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Carbon neutrality: not a panacea, but an incentive to economic development

Without carbon, there would be no life: we ourselves are made of carbon, what we eat is made of carbon, and pretty much everything around us is built on carbon. Although carbon dioxide, water vapor and methane absorb infrared radiation, containing the thermal energy of the sunlight and trapping it in the atmosphere, we actually know very little about the ozone layer and its actual role in the carbon cycle; and in shaping the Earth's climate.

We also practically ignore the role of the magnetosphere in this cycle. But, on the other hand, we know for sure that CO2 keeps global temperatures within certain limits; ensuring the preservation of life on the planet. Finding answers to such questions as the causes of climate change; the physics of the carbon footprint; the prospects for hydrogen as a new energy resource and possibly as a utility; and the genesis and exhaustibility of hydrocarbons; is a crucial task which both science and society are facing.

It is an oversimplification to attribute the observed average warming of the Earth's surface only to the greenhouse effect. Quantitative assessments indicate that natural processes (solar radiation, stratospheric volcanic aerosols) are probably most responsible for the large-scale temperature changes observed during the last century. Naturally, the effects of anthropogenic action have influenced, but to a lesser degree. However, the discussion of the causes of warming is still in active motion.

There is no doubt that we have an obligation to substantially reduce the pollution generated by energy facilities. Nonetheless, the categorical assertion that their emissions are the prevailing cause of possible climate change is scientifically questionable. Society is offered a simple and unalternative set of tools to save the planet: the intensification of the energy transition and the creation of a hydrogen economy. There are also increasingly persistent calls to reduce investment in hydrocarbon production, because this will lead to a reduction in supply on the market and a drop in demand. But in the reality, this approach only leads to higher energy prices, due to shortages on raw materials.

In order to actually take a step forward and make a technological breakthrough in the field of renewable energy (air, water, light) and even more so in hydrogen energy; mankind needs to invest a huge amount of additional energy to create green technologies, test them and put them into practice. Without the assist of hydrocarbons, it is impossible to do so in today's conditions.

Moreover, the development of the oil and gas industry - the largest sector of the global economy and, with no doubt, its foundation - is happening outside the paradigm of market relations, which threatens the energy security of some states. Oil, gas and their derivate products are the basis of international trade. It is no coincidence that the leaders of many leading world powers, representing the interests of the most liquid sectors of the economy; along with financiers and weapons manufacturers, traditionally lobbied the interests of oil and gas corporations. However, the situation has now changed: the so-called fourth industrial revolution has led to the emergence of fundamentally different elites, consisting of a new generation of rich people; in particular the creators of IT-companies and virtual trading platforms. They often use their capital not to produce final consumption goods and saturate the market, but to invest in products that have not yet been created or exist only as prototypes.

Most of the new establishment has interests in renewable energy as well, since this is a promising area, as it receives generous government subsidies. However, while promoting alternative energy, its adherents often ignore elementary laws of physics. For instance, they ignore such factors as the specific heat of combustion of hydrogen or the ability of its molecules to penetrate the crystal lattice of almost any steel.

For Russia, an opportunity is really opening up to solve the long-overdue task of significantly reducing the share of hydrocarbons consumption, including by increasing the efficiency of their use. There is a huge potential in this: the efficiency of hydrocarbon resources in the combined heat and power cycle today is 20-26% for 45-55% coal, 24-30% for 50-70% oil products, and 26-32% for 70-78% natural gas.

Scientists at St. Petersburg Mining University are conducting scientific research, aimed at achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 by means of the energy transition; considering the actual state of Russian economy, while focusing on energy efficiency. This is highly relevant, as Russia needs to implement the least costly and most affordable way to decarbonize as positively as possible, to ensure the competitiveness of the economy. Empirical data, analysis, and calculations show that, as a result of the implementation of appropriate measures, the potential for reducing the proportion of consumption of hydrocarbon resources by 2050, is as high as 45-55%.

Our research has shown that the energy transition to carbon neutrality until 2050 should be based on the use of carbon-neutral resources: gas, nuclear and hydroelectric power with a slight increase in the share of renewable sources as local energy resources. Naturally, no less important for the domestic and world economy, is the formation of a new lifestyle of consumer-urban civilization, based on global energy and heat saving; and our country has a huge reserve for this. For instance, it is possible (and even necessary) to reduce energy consumption by stock housing from 400 to 50 kilowatt-hours per m2 each year. It is necessary to encourage cogeneration in CHP plants, to increase efficiency of hydrocarbon use in generation, by more than 2 times.

To implement this new economic order, the government should create enough motivation for the interested sector: this might be achieved by adopting new norms and rules for determining the efficiency of existing and created facilities, and using energy (joules) as a measuring variable, rather than money. The government should pay increased attention to this area; because it is the foundation which will definitely allow us to advance to a truly new economy, to create a new environment, and to ensure the development of our country as a whole.

Vladimir Litvinenko, Rector of St. Petersburg Mining University

This article was published in Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Russian Gazette) on February 15, 2022