Heatwave Highway: The Environmental Imperative for Renewables

By Dr Graham Foster, Chief Technical Officer, Marine Power Systems

The summer of 2018 has been like no other. Record-breaking highs. A stalled jet stream. Sweltering temperatures from France to Finland. Wildfires in Sweden, Greece, electricity rationing in California. A natural disaster declared in Japan. Is this simply an anomaly, or a clear example that extreme weather events are coming into play, just as climate scientists predicted? Our Chief Technical Officer Dr Graham Foster explores the question further.

The significant time and money invested in WaveSub warrants some investigation of the facts around climate change. Are we barking up the right tree? As the founders of a marine renewables development company, we are convinced that our business goals are underpinned by the most powerful of environmental and economic imperatives. Nonetheless, we have a duty to check some of the fundamental assumptions. In this blog I will consider some of the evidence of climate change, consider the future role MPS can play, and suggest that any remaining scepticism surrounding the need to decarbonise the global economy will soon go up in a puff of smoke.

At present, 80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels. Oil coal and gas are the foundation of the entire global energy system and global economy. Consumption of these finite resources has grown steadily since the 1850s. They have enabled huge industrial, social and cultural change, they have lifted billions out of poverty – they have even taken us into space.

Ironically, fossil fuel use is now recognised as perhaps the single largest threat to human existence. Alongside particulate and sulphur pollution, burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the biosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, meaning it allows solar radiation in, but traps a proportion of that radiation reflected back off the earth’s surface. Increased levels of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere correlate strongly and positively with global temperature increases / the greenhouse effect.

Many people recognise that our best friend is now our worst enemy. Over 195 countries are working to reduce fossil fuel related CO2 emissions through a series of legally binding targets outlined in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The UK has set itself a commitment to source 30% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, while Wales has set its own target of 70% renewables by the same year. This common sense departure from fossil fuel dependency is driven not only by legal obligations to reduce CO2 emissions. Governments increasingly recognise there is an urgent need to safeguard our own energy supplies for reasons of security, economy and health as we seek to coexist in an increasingly populous and urbanised planet.

Considering all this, surely everyone agrees fossil fuels are a problem? Surprisingly not. There remain some high profile groups who not only reject the notion that polluting, finite, politically complex and financially unstable fossil fuels need to be phased out, they actively set about discrediting the science of climate change.

*Original cartoon by Joel Pett for USA Today.

In the spirit of open debate, let’s consider whether the climate sceptics could be right. How can we be certain that climate change is it real? I asked myself this question recently and decided that it could be answered at a basic level by posing a few questions: Does CO2 absorb heat? Have CO2 levels increased? And, ultimately, are temperatures going up?

The physical properties of carbon dioxide are not open to debate. CO2 absorbs heat radiation far more efficiently than other common atmospheric gasses (nitrogen and oxygen). This fundamental property of CO2 is best demonstrated experimentally. However, there is no need to don a lab coat and goggles; we can watch a number of experiments that confirm this hypothesis from the comfort of our seat. There’s a good one here.

Having established that CO2 absorbs heat, we can move on to the second question: have CO2 levels increased? Of all the data around climate change, this is the least contested. Since the industrial revolution, there has been an increase of 40% in global CO2 levels. The increase has been caused by human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels and ultimately the release of ancient stores of carbon from millions of years ago from the lithosphere into the biosphere. We are currently heading towards levels of atmospheric CO2 last seen in the Jurassic period at a rate of increase that has never been seen before in the earth’s history.

Finally; are global temperatures increasing? No matter where you live, there’s a high chance you’ve been witness to an unusually hot summer this year. This week, it was announced that 2018 was, for the UK, the hottest summer since records began in 1910. Extreme weather patterns have occurred across the globe. Sweden – a country associated with an abundance of lakes, streams and snowy mountains – was forced to issue a call for international aid as it struggled to gain control over the swathe of wildfires that had taken hold in its parched country. California issued an urgent voluntary electricity conservation alert, to avoid what its grid operator said may result in ‘rotating power outages’.

So is our 2018 summer an anomaly or proof of climate change? After all, this was also the year of the ‘Beast from the East’ – one of the coldest winders on record in Northern Europe. The answer is: it’s both. Maybe next summer will be miserable, and therein lies the difficulty with climate change – seasonal and yearly variations massively exceed the gradual changes over decades. A hot summer or a cold winter can be used to both advocate or deny climate change. The real answer lies in the long-term trends and for this I refer to the global Instrumental Temperature Record, which provides the temperature of the earth’s climate system from the historical network of surface air temperatures and ocean surface temperatures. In January 2017, agencies including the Met Office, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) named 2016 the warmest year on record. This marked the third consecutive year of a new global temperature record and was the first time since the 1970’s that three consecutive years were record highs. And since 1970 there has been a clear long-term trend of global warming; temperatures over the planet as a whole have continued to increase, and the rate of change is increasing too.

In the interests of completeness, let us consider whether anything else could be causing this rise in global temperatures. We know that the sun’s output has remained constant (or declined slightly) since 1970 and in the same time period, the Earth’s orbit hasn’t altered. Volcanic activity released 100 times less CO2 than the burning of fossil fuels (and in any case usually results in a global cooling effect due to the release of volcanic ash that reflects heat away from the planet). There is nowhere else to point the finger, it seems.

So, to conclude; we know that CO2 traps heat. We know that CO2 levels have risen. We know there has been a gradual but undisputable increase in global temperatures since 1850 – around the time the industrial revolution kicked off – but with a much more pronounced increase in temperature from 1976 onwards. And we know there isn’t any other plausible cause. It is clear climate change is real and human beings burning fossil fuels is the cause.

Let us quickly remind ourselves what the environmental impacts of the warming are. This list is far from exhaustive but aside from increased extreme weather patterns, as we’re bearing witness to at the moment, other impacts include rising sea levels and subsequent loss of land; ocean acidification; loss of animal and plant species, increased likelihood of conflict over diminished resources, food and water shortages, increased desertification and coral bleaching.

Though I recognise this is not a thorough investigation into the science surrounding climate change, I’ve managed to draw the same conclusion as the vast majority of the international scientific community and yet, perhaps the most telling actions come from the oil and gas companies themselves, as they actively rebrand themselves into energy companies of the future and direct investment towards renewables.

At no time has climate change seemed so present as now. Our mission at MPS is to become part of the low-carbon solution of the future. We face a growing global population, an associated increase in demand for energy and a compelling argument to dramatically diversify our energy mix. MPS believe that with its vast, untapped potential, the world’s oceans can be a significant contributor to global energy. Our vision is to make clean, affordable and reliable wave power and to help shape the UK into becoming one of the world’s leading marine renewable energy producers.