The energy transition: A systems approach
The shift to a net-zero carbon future is a pressing international concern. Discussions at a recent Energy Transition meeting focused on the role of the geosciences and the need for various stakeholders to use a systems approach to ensure delivery of a just transition
The geosciences play a pivotal role in enabling the increasingly urgent energy transition. Geological knowledge will allow the sourcing and recycling of essential raw materials, minerals and metals for low-carbon energy infrastructure, and geological solutions will underpin new technologies for energy production, transfer and storage. While geoscience can help drive innovation and support business, it is also fundamental to the facilitation of a sustainable and socially just transition. So, what should geoscience do now to ensure a sustainable transition to net zero? This question was at the centre of the Energy Transition Discussion Meeting organised by the Geological Society in partnership with Responsible Raw Materials in April 2022.
The future-focused and action-orientated meeting was formulated as a hybrid in-person and online event to support global participation, with interactive discussion and the integration of 160 participants. Twenty speakers framed the issues through lively talks, while panellists and delegates led and deepened the dialogue. The discussion involved a mixture of ‘yes, geoscience can contribute’, frustration of ‘things not happening’, recognition that ‘we got that wrong’, as well as anxiety around ‘do we have the time before mid-century?’ The meeting ended positively with the view that ‘geoscience can – and must – contribute effectively’.
A just transition
The energy transition will entail increasing reliance on new technologies and low-carbon energy systems including, to name but a few: both low- and high-temperature geothermal, solar photovoltaics, wind power and hydrogen, in combination with carbon capture and storage. These new technologies and energy systems depend on geoscientific knowledge, supplies and solutions. For example, geoscientific input is required for responsible prospecting and sourcing of essential raw materials, such as copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt, to enable the construction of low-carbon energy infrastructure, battery storage, transportation, construction and engineering, as well as for the identification and critical evaluation of safe subsurface storage sites.
But the energy transition must be achieved in a fair and inclusive way, ensuring a socially and environmentally just transition that creates high-quality jobs in the UK and worldwide. Responsible resource stewardship (including hydrocarbons) is critical to a rebalance of ownership and empowerment, and to recognise different contexts and aspirations. We must focus on the development of circular economies, eliminating waste and reducing environmental impact, and supporting sustainable – thriving – communities. This approach should extend globally, from the Northern Hemisphere coal- and rust-belt regions to the extractive industries of the African, South American, Asian and Australian continents. In this endeavour, geoscientists are uniquely placed to support policy makers, industry and other stakeholders, in the management of Earth’s resources.
The discussion meeting aimed to identify how academia and industry can engage all stakeholders and work together to tackle outstanding knowledge gaps and drive progress. Two of the questions tabled were: How can we best work together to provide accessible and reliable information to support the rapid implementation of carbon capture and storage? What are the gaps in scientific understanding and engineered design for circular resource use?
Gaining public and regulatory trust is vital for projects to progress, which raises many interconnected questions: How do we communicate the values of social equality, evidence-based regulation, environmental and social governance, as well as equality, diversity and inclusivity, while also progressing the science and technology, and helping the public, regulators and other stakeholders appreciate uncertainty and risk? What are the challenges relating to social and regulatory permissions to operate and how do we respond to these? How do educators and researchers handle questions of commercial sponsorship against a backdrop of insufficient government support? And how can we improve two-way engagement with regulators, and the wider public?
A systems approach
The discussions highlighted that the challenge is complex and interlocking. For example, it is essential to increase awareness of geoscience, which is generally low across society, from school children through to government – in the latter case, policy engagement and influence has been limited. Geoscience can enable a sustainable global transition, but a greater understanding of the nature and breadth of the subject, as well as increased support for its inclusion in (secondary) education and policy, is needed.
Financial incentives can stimulate and drive change. Much of the knowledge and tools required to start already exist, but funding is needed to make this action a reality. For example, low-carbon energy sources will require the capture and removal of emitted carbon, so markets must reward secure carbon storage and effective stewardship of subsurface storage sites, in combination with approaches to reduce demand.
We must alter our approach. Many so-called rare elements are globally common (for example, cerium is more abundant than copper). It is possible to attain secure supplies, but this can only be achieved if the methods of mining and processing minerals are sustainable, with pathways explicitly designed towards minimal or no waste and with vastly reduced environmental impact.
We must maintain and expand our geoscientific skills sets. Geoscientists already have many of the core skills needed to understand, predict and exploit the subsurface. It is essential to maintain these, while continuing to expand our understanding of the timescales and consequences of past global changes. We must also improve our ability to communicate, listen and facilitate trust. It is essential to introduce geoscientists to the softer skills of listening and explaining (for example, to residents, the public, policy makers, managements and activists) so that we can better understand and work more closely with people, both within and outside the geosciences.
Overall, the energy transition requires a systems-thinking approach – a joined-up endeavour that is holistic and looks at relationships – to capture the complexity of the interactions involved.
An immediate priority is that groups from academia, industry and government must come together to identify high-priority and short-duration deliverables relating to our energy-transition strategy and government policies. For a mid-term priority, we must activate increased social awareness of how geoscience contributes to net zero across the UK. In this regard, the Geological Society and its Specialist Groups, as well as other learned societies, are well-placed to increase awareness because they already have many of the materials needed, as well as the means to reach large audiences.
Over the longer term, we must expand our communication with government and policy makers, by creating briefings and by identifying achievable, measurable objectives that will allow us to establish when the mission is complete.
The meeting ended with an optimistic outlook from Ruth Allington, current President of the Geological Society. Ruth shared how geoscientists are now more aware of their history and more cognisant of the need for better communication. Modern geoscientists recognise their role as part of the mix of solutions needed for a sustainable energy transition. Nevertheless, for geoscientists to contribute to an effective and fair energy transition, the sector requires: a) relevant education and training; b) efficient and professional collaborative deployment of expertise; c) evidence-based information for public perception and policy; as well as d) the development of community trust through listening, understanding and being receptive and responsive to concerns.
A final single all-embracing phrase to describe this meeting and its outcome is an updated quotation from Karla Panchuk (2019), which attempts to place Earth and its understanding through geology into an under-recognised yet fundamental position in the supply and maintenance of resources essential for human welfare and development: “If you can’t grow it, you have to responsibly mine it and then re-use it.”
Rob Knipe, University of Leeds; Nick Gardiner, University of St Andrews; Rose Clarke, Satarla; Sarah Gordon, Satarla; Stuart Haszeldine, University of Edinburgh; Gareth Johnson, University of Strathclyde; Megan O’Donnell, The Geological Society of London; Jen Roberts, University of Strathclyde; Dan Smith, University of Leicester; Clare Bond, University of Aberdeen
- A variety of resources are listed at: geolsoc-energytransition.com/reading-corner
- Panchuk, K. (2019) Physical Geology, First University of Saskatchewan Edition – Published under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence.
- For information on future Energy Transition meetings, visit: geolsoc-energytransition.com
- A recording of the meeting is available at: geolsoc-energytransition.com/copy-of-donate
- Abstracts and delegate biographies are available at: geolsoc-energytransition.com/abstracts-and-bios
- More detailed discussion will be published in the journal Earth Science, Systems and Society: escubed.org