The Society and the climate summit
The Geological Society was awarded Observer Status at the recent COP26 meeting in Glasgow. Flo Bullough and Megan O’Donnell report on the implications of the summit for the Society and geoscience
Geoscience is critical for understanding and mitigating the impacts of climate change. So, the Geological Society was keen to attend the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), held in Glasgow in November 2021. We wanted to learn more about the COP process, but also raise awareness of the essential contribution of geoscience to climate change science and solutions.
In the lead up to COP26, we applied for and were awarded Non-Governmental Organisation Observer Status at the meeting – a first for the Society. We sent a delegation of six people to attend on behalf of the Society, and here we report on what we learnt, the implications for the Geological Society and for geoscience more broadly.
Conference of the parties
The COP is an annual meeting organised by the United Nations. The meeting is attended by delegations from nation states with the aim of discussing and negotiating agreements to address climate change – both the reduction of emissions and the mitigation of impacts.
COP26 was a particularly important milestone because it marked five years (plus a one-year delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic) since the ground-breaking ‘Paris Agreement’ of 2015. In this legally binding treaty, nation states agreed to work together to keep global warming below 2°C and to aim for 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels. Under this agreement, every five years each nation must submit increasingly ambitious proposals to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. COP26 marked the first iteration of this approach to ratchet up action on climate change, and was thus the deadline for each nation state to submit their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) outlining how they intend to contribute towards meeting the Paris Agreement.
The main outcome of COP26 was the Glasgow Climate Pact. This pact aims to make the 2020s a decade of climate action, with intensified efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and increase resilience to climate change, and to provide financial support to achieve these actions. The negotiations and agreements made at COP26 define how the world aims to limit climate change and reduce emissions in line with global climate goals. The targets need to be ambitious, yet deliverable, if we are to protect ourselves and our planet from the impacts of climate change. The decisions made during this conference touch almost every area of life and will affect the future of work, economic development, housing, travel and land use.
A voice for geoscience
Geoscience skills and expertise, as well as subsurface technologies, will be at the heart of the solutions needed to meet the Paris Agreement. Representation of the geosciences at COP was essential for raising the profile of the science in a vital area of public policy development.
Attendance at COP26 allowed us to more effectively engage in this critical area, and position ourselves as a forward-thinking and transition-relevant Society and community. It was also an opportunity to show leadership on a major global challenge, and to showcase the many ways that geoscience and geoscientists can help to address this urgent threat to humanity.
Our delegation of six included Fellows, committee members, the leader of the Society’s new strategic science theme of ‘Energy Transition’ (Dr Nick Gardiner), and staff. Over the two weeks, we attended a wide range of sessions on topics such as carbon dioxide removal through carbon capture and storage (CCS), decarbonising steel and cement production, and the role of a hydrogen economy. Together, we were able to assess the scope of the agreements, raise awareness of geoscience knowledge, distribute and promote various resources (see ‘Resources’), and also share geoscience expertise with new audiences.
We initiated a major social media campaign to communicate the geoscience-relevant parts of COP26 to new audiences
We also initiated a major social media campaign to communicate the geoscience-relevant parts of COP26 to new audiences, particularly students making career choices. The campaign included short videos with geoscientists in attendance at the meeting who talked about the ways in which our science can help resolve critical issues. All the videos are available on the Geological Society’s YouTube channel.
Implications for geoscience
The outcomes from COP26 have far-reaching implications for the geoscience community and its role in the energy transition. Key areas include:
Carbon sequestration: A major area of discussion was the role of carbon sequestration in the subsurface. Carbon sequestration is applied in two important ways: the first is to reduce emissions by, for example, capturing emissions from a steel plant at source and then sequestering the CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere; the second is carbon dioxide removal, where already-emitted CO2 is stripped from the atmosphere through direct air capture – a growing area of research.
These two applications of carbon sequestration can reduce future emissions, but also tackle the previously emitted CO2 which, if left at current levels, will have far-reaching impacts on the climate, as outlined in the latest IPCC report (ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/).
Fossil fuel use: The need to rapidly reduce coal, oil and gas usage was frequently on the agenda. A number of announcements and alliances committed countries and industry to take action in this regard through the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (beyondoilandgasalliance.com/) and the Powering Past Coal Alliance (poweringpastcoal.org/). Both commitments call for major transformational shifts in the production of fossil fuels in the coming decades.
One of the most newsworthy, and controversial, parts of the final negotiations was the explicit inclusion of coal in the final agreement. Early drafts of the agreement had included the commitment for all nations to ‘phase out’ unabated coal power (that is, the use of coal for power generation without the use of carbon capture and storage to reduce emissions). After a last-minute intervention on the floor of the final negotiations, the wording was amended to ‘phase down’. While less impactful, the inclusion of this reference nonetheless represents the first time in the history of COP that coal, or any other fossil fuel, has been mentioned as a cause of climate change with an explicit call to reduce its use. Its inclusion in the wording of the final COP26 agreement is historic.
Steel production: Beyond the use of fossil fuels for power, there was also considerable discussion about how to decarbonise hard-to-abate industries, such as steel production, which is one of the largest-emitting, hard-to-decarbonise sectors. The industry is highly power intensive and uses coal for power generation. Additionally, 74% of the world’s steel currently relies on a process that uses coal as a chemical reactant in the manufacturing process. Global steel is at a crossroads and the investment decisions made in the 2020s will be crucial to the transformation of this industry, which urgently needs to begin aligning with climate targets.
A small but growing area that could make a significant contribution to reducing emissions is low-carbon steelmaking technology. In particular, the company Hybrit (hybritdevelopment.se/en/) is now making fossil-free steel that uses hydrogen in place of coal in the furnace reactions. Hydrogen-based steel making can reduce emissions in this sector by up to 90%, or even higher when combined with CCS.
ArcelorMittal, the world’s leading steel company, is also looking to use hydrogen as a power source, where affordable. However, there are currently no steel companies working on large-scale CCS projects, which is seen by many as critical to decarbonising this industry, so there is significant progress still to make.
Steel production also aims to move towards a circular economy model through the re-use of scrap. The combination of recycling scrap steel and using low-carbon energy sources in processing would produce the lowest carbon footprint for steel.
Cement: Cement production is another hard-to-decarbonise sector, with high demands on natural resources through the use of aggregates in the manufacture process and coal for power generation.
The demand for cement in construction is set to increase significantly. However, this creates an opportunity for new approaches, including the review of building designs and the identification of opportunities for incorporating the circular economy into the cement supply chain during the planning stages.
The Paris Agreement (2015) and the Glasgow Climate Pact (2021) outline the critical need for technologies and adaption plans that rely heavily on the skills and expertise of geoscientists. As a community, and as a Society, we will need to effectively communicate the solutions that subsurface technologies and geoscience skills can provide to address the major global challenge that is climate change.
There are a number of areas where geoscience will play a key role in meeting the Paris Agreement that were barely or not discussed at all at COP26. There was scant mention of the essential need for raw minerals and materials in delivering the energy transition and, in particular, the move to electric vehicles. Mined natural resources are a major component of economic growth for many countries in the Global South, so this area has both a supply security and important economic elements. There was also little discussion of the skills needed to deliver the energy transition, in geoscience and beyond. As a community, we must engage in these areas going forwards.
The delivery of these agreements is an opportunity to reposition geoscience
The coming energy transition and the delivery of these agreements presents an opportunity to reposition geoscience as more solution-based – a science critical to mitigating the impacts of climate change. This field is of growing interest to a younger generation of students and graduates, so shifting focus toward the application of geoscience in this way has the potential to boost interest in geoscience at degree level and stem the drop in undergraduate enrolment.
Here at the Society, the launch of our new strategic science themes in the areas of Energy Transition; Geohazards, Geoengineering and Georesilience; and Climate and Ecology, offer an opportunity to focus and explore these critical areas of geoscience research and application over a multi-year programme. It will be important to understand how the COP agreements and pacts change over time, as well as their impact on key geoscience industries and research areas.
COP26 ANNOUNCEMENT: Decarbonising the road transport and steel sectors
The ‘Breakthrough Agenda’ was announced to address the need to decarbonise the road transport and steel sectors. Signatories commit to working together to make low-carbon hydrogen available and affordable globally by 2030. This will mean scaling up renewable and low-carbon power supply, supported by energy storage solutions that can balance variable supply with demand.
Zero-emissions road transport will be achieved through battery and electric vehicles. Electric vehicles currently require six times more raw materials than a standard vehicle (IEA, 2021), so geoscientists will be essential for the delivery of these critical raw materials and minerals. Steel is the second greatest industrial contributor to climate change (after the fossil fuel industry) and low- or near-zero emissions steel will be a transformative commitment.
COP26 ANNOUNCEMENT: Finance for net zero
On Finance Day, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero was announced. It requires firms, banks, insurers and investors to adjust their business models and develop plans for the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient future. The alliance aligns $130 trillion of private investment with net-zero emissions – helping to speed up the transition to net zero and supporting those most impacted. To ensure that the transition to a new energy economy is equitable and just, developed countries committed to supporting developing nations with $100 billion per year of public funding for climate change mitigation and emissions reductions projects.
COP26 ANNOUNCEMENT: Powering Past Coal Alliance
On Energy Day, coal power was largely consigned to history as 190 countries, banks and organisations committed to phasing out the single greatest contributor to climate change in the Powering Past Coal Alliance. This is the first time a COP has prioritised an end to financing fossil fuels, and could shift ~$17.8 billion a year in public support out of fossil fuels and into the clean energy transition. The majority of coal power is expected to be replaced by the growing green Hydrogen capacity globally and will be supported by the Breakthrough Agenda’s commitment to global hydrogen availability by 2030.
We launched a number of resources and activities at COP26 that explore the links between geoscience and the actions required to address climate change. These resources were shared widely at the meeting, as either published handouts or digitally, and include:
• Meeting the Paris Agreement: The critical role of Earth science
This short note highlights the ways in which geoscience can help deliver the Paris Agreement. We also shared our other policy publications, which include The role of Geoscience in Decarbonisation, Geoscience and the hydrogen economy, Geology and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and Geology for Society.
• COP26-themed YouTube video series
In each video, geoscientists highlight the links between geoscience and delivery of the Paris Agreement, covering topics that include energy, finance, nature and transport. youtube.com/user/geologicalsociety
• Video dispatches
A series of onsite videos from our delegates and geoscientists in attendance that feature updates on the COP26 discussions and negotiations. blog.geolsoc.org.uk/
• Joined the RINGO constituency
The Society joined the Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations (RINGO) constituency to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). RINGO is one of the nine NGO constituencies recognised by the UNFCCC. This will be our home constituency group for future COPs and is our route for providing evidence and expertise that can be considered at various levels of negotiation.
• Hydrogen: A silver bullet or a red herring
In collaboration with the University of Glasgow and the European Federation of Geologists, we ran an event that examined the role of hydrogen storage and natural hydrogen during ‘Transport Day’ at COP26. Experts from academia and industry, as well as the general public, came together to discuss the contribution of hydrogen technology to emissions reduction, but also at the interest from the finance and pensions sector in investing in technologies, such as hydrogen, that are Paris Agreement compliant. youtu.be/vz-2ebYUxuQ
• Geoscience reflections from COP26 blogpost
We published a wrap-up blogpost on the Geoscience for the Future blog.
Read the latest research
If you would like to read more about the current research behind many of these solutions-driven technologies, our Publishing House has a number of publications with relevant content, including our new open access journal ES3
• Earth Science, Systems and Society (ES3) with a special issue focussing on ‘Earth Science and the race to Net Zero’ and the ‘Sustainability in the Extractive Industries’. escubed.org
• Petroleum Geoscience has an on-going collection entitled ‘The Energy Geoscience Series’.
• IEA (2021) The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, IEA, Paris; www.iea.org/reports/the-role-of-critical-minerals-in-clean-energy-transitions
• Flo Bullough, Head of Policy and Engagement
• Megan O’Donnell, Communications and Policy Officer
Both at the Geological Society of London, UK
• Flo Bullough, Head of Policy and Engagement, the Geological Society of London, UK
• Dr Nicholas Gardiner, Lecturer in Applied Earth Resources, University of St Andrews, UK
• Dr Sarah Gordon, Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Satarla, London, UK
• Dr Gareth Johnson, Research Fellow, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK
• Dr Alicia Newton, Director of Science and Communications, the Geological Society of London, UK
• Dr Megan O’Donnell, Communications and Policy Officer, the Geological Society of London, UK