White cliffs by the sea

09 Jul 2024

Net Zero – nature’s invisible hand to beat the evolutionary odds

Harold Hutchinson | Managing Director, Alternative Energy at Investec

Recently, we hosted a seminar at Investec with Chris Goodall as our guest speaker, author of ‘Possible; Ways to Net Zero’. In today’s blog, Harold reflects on a number of energy themes in light of the discussions at the event.

At a recent Investec seminar, Chris Goodall used his latest book* as a launch pad to discuss a range of important issues in the climate debate. He cast his eye away from the 80% of decarbonisation, where we can see a visible path forward, to peer instead at the remaining 20% where lingering fog prevents a clear outlook.

The good news is that we are starting to see the emergence of potential solutions in so-called ‘hard to abate’ areas of industry and transport. Positive sentiment was expressed by attendees towards the H2 Green Steel project in Sweden, and for green methanol as a shipping fuel being pioneered by Maersk. Encouragingly, the evidence is that an energy transition is well underway, even in more difficult sectors.

However, the rate of change remains a concern. The lag from demonstration of new technologies to fully-scaled industrial capacity with credible infrastructure and supply chains is likely to be measured in decades. To quote Chris from his book:

“…actions to move whole sectors, such as aviation or steelmaking, are not taking place fast enough and are not backed by sufficient investment. The reasons for this all too often arise from concerns about the cost premiums that low carbon routes will impose on industries and consumers.”

The seminar also considered what direction energy policy should take in these international industries. Climate change does not respect country borders. Narrowly focused national policies, even well-meaning ones, may simply miss the point. Indeed, there are scenarios where they might make things worse, as when domestic carbon-emitting industries relocate to jurisdictions with weaker environmental controls, magnifying global systemic risks.

So, the relevant policy context is that we all inhabit the same planet earth. It is woodenheaded to believe that unilateralism can be an effective policy approach to decarbonisation. We need international co-operation.

Bringing together the threads of the long lead times to scale new technologies, cost premiums and the need for a global approach suggests two policy pillars. Developed countries with lower income inequality – and thus where decarbonisation is easier – should be ratcheting up on existing carbon commitments, not the opposite, driving scale economies and cost reductions. At the same time, they need to ensure rapid technology and resource transfer to the developing world. It is not ‘either/or’ but ‘both’.

While appreciation of this holistic point is increasing, there are remaining shades of opinion in terms of just how rapidly decarbonisation should proceed in the developed world, especially if redistributive actions towards the developing world are lagging and/or cost premiums only erode slowly.

My own view is that, when potential damages are very high if uncertain, as with climate change, there is intuitive wisdom in the precautionary principle, implying the need to take the United Nations Paris Agreement seriously, with its ‘ramping up ambition’ provisions. This is not Project Fear but Project Prudence.

The earth system evolves in non-linear ways, with only partly-understood tipping points. Carl Sagan’s observation, that “with evolution, extinction is the rule, survival the exception”, reminds us of the fragility of our common human condition.

Beyond these technology and policy issues, the seminar also considered other aspects of the net zero debate, including nature-based solutions to climate change. To quote Chris from his book again:

“…enhanced rock weathering, peatland restoration, and reforestation are all likely to achieve important roles in capturing the 5 or 6 billion tonnes a year that may need to be taken from the atmosphere to balance the CO2 still being added in 2050.”

The White Cliffs of Dover are a superb example of prehistoric ‘marine snow’ – layers of plankton, algae and tiny organisms that were crushed into sludge and rock on the ocean floor over millions of years. These cliffs evolved when Britain was still buried under the sea. Indeed, the White Cliffs are just the tip of an iceberg of calcite deposits extending over large parts of Northwestern Europe. They are a visible reminder of an ongoing invisible long-term carbon cycle absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and burying it in the ocean. 

However, these processes are only partially understood, even in frontier universities. In such cases, the best investment strategy in my view is simply to preserve nature – leaving her to her own devices rather than interfere, however well intentioned. In other cases, where our understanding is greater, giving nature a nudge to help us seems reasonable, as in peatland restoration and reforestation, but always with care. These offer significant climate and health gains at low cost in some cases, an important antidote to cost premiums in other areas of the energy transition.

A combination of protecting and restoring nature amounts to fiscal responsibility in an intergenerational sense, an integral part of any sustainable path to Net Zero. Even more importantly, it is our lowest-cost option to beat Sagan’s dark evolutionary odds.

Harold (right) and Chris Goodall talking together after the event at Investec’s offices

Harold (right) and Chris Goodall talking together after the event at Investec’s offices. Chris is a global expert on clean energy and climate technologies. He publishes the influential Carbon Commentary newsletter and is an advisor to the Pictet Clean Energy Transition Fund.


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* Further reading:
Chris Goodall: Possible; Ways to Net Zero. Profile Books

Disclaimer: The blog does not aim to give investment advice, but is designed to afford relevant longer-term context to investors, encouraging a broad perspective where uncertainty is high and a spirit of learning is important. The views expressed are those of the author, not those of Investec.