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Tortoise at Cop26

Tortoise at Cop26

Join us at The New York Times Climate Hub as we discuss Cop26, and help build a practical to-do list to save the planet.

New York is under water. Siberia is melting. California’s on fire. Climate migration is causing humanitarian crises in North Africa and Central America. To say climate change is happening is a cliché but true. To paint the world in apocalyptic brushstrokes is almost embarrassingly easy. 

What to do? As humans, first, we talk. The Cop26 conference in Glasgow is not the perfect forum but it’s the best we’ve got. The Cop process is weakened by a permanent gap between rhetoric and reality, but at least it exists. At Tortoise, we’re using Cop as an opportunity to build a granular to-do list to save the planet – and we need our members’ help. 

Join us and a selection of our Accelerating Net Zero coalition partners, online or in person, as we livestream direct from The New York Times Climate Hub in Glasgow, with contributions from some of the best and brightest in climate science, policymaking and sustainable business. Over the two weeks, we’ll be asking questions at our ThinkIns to try and find some clarity in all the noise and catastrophising, including:

…and many more. 


Long-range power
The map is persuasive. North Africa has the space and the sun. Northern Europe has the demand and the money. Why not connect the two by high-voltage cable, monetising the Maghreb’s most abundant commodity and supplying the rich North’s limitless demand for clean energy? Sir Dave Lewis, the former Tesco CEO, hopes to do just that. He’s leading a bid to build a £16bn, 3,800 km undersea connector to the UK from southern Morocco, where the project says it’s secured the use of a 1500 square kilometre wind and solar site the size of Greater London. The technology exists. Power has to be transmitted as direct current and converted to alternating on arrival, but that’s now standard practice for interconnectors and China has one that’s nearly 3,300 km long, albeit overland. Lewis’s Xlinks project would be 3,800 km, by far the world’s longest undersea connector. It would produce up to 10.5 GW of power and transmit about a third of that for 20 hours a day, thanks partly to a giant in situ 5GW bank of batteries to even out the supply curve. Four cables coming ashore in Devon would power up to 7 million homes. To pay for itself the project needs a power tariff slightly higher than the current wholesale price for offshore wind, which is going down. And similar efforts have foundered in the past on local politics and vested interests. But this one looks to have a fair wind. If nothing else, it aims to be big in making undersea cables for others. 


Mini nukes
These days, anxieties over electricity supply tend to trump concerns about nuclear energy. In the wake of a crisis over gas prices, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has been speaking to Rolls-Royce about a plan to approve funding for 16 small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) across the Midlands and north of England. Currently, seven larger plants provide 17 per cent of the UK’s electricity needs, but that will fall by nearly half by 2024. SMRs are seen by the government as an increasingly viable, green solution. One of them could produce enough energy to power 60,000 electric cars or a city the size of Leeds. They also have the benefit of being less geopolitically fraught than the larger type: the Times reported yesterday that ministers, in response to pressure from Washington, are trying to broker an end to Chinese involvement in Sizewell C – the Suffolk-based power plant first proposed by David Cameron’s government. They’re also in ​​talks with a US-based company, Westinghouse, to build a new one on Anglesey, on the site where the Welsh government has planned another SMR made by Rolls-Royce. So what will it be? A British mini or a Big American? Either way, it’s overdue.

Science and tech

Talk vs walk
Airbus is getting serious about hydrogen-powered flight. Its CEO, Guillaume Faury, tells the FT it’s realistic to think of an H2 jet in flight tests by the end of the decade and commercial service by 2035. Others say hydrogen won’t be doing much to shrink aviation’s carbon footprint until the middle of the century, but it’s hard to see how that footprint can shrink without it. Kerosene is about 50 times as energy dense as a top-end lithium ion battery, and much, much lighter per unit of power consumed. That’s why batteries as we know them will never power high-occupancy planes, let alone long-haul. So-called sustainable aviation fuel has its own suite of obstacles to viability, including cost and (where derived from biomass) the space required to grow it. But liquid hydrogen is three times as energy dense as kerosene and wouldn’t require a total reinvention of the jet engine. The trouble is, double-skinned tanks to keep it at minus 253 degrees would take up four times the space of their regular jet fuel equivalents. On the upside, that’s just an engineering challenge, like powered flight itself.

Engagement and activism

Food for thought
600 food experts, activists, and civil society groups have signed a declaration accusing the organisers of last week’s UN Food Systems Summit of “corporate colonisation” and sidelining smaller stakeholders. For an event that was billed as the “People’s Summit”, it’s not a good look. The report card on climate action isn’t great either. In terms of commitments to tackle emissions from agriculture, the results were mixed. Norway pledged to address deforestation in supply chains, and New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said she’d put an end to environmentally harmful subsidies for agriculture and fisheries. But critics say issues like chemical-intensive monocropping and industrial meat farming barely got a mention. The summit did however raise an interesting prospect: how about an ‘IPCC for food’? Just as the UN has an intergovernmental panel for climate, a global science-policy forum for food systems might diffuse some of the politics – and prompt some action.

Do share this around, and let us know what you think of it.

Thanks for reading.

Barney Macintyre

Giles Whittell

With thanks to our coalition members: a network of organisations similarly committed to achieving Net Zero

Visit the homepage to find out more about the coalition and join us.