On Monday 26 October 2020, the Industry and Parliament Trust, in partnership with the University of Leicester, hosted discussion entitled ‘Delivering Net Zero Across Industry’. Due to COVID-19 the event was held virtually and was chaired by Dr Alan Whitehead MP, Shadow Minister for Green New Deal and Energy. Providing their expert knowledge were guest speakers Mike Tholen, Sustainability Director, Oil and Gas UK and, myself, Professor Andy Abbott, Professor of Physical Chemistry, University of Leicester. The discussion was attended by Members from both the House of Commons and House of Lords, alongside representatives from a wide variety of sectors from business and industry.
In 2019 the Government introduced a new target for a reduction of 100% greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 compared to 1990 levels. Given the UK’s geographical position, it has the potential to harness a significant proportion of its energy needs from renewable sources. It should be stressed that decarbonisation is without doubt one of the largest industrial, social and environmental challenge that we have ever faced. At the centre of this energy revolution is a technology change that is reliant on new resource flows to provide the materials necessary to produce electricity from renewable sources. The UKs energy map will look significantly different by 2050 with a mixture of wind, wave, solar, biomaterials, hydrogen, geothermal, hydroelectric and nuclear blended in, as capacity enables, to decreasing oil and gas supplies.
Technology-critical metals are at the heart of renewable energy; rare earth elements such as neodymium and dysprosium are needed to produce super-magnets for wind turbines and electric motors, semiconductors containing selenium and tellurium are used in solar cells and a variety of metals including nickel, cobalt and lithium are used to store electricity in batteries. The UK clearly needs to ensure access to thermochemical materials (TCMs) to maintain its goal to deliver net zero. To put this in perspective, TCMs are vital to 7 of the top-10 UK export markets, with a value of more than £150 billion annually. It should be recognised that to deliver net zero will present numerous technical and logistical challenges. Oil and gas will not be phased out in the medium term due to the sheer size of our current energy requirement. In the short-term, these targets are possibly not achievable without some carbon capture and storage for which there are also technological barriers. There are also needs to decrease our total energy requirement through insulation and smarter houses and transport.
The world’s demand for raw materials is expected to double by 2060, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The requirement for metals is expected to grow even faster, with an expansion from 8 to 20 gigatonnes over the same period. In volume terms, much of this will be readily available, and easily recycled, metals like iron and aluminium, however, TCMs will be disproportionately affected. It is predicted that by 2050 the EU will require 60 times more lithium, 15 times more cobalt, and 10 times the amount of rare earths compared to the current EU supply. The new industrial strategy for the EU warned that Europe’s transition to climate neutrality could replace today’s reliance on fossil fuels with one on raw materials, many of which we source from abroad and for which global competition is becoming fierce.
The decarbonisation of the economy offers the chance for large-scale job creation. The Faraday Institution predicted that the transition to manufacturing electric vehicles (EVs) could support 220,000 jobs by 2040. The ability to create and retain these jobs will depend on the UK’s access to critical materials for batteries and rare-earth magnets for EV motors. It also depend on the ability to access a skilled workforce. Circular economies and supply chains need to be created and our waste management laws and barriers to recycling need to be reviewed.
The UK needs to retain its access to TCMs both through mining and recycling. An overview of this critical resource should be established through an observatory acting as a central point of reference for industry and government. There should be increased emphasis on R&D into design for recycle to ensure that TCMs are easily and economically recycled. Waste management law should be reviewed to ensure there are no barriers to material trade. While the flow of carbonaceous materials is currently closely monitored, this must be translated into an understanding of the importance of critical elements and technologies which enable net zero to be achieved.
Words by Professor Andy Abbott, Professor of Physical Chemistry, University of Leicester