The changes are so draconian, that no Parliament or electorate would vote for it as a way of stopping climate change 20-50 years ahead. ‘Absolute Zero’ is not a roadmap, as no specific projects are described, only generic requirements such as eliminating aviation and international shipping as a part of the UK’s contribution by 2050.

What we need now is a set of interlocking targets for each five-year interval from 2020-2050, along with indicative budgets and who-does-what for each interval. The key issue is knitting all the sub-projects into a united and coherent overall project. Piecemeal activities are certain to fail.

To give an example, it’s now a decade since I first suggested a 40-year project to retrofit all existing UK buildings to reduce their carbon emissions by 80%. So far, less than 1% of the work has been completed. There is no supply chain, no competing firms and no retrofit section in the Yellow Pages. It is now a 30-year programme, costing £700bn per decade, for an 80% reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, and more for a net-zero target. Who pays, and what of the opportunity cost for the UK in undertaking the exercise, which is only one part of the overall 2050 target?

Suppose we realise in 15 years’ time that the whole net-zero target is an unattainable pipe dream and we call a comprehensive halt: what can we recover from the mis-investments made to date? What if then, when we look back, we realise we should have seen the looming crash coming 15 years prior, and forewarned the nation of the peril of the path then being pursued? Who then will be pursued and sued for negligence at this time?

This prospect could be avoided now with the formulation of an agreed net zero roadmap. We can identify now the big, critical problems and assess when they have to be solved for the project to progress, and whether a real world solution is possible.

Take batteries. It is estimated that current battery manufacturing capabilities will need to be in the order of 500-700 times bigger than now to support an all-electric global transport system. The materials needed just to allow the UK to transition to all electric transport involve amounts of materials equal to 200% the annual global production of cobalt, 75% of lithium carbonate, 100% of neodymium and 50% of copper. Scaling by a factor of 50 for the world transport, and you see what is now a showstopper. The materials demands just for batteries are beyond known reserves. Would one be prepared to dredge the ocean floor at very large scale for some of the material?  Should securing the reserves not be a first priority?

At the end of their life these batteries, and the wind and solar power generators, produce more tonnes of hazardous waste per unit of electricity produced than a decommissioned nuclear power plant. How is this factored into the grand plan? Should this problem not be confronted now, and a circular economy developed so that materials are reused as far as possible? Is it economic or not to recycle wind turbine blades? 

China has a stranglehold on many of the key materials and will become the OPEC of the (not-so-) green agenda. How would the battery industry evolve so that no one player can hold the world to ransom, in practice as well as in theory?

Secondly, at the UK scale, the cost of electrifying transport and heating is estimated at £3tn over 30 years, or £100bn each year. That is a whole HS2 scale project each and every year, with contingent links between all the years of the project. How will this be funded? How will the budget be controlled, and the project avoid any mission creep? What is the opportunity cost? Does it represent value-for-money?

If the £2tn retrofit of the UK’s housing stock I called for ten years ago had started in 2010, we would have spent around £500bn in the last decade – who would have paid for that?

I think that a robust technology road map for the net-zero emissions global economy of 2050 is an urgent priority, along with an appendix concerning how the UK will play its part in the global project. It does not bode well that the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is trumping expensive green investments where budgets have been set recently in Australia, Germany and California.

The UK has been pressing on regardless of the inaction/counteraction elsewhere. Given that over half the world’s population need more energy per person in the next decade and 80% of that will come from fossil fuels (just as it has over the last 40 years), it is time to stop and review the wisdom of our whole approach. If we squander resources in projects with a low prospect of success, we will have destroyed much of the nation’s wealth as we hand it over to the next generation.

It is important to realise that a routemap is not a straitjacket. The Silicon Roadmap was comprehensively updated every 24 months with intermediate updates on specific aspects.

By the same token, if one concludes that the 2050 Net-Zero Emissions Economy cannot be achieved on scientific, materials, engineering, planning and financial grounds, it would be appropriate to reset the target to one that can be achieved, even at a stretch. With a changing climate, there may come a day when we need to act, just as we needed a Thames Barrier to prevent London flooding. It will be no excuse then that all the money was invested on projects to mitigate climate change, when the very need to adapt will be proof that the mitigation actions have failed.

Rather than simply picking targets and hoping for the best, constructing a robust road map now would point up the problems that actually need solving. 

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Michael J Kelly is Emeritus Prince Philip Professor of Technology at the University of Cambridge.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.