Logistics as a facilitator, remover and last resort in the climate crisis

Julia Swales, Senior Editor at Ti and Advisory Board Manager for the Foundation for Future Supply Chain,  interviewed Alan McKinnon, Professor of Logistics at the Kuehne Logistics University in Hamburg, about decarbonization and climate proofing and the logistics challenges involved.

Decarbonisation and climate proofing will involve the movement of a vast amount of materials. The big one is the move to renewable energy infrastructure. That process has begun, with wind turbines and solar panels. Producing zero carbon electricity from renewables or forces from the wind or solar power is highly decentralized. According to a DHL report, on the basis of German data it would take around 16,400 wind turbines to generate as much power as 13 oil refineries and 100 natural gas power plants, so there is a major upfront logistics task, putting the infrastructure in place. 

Taking CO2 out of the atmosphere is also a logistics challenge. It can be done using a mechanical chemical process with devices called carbon scrubbers. The big problem is that the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are very low – CO2 represents 0.04% of the atmosphere, so you have to filter huge amounts of air to capture one ton of CO2. That requires the use of huge amounts of energy which must be renewable and zero carbon. Quite a few climate scientists are just very doubtful that this will ever be achievable on scale. The world’ largest ‘direct air capture’ plant is in Iceland. As these plants are so energy intensive, they tend to be in locations where low carbon energy is relatively cheap and plentiful. The International Energy Agency estimates that there are only 27 of these prototype plants in the world. 

Another way of removing CO2 is with a process called BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage), where vegetation is used to capture the CO2, which is obviously a well-established process. The newly planted vegetation, mainly trees, are harvested and the biomass is burned, then the CO2 is captured and buried underground. The IPCC think that this is the best method, but some of the modelling that’s been done, suggest that more CO2 could be emitted in that process than would actually be captured. There are many issues, such as will there be enough land and water to support it? Also, forests are incredibly vulnerable to extreme weather. Winter storms in the UK in 2021-2 blew down around 8 million trees. Last year Canada was ravaged by wildfires. It seems that any capturing process which is dependent on vegetation is fundamentally vulnerable and risky. 

Carbon dioxide removal has now become mainstream, and it’s factored into all the climate models, but another climate control method is very controversial – solar geo-engineering. If sulphate particles make it high enough in the atmosphere, they can form a haze that blocks some sunlight from reaching Earth’s surface. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) rules introduced in January 2020, putting a new limit on the sulphur content in the fuel oil used on board ships operating outside designated emission control areas to 0.50% m/m (mass by mass), have lowered global emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) from shipping by around 10%. But ironically this could actually be contributing to global warming, revealing an environmental trade-off between cutting air pollution and constraining global warming. Some researchers have suggested that the drop in SO2 as a result of the IMO’s clean air regulations may have contributed to the recent spike in global sea surface temperature. 

Although it sounds like the stuff of science-fiction, sulphate particles could be artificially spread in the upper atmosphere using planes for stratospheric dispersal at altitudes of 20 kms which is far higher than a commercial jet usually flies. However, no planes are currently capable of doing this, particularly as it has been estimated that stratospheric dispersal of 3m tons of sulphates per annum would be required for a 0.3°C reduction in global temperature. Some people argue it’s never going to work at scale. Research shows that if it could be made to work, it could take as many as 100 years to deliver the required cooling of the atmosphere. It would also be highly risky, because there would almost certainly be other weather effects. As yet, our level of knowledge about what these other meteorological impacts would be is rather poor. It might help to lower global temperatures, but it could have other quite devastating effects in some parts of the world.

Author: Julia Swales

Source: Ti Insight / Foundation for Future Supply Chain

Supply chain strategists can use GSCi – Ti’s online data platform – to identify opportunities for growth, support strategic decisions, help them stay abreast of industry trends and development, as well as understand future impacts on the industry. 

Visit GSCI subscription to sign up today or contact Michael Clover for a free demonstration: [email protected] | +44 (0) 1666 519907