The reliable path-way to low-carbon economy

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Isaac N. Acquah(Dr)

There is no consensus on the most reliable and acceptable pathway to achieve a low-carbon economy. Let’s first note that the mitigation options are nuclear power (NP) and renewables, where the choice in the latter is limited to the 5 practical renewable primary energy sources set out in the SPREN, the special report on renewable energies by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The 5 types identified are biomass, hydropower (HP), wind power (WP), solar power (SP) and geothermal. Out of these five, geothermal contributes a negligible amount of electricity in few places and practically nothing in West Africa. As such, it is eliminated from our discussions.

Obviously, the main use of bio-mass as a primary energy source is for heating and cooking in developing countries, and that is often is discouraged due to the effects this is having on our forest. Therefore, it would not be easy to triple or double the amount of electricity generated by bio-energy. When it comes to HP, the most reliable and flexible renewable energy in many countries, there are now very limited opportunities to easily exploit.it. It follows therefore that we cannot expect much scaling up from HP, which currently accounts for the largest share of electricity generated by renewables.

Surely, WP and SP have been the fastest growing energy sources from inexhaustible air and sun respectively for more than two decades. However, there is very little to show for these efforts. This is so, simply because they are the most diluted energy sources, while NP is the most concentrated energy source. We shall deal with this controversial issue of reliable energy for low-carbon economy in our next episodes.

It is also necessary to add that our discussions are linked to the Paris Climate Change Agreement, adopted in 2015 in Paris. In that agreement, signatories agreed to be bound by an obligation, known as Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), by which all the member-states, pledged to meaningfully curb their carbon emissions. We shall highlight the scope and depth of our discussions with the attached 2 figures.

The Nationally Determined Contribution

According to the terms of the Nationally Determined Contribution, NDC, member-states have to undertake every five years more ambitious actions to curb their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The climate change meeting, the Conference of the Parties-26, COP-26 was originally planned to take place from 9-19 November, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland but was cancelled due to Covid-19. The COP-26 is now scheduled to take place in Glasgow from 1-12 November 2021.

The COP-26 at Glasgow this year is expected to be one of the epic climate change meetings. The   key aim will certainly be on curbing CO2 emissions, and in that regard, all participating countries will be asked to take their NDCs more seriously in order to reduce their carbon emissions more ambitiously than before. This falsely presupposes that all the countries are of  the same socio-economic status  and promotes  the slogan “Leaving no one behind.”

A country’s  carbon emissions is measured by metric tons per capita. This may range from 6 to 20 metric tons or higher for mainly developed countries, and from about 0.4 to 0.0 metric tons per capita in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, (SSA). It follows that the annual carbon emission of a citizen in a developed country with a modest carbon emission of 6 metric tons per capita, is the same as the carbon emission from 60 citizens in a country in SSA, with carbon emission of 0.1 metric ton per capita. How meaningful can the NDCs of such poor countries be, where their carbon emission per capita ranges from 0.3-0.0 metric ton per year?

(Figure 1. Annual Energy Demand by Region)

Note from Figure 1 on Annual Energy Demand by Region that, the energy demand, which is linked directly to consumption of fossil fuel, is very low in Africa, the second most populous continent in the world. It is found from some studies done a couple of years ago that South Africa and the 5 North African countries, namely Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia account for about 75% of the electricity consumed in Africa. It is quite challenging to stretch your imagination to appreciate how the remaining  25% of the energy consumed in Africa is distributed as shown in Figure 1. SSA, in our case, is made up with some 48 countries, excluding South Africa. Therefore, if about 48 counties in SSA, including Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa, account for about 25% electricity in Africa, this clearly underlines the abject energy poverty in Africa. It is clear from our discussions that SSA, with the lowest access to electricity, has been left far behind, without any remedial prospects in sight unless immediate and purposeful intervention and investment is made by African leaders.

My concern with the Paris Climate Change Agreement is that it is not human centered as compared to the Kyoto Protocol, where the industrialized countries that had benefited from fossil fuels, and their carbon emissions per capita were the highest, agreed to curb their emissions. The Protocol also featured a flexible mechanism, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), mutually beneficial to both rich and poor countries. If things had gone as planned, the CDM could have been an assured vehicle for technological transfer from the developed to developing countries.

The Future without Fossil Fuels

It can be recalled that it was coal that triggered the Industrial Revolution and sustained it. Coal was used in production of steel and cement, the most essential materials for building roads, bridges, railway lines, buildings, and other infrastructures. The discovery of oil helped significantly to increase our mobility.

CUMULATIVE CONSUMPTION OF PRIMARY ENERGIES FOR THE PAST 50 YEARS (figure 2)

Figure 2 shows the growth of five primary energy sources: oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewables in the world for a period of 50 years from 1965 to 2015. The growth of nuclear and renewables were slightly above the zero mark during the early period, and they produced in 2015 about 2000 and 3500TWh of energy respectively. On the other hand, fossil fuels, oil, coal and natural gas, had very appreciable growth during that same period. Oil, coal and natural gas generated in 2015 about 50000, 45000, and 35000TWh of energy respectively. And that underscores that fossil fuels are indispensable, directly or indirectly for all the economic sectors.

Certainly, ‘renewables’ mentioned in this paragraph are certainly made up of bio-energy, HP, WP, SP and geothermal. A greater portion of bio-energy is used for cooking ad generating heat. Otherwise, renewable primary energies, like NP, are used to produce electricity.

Fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas are used for several purposes with special reference to chemical industries. Coal is a key material in cement and steel industries. These fossil fuels are used to power all kinds of transportations; planes, ships, trains lorries and cars. At the top of all these, fossil fuels, special natural gas and coal,  accounted or about 64% of electricity produced in the world in 2018.

The Economic Sectors include (1) Power, (2) Industries, (3) Transport, (4) Commercial and Service and (5) Domestic. We shall learn more about the changes in energy use in all the relevant sectors. For the meantime a few remarks are made below.

Power or Electricity, a premium energy which can be produced from all the above listed primary energies. It is clean and it is easily transported. It is so versatile that it is used for several useful innovative purposes in all the economic sectors. The use of coal in power production in EU and the USA in recent times is being replaced by natural gas. It is envisaged that fossil fuels will not be used in most developed nations in 2050.

In our next episode, we shall continue our discussions on Figure 2 to see how electricity production can be scaled between now and 2050 to cover all the energy needs in our future without fossil fuels.

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