From heat pumps to electric cars, satellite launches to floating wind turbines, we focus our attention on 11 climate solutions to watch in 2022Environment 7 January 2022
By Adam Vaughan
Tugboats pull a gigantic floating wind turbine in Sumoto, Hyogo, Japan
The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
Happy new year, and welcome to this week’s Fix the Planet, the weekly climate change newsletter that reminds you there are reasons for hope in science and technology around the world. To receive this free, monthly newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
I’ve been looking to see how my predictions for 2021 fared. Betting on a strong year for hydrogen and the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere turned out to be good ideas, while my hope for green economic recoveries transpired to be wishful thinking.
Today I’m turning my eye to 2022. Delivering on the promises made in the Glasgow Climate Pact agreed last November will be a big challenge, while two major set-piece climate science reports will dominate February and March. But many of the trends we’ll see this year will be due to economics, technology, science and, of course, politics. Climate change may feature in several key election battles, from national votes in Australia, France and Brazil to the US midterms.
Below is my list of what to watch.
Impacts and solutions
Next month sees part two of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s current round of reports on the state of climate science. It will mostly cover the impacts of climate change, such as heatwaves, fires and flooding, and how we can adapt to them. As demonstrated by the 19.4°C heat in Alaska at the end of December and the UK’s 16.2°C on New Year’s Day – both records for those dates – every year now brings a deluge of extremes and records. And that’s with just 1.1°C of global warming to date. So expect the IPCC report to make waves with leaders who will have to plan for flood barriers, “cool spaces” to escape heat and so on. The IPCC also has a crucial third report due in March on mitigation, or how we can cut and remove emissions enough to avoid the worst ravages of climate change. If you missed part one of these reports, read this.
Floating wind turbines
Almost all offshore wind farms are attached to the seabed, which is why the shallow North Sea is the world’s hotspot for the technology. But floating turbines, which use several different designs to stay upright, open up even the deepest waters to the clean energy source. One reason floating wind power makes my 2022 list is developers in the UK are currently bidding to win at least £24 million a year in subsidies to build them later this decade. The second is that other countries are on the brink of exploiting the technology. Spain’s BlueFloat Energy recently announced two major projects for Australia, which would be the country’s first. Meanwhile, Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell is moving ahead with floating wind turbines in South Korea.
Biodiversity and climate crisis crossover
The great and good last year were, rightly, at pains to remind us that the solutions to a warming world and the degradation of nature overlap, from tree planting and soil health to conserving species and restoring ecosystems. Most countries are still a long way from acting on that knowledge, but I’m hopeful a new global biodiversity deal due in May will yeild progress (the current draft refers to more “nature-based solutions” by 2030 to mitigate climate change).
A row over the Christmas season about the European Commission deeming nuclear power fit for “sustainable finance” was a good reminder that the world is still divided on what role nuclear should play in the climate fight . With retirements of old nuclear plants in the UK, Germany and elsewhere scheduled for this year, nuclear proponents will be pushing for new generation. Rolls Royce in the UK is setting out on its four to five-year journey to win regulatory approval for its mini nuclear plants. EDF Energy will be hoping to secure a business model from the UK government to build a second new large plant in the UK, at Sizewell in Suffolk. And a decision on a site for the world’s first nuclear fusion power plant is due this year too.
The Glasgow Climate Pact promises
A lot was promised at COP26 in Glasgow last year. This year, eyes will be on the pledge by governments to “revisit and strengthen” their national climate plans before an end-of-year climate summit in Egypt. New Zealand and Australia have already said they won’t deliver new plans, though the latter may have a new government later this year so watch this space. Meanwhile, let’s see if new financially sweetened packages to wean countries off coal emerge, like one struck between high income countries and South Africa last year. Indonesia and India could be next.
More eyes in space
NASA is launching a bunch of satellites this year to better monitor everything from tropical cyclones to ocean eddies (there are four missions in total). Green groups are getting in on the act too: US non-profit Environmental Defense Fund is planning to put a satellite into orbit from October to pinpoint methane plumes. Given countries at COP26 promised to reduce methane leaks, such monitoring will be vital.
Energy bills crisis
High wholesale gas prices mean rising energy bills will continue to be a big political issue in many countries. In the UK, the crisis will come to a head in February when an increase in a regulated price cap is announced, taking effect in April. It will likely raise typical annual household energy bills by several hundred pounds, partly because of how expensive gas is and partly to recoup the costs of so many suppliers collapsing . The big question is whether renewables and green options emerge as the solution to avoiding repeats of the crisis, or as an unfair scapegoat for the mess.
Greener plane fuel starts to take off?
The production and consumption of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), or biofuel as most of us know it, is pitiful today. About 0.1 per cent of all fuel burned for flights globally uses SAF. That is unlikely to increase enough this year to put the airline industry on track for its target of 5 per cent by 2025, but recent policies from the EU and UK should send a signal for firms to invest in new production plants, like this one proposed in the UK.
Pump it up
Regular readers will know I like to bang on about heat pumps, but there’s little sign of this low-carbon heating technology going away. Expect to hear lots more about pumps in coming months, as manufacturers work on ways to make them mimic the “instant-on” ability of gas boilers and energy companies try to bring down their installation costs. And in England and Wales, watch out for grants of up to £5000 from April to buy one.
The $555 billion question
Will US president Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan ever happen? Senator Joe Manchin has repeatedly almost derailed the whole plan, which includes hundreds of billions of dollars for clean energy investment. Talks between Biden’s administration and Manchin are reportedly back on. Delivering the plan will be crucial for the US’s credibility for climate action on the international stage.
Electric cars accelerate
The UK car industry body thinks that 260,000 electric cars will be sold in the country this year, up on 190,000 sold last year. I suspect the 2022 forecast will be wildly beaten ( some analysts are already saying 300,000). That’s mostly because of the sheer volume of new models launching this year, including from the two biggest car makers, VW and Toyota. Rising oil prices as economies shrug off the pandemic will make electric alternatives look more attractive too. As always, the growth will be uneven globally, and you can expect Norway to eclipse its incredible 65 per cent electric share of new car sales last year while the UK tries to improve on its 10 per cent.
MORE FIXESYet more heat pump-related news. Swedish energy firm Vattenfall has started selling high temperature versions of the devices in the Netherlands which could counter one of the criticisms of the technology, that it works at lower temperatures than the gas boilers it’s replacing, which sometimes requires costly upgrades to radiators. I’ve written before about the prospect of lithium mining in Cornwall, so was pleased to hear the company working on the idea has successfully extracted lithium. Whether it’ll make economic sense is another matter. More here. It’s not going to save the world, but it’s a step in the right direction: Samsung has designed a TV remote control that doesn’t need batteries and draws power from wi-fi routers. A small addition to the long list of reasons to decarbonise electricity grids. There’s a lovely feature about peatland restoration in New Scientist. Go read it now.
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