Keeping pace with technology
Jane Burston of the National Physical Laboratory explains why the development of a measurement infrastructure is vital to mitigating climate change.
Measurement is a fundamental part of our everyday lives. From medical treatment, to sending documents over email and international trading, many of the things we take for granted today would not be able to operate without measurement. As new challenges and technologies arise, the measurement infrastructure needs to stay one step ahead.
One area where measurement is becoming increasingly vital is climate change. Work to date enables us to say with a huge degree of confidence that our climate is changing due to man-made emissions – a fact that is accepted by all but the most adamant cynics. What the data and climate models do not yet allow us to predict, with the certainty we would like and need, is the future impact of climate change and how quickly and where the impacts will be felt.
We need more accurate data in order to know whether we need to invest billions in mitigation and adaptation programmes, and in which areas our resources would have the biggest impact. Should we be scaling up wind farms, developing the Thames Barrier or moving populations away from low-lying and coastal areas?
The precise effects of climate change may still be unclear, but whatever happens, we know we need to reduce our emissions. In 2008 the UK became the first country in the world to set legally binding carbon targets in its Climate Change Bill. The bill sets goals for emission reductions of 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Meeting these goals requires radical reform of the energy market to favour clean electricity generation, but also relies on the large scale take up of new low carbon technologies, and behavioural change.
Such activities must tie into economic realities. Businesses need incentives to reduce emissions and invest in low carbon and the government and public need to have faith that the resulting investments will deliver our carbon targets. If industries are reducing their carbon use, for example through carbon capture and storage, they need to be able to prove the effectiveness and safety of the processes and technologies being used.
Getting this right will help us grow a low carbon and environmental goods and services sector that can deliver both nationally and internationally. It will allow the UK to continue to lead the world in being the financial centre of the global carbon market (projected to grow to more than $1 trillion by 2020).
The Centre for Carbon Measurement
All of this requires the development of a measurement infrastructure – not only in the UK but globally. At the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) we are due to launch a new centre that will work towards providing just that. NPL occupies a unique position as the UK’s National Measurement Institute and sits at the intersection between scientific discovery and real-world application. Our expertise and original research make a huge impact in areas such as security, healthcare, defence and energy. We have long worked to advance carbon measurement practices for the benefit of government, business and society. But now more than ever there is a need for a more focused approach to issues concerning climate change.
For this reason, we are due to launch the Centre for Carbon Measurement, which will provide the necessary measurement infrastructure to support the UK’s transition to a low carbon economy. The existing national measurement capability has made a significant difference to government programmes and to the bottom line of small and large businesses. We know that there is a need for this in the emerging low carbon sector as a result of existing research at NPL.
As the newly appointed lead for this area at NPL, issues of carbon mitigation are close to my heart. Prior to joining NPL, I co-founded a social enterprise called Carbon Retirement that takes an innovative approach to carbon offsetting by allowing companies to buy up carbon credits but not use them, thus removing them from the system. I’ve also worked as a consultant in the environmental sector for several years, including on climate change policy for Transport for London and the Mayor of London’s office. I know just how vital it is in this sector to have confidence in the data on which you make decisions.
We have consulted widely with stakeholders from across government, business, academia and other interested national and international bodies on the positive impact more accurate and extensive measurement could have on climate change and policies and products to mitigate it. Following these consultations, the team has highlighted three crucial areas that we will focus on during our work: reporting and reducing uncertainties in climate data used to monitor and model climate change; supporting existing and emerging tax, trade and regulatory instruments for carbon pricing; and accelerating the development of and validating the performance of low carbon technologies.
Reporting and reducing uncertainties in climate data
Improving the accuracy and reliability of climate data through data auditing and setting standards is a difficult task. Climate quality data represent a classic measurement challenge, as we are seeking to construct long time series from small signals against a noisy background using instruments across the globe. But understanding and modelling the global climate is critical for shaping national and international policies for both adaptation and mitigation, and for monitoring the impact of such policies.
Nowhere are we measuring with uncertainties anywhere close to what we need to fully understand climate change and allow us to adequately constrain and test the models. Our current best measurement capabilities would require more than 30 years before we have any possibility of identifying which model matches observations and is most likely to be correct in its forecast of consequential potentially devastating impacts. It is the duty of the science community to reduce this unacceptably large uncertainty by finding and delivering the necessary information, with the highest possible confidence, in the shortest possible time.
Measurement, and particularly the Quality Assurance that measurement provides, will enable this. We’ve set ourselves the target to deliver a traceable uncertainty assignment to existing climate and other Earth Observation (EO) data by 2014. EO data are now becoming a commercial product with the potential to provide real economic benefit to the UK. NPL is already developing new standards and validating the sensors used in satellites so that accurate, laboratory quality measurements of climate parameters can be made from space through a project called TRUTHS: essentially launching a National Measurement Institute into orbit.
The group is also working on understanding the discrepancy between measured and modelled radiative transmission through the atmosphere, which is one of the major uncertainties in climate change research. A project has been carried out at NPL to address this issue by undertaking accurate ground level measurements of the atmospheric transmission of incoming solar radiation and combining them with high resolution radiative modelling. The project was a collaboration combining the complementary expertise of NPL in the area of EO and the Meteorology Department at the University of Reading. Data such as this will allow better modelling of climate change to understand its future impact, and ensure the most effective policies for mitigation and adaptation.
We hope our work at the Centre for Carbon Measurement will give scientists, politicians and businesses the confidence to report more accurately on their assessments of climate change.
Supporting carbon trading and pricing
Another key focus of our work is to support the infrastructure around carbon trading and pricing. Countries that have agreed to cap their carbon emissions often purchase carbon credits, produced by projects in developing countries, to help them meet their targets. The idea is that, given a tonne of carbon dioxide emissions saved in one place has the same value in terms of climate change mitigation as a tonne of carbon dioxide emissions saved in another place, one option for developed country governments is to fund emissions reductions wherever it is cheapest.
Whether purchasing carbon credits helps to mitigate climate change therefore depends on the accuracy of the measurement behind the tonnes of carbon being saved elsewhere. There have been many examples over the past few years of projects where the measurement has not been as accurate as it could be. Without rigorous, scientifically underpinned data, such a system will never reach its true potential, either for the environment or developing economies.
Companies also buy carbon credits. Many companies voluntarily buy the same sorts of carbon credits as governments in order to become carbon neutral. Others – those in the heavy industrial sectors such as power, steel and cement, for example – are regulated by the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Under this scheme, the level of emissions for all of the industries combined is capped. Companies must buy a credit – in this case called an EU Allowance or EUA – for every tonne of carbon they emit. As the supply of allowances is limited, companies need to collectively reduce their emissions.
Thus those companies with the cheapest abatement projects implement them, and can ‘claim some of the money back’ from the industries that find it more expensive to reduce emissions, by selling them their excess EUAs. In the future, one way heavy industry can reduce emissions, and therefore their EUA requirement, is by pumping carbon dioxide underground. In order to achieve this permanent reduction, companies will clearly need to be able to demonstrate to regulators how much is being safely stored. To be able to prove this, there needs to be a sound measurement infrastructure which can record how much is captured, and verify that the captured carbon dioxide is not leaking back into the atmosphere.
To certify this, measurements of carbon dioxide emissions levels need to be made at all stages of the transportation and storage process. NPL is a world leader in atmospheric measurements and, with industry partners, has developed a range of technologies that could be adapted to measure carbon dioxide emissions from Carbon Capture and Storage sites. There are a number of established optical techniques that could be suitable for measuring leaks from storage facilities such as coal beds or depleted oil and gas reserves that are under dry land. NPL’s unique Differential Absorption Lidar (DIAL) generates a 3D map of airbourne emissions from measurements taken simultaneously across the infrared, visible and ultra-violet spectral regions. It then calculates the concentrations, providing rapid, accurate information on those emissions at a distance of up to 3km away from the source.
There are also a number of acoustic techniques which may detect leakage of carbon dioxide underwater. Gas bubbles strongly scatter sound and may be detected using imaging or sonar techniques. Geoacoustic sensors could be positioned on the sea floor to detect movement caused by subsidence, providing early warning of the changes in sea bed morphology. NPL has the relevant expertise and a range of unique test facilities for marine acoustics to evaluate underwater acoustic measurement. Despite this progress in specific areas, there is acknowledgement that at present the tools used for carbon trading and pricing globally are at an early stage of development and limited in scope.
As the international community seeks to develop more sophisticated and coordinated tools, it will become increasingly important that the underpinning measurement infrastructure keeps in step. The work by the Centre for Carbon Measurement will enable regulation, ensure fair and stable carbon markets, support businesses in reporting and managing emissions, and provide confidence to establish and meet international agreements.
Accelerating development of low carbon technologies
Our final focus area is supporting the development of low carbon technologies. NPL provides access to the best measurement techniques for developers of low carbon products and clean technologies, which will allow scientific validation of their performance. This will provide the confidence needed to secure investment to develop and commercialise the product, ensure regulations are met and reassure customers that the claims about the product are valid.
Such support is key to commercialising advances in areas such as energy efficient technology e.g. building efficiencies, fuel cells, photovoltaics and offshore renewables and smart devices. The measurement challenges faced by developers and users of low carbon technologies are often best solved in real-world situations rather than in a lab setting. Part of the Centre’s work will build on an existing NPL facility which measures real-world energy performance of large building sections and products to evaluate real-world building energy performance through a series of physical parameters traceable to primary measurement standards. NPL has world leading capabilities in the area of Power Quality and Power Efficiency measurement. For instance, it is currently working to improve the accuracy of on-site measurements of smart grids, vital for maintaining the quality of electricity supply and guaranteeing fair trade of energy.
As power generation becomes decentralised, with increasing numbers of wind turbines and solar panels, the electricity grid needs to evolve into a system capable of both giving and taking back energy accurately will be crucial. Coupled with this, the Centre will develop capability for remote monitoring of Power Quality and Efficiency from electrically or environmentally harsh conditions e.g. North Sea wind turbines, making asset maintenance easier. NPL has also worked with industry to focus on the three fundamental problems facing fuel cells: cost, durability and the need for a refueling infrastructure.
Working with leading fuel cell developers, NPL is addressing knowledge gaps in temperature distribution, catalyst activity and degradation in solid oxide and polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells. It is also giving industry measurement and modeling tools to characterise fuel cell performance in a number of environments. Using this data, manufacturers of fuel cells could speed up development of an infrastructure and supply chain for this emerging market.
The impact on the UK skill base and the economy
We believe that development of the UK’s National Measurement Infrastructure to meet these challenges is critical for the achievement of the overarching aims and to support many of the individual activities set out in the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s Carbon Plan. In addition, the Centre will aim to support the upskilling of the UK workforce for a low carbon future, provide significant direct economic benefit to the UK and ensure the UK continues to be seen as a leader in the global effort to address climate change.
The Centre will be launched shortly and our first year will be spent bringing together existing expertise and building new capabilities alongside our partners. We are now looking for those with an interest in this area – from business, government and academia – to work with us to expand the capabilities of the proposed Centre and to take advantage of our expertise to advance their own low carbon practices, technologies and research. Without a robust measurement infrastructure, it is difficult to know the scale of the climate problem or the adequacy of the solutions – whether those are policies, projects or technologies.
NPL’s existing work in these areas has gone a long way to helping solve some of the most pressing issues. With the introduction of the Centre for Carbon Measurement at a world leading centre of excellence in measurement science, NPL will be able to make a profound and global difference.
The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is one of the UK’s leading science facilities and research centres. It is a world leading centre of excellence in developing and applying the most accurate standards, science and technology available. NPL occupies a unique position as the UK’s National Measurement Institute and sits at the intersection between scientific discovery and real-world application.
Its expertise and original research have underpinned quality of life, innovation and competitiveness for UK citizens and business for more than a century: • NPL provides companies with access to world leading support and technical expertise, inspiring the absolute confidence required to realise competitive advantage from new materials, techniques and technologies • NPL expertise and services are crucial in a wide range of social applications – helping to save lives, protect the environment and enable citizens to feel safe and secure. Support in areas such as the development of advanced medical treatments and environmental monitoring helps secure a better quality of life for all • NPL develops and maintains the nation’s primary measurement standards, supporting an infrastructure of traceable measurement throughout the UK and the world, to ensure accuracy and consistency
Jane Burston recently joined NPL from Carbon Retirement, a social enterprise she co-founded in 2008 that takes an innovative approach to carbon offsetting. For this she has won several awards, including being named in Management Today’s ’35 high-flying women under 35’ list and as Square Mile magazine’s ‘Social Entrepreneur of the Year’ for 2011. Prior to establishing Carbon Retirement, Jane worked as a consultant in the environmental sector for several years, including on climate change policy for Transport for London and the Mayor of London’s office, and as an external consultant to a range of FTSE 100 businesses, public sector organisations and SMEs. She is a guest lecturer on carbon trading at Ashridge Business School, and in 2009 was a British Council Climate Change Ambassador.
Published: 01st Mar 2012 in AWE International