Impressions from COP22: Time is of the essence

Niall Bradshaw was one of three Grantham Scholars who joined the University of Sheffield’s delegation to the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Here, he reports from the event he spoke at alongside our Director, Professor Tony Ryan OBE, and Professor Duncan Cameron, co-Director of the P3 Centre.

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Niall Bradshaw, speaking at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Marrakech.
Niall Bradshaw, speaking at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Marrakech.

Global news last week was dominated by the result of the US presidential election. The mood among our delegation was anguished to say the least, and looking at my personal twitter feed, it seemed that that feeling was echoed around the world. The president-elect has pledged to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement, the legally binding framework upon which the world can endeavour towards a low carbon future, in the process dismissing climate change as a hoax created by and for the Chinese.

With this in mind, it felt as though the enthusiasm and promise surrounding COP might well have all been in vain. On arrival at the venue, the feeling was indeed sombre. Our delegates were interviewed by a French television crew, and contributed an article to The Conversation to try to express this feeling to the world, and to discuss what this might mean for our collective future.

However, as the days progressed and further global delegates arrived it became clear that after distress must come action. During the second week of the talks, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, referring to global action on climate change, addressed the conference to caution that, “What was once unthinkable, has become unstoppable”. He urged Mr Trump to listen to and understand the severity and urgency of the issue. To me, it was reassuring to see so many people, from so many walks of life converging together with an optimistic attitude towards our future.

Our delegation at COP included members of the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, as well as colleagues at Energy2050. Between us we held several panel discussions, inviting delegates from business and policy to offer their insights, as well as showcasing the great work going on at the University of Sheffield and further afield. I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at one such session entitled ‘Understanding and mitigating embedded energy and CO2 in the agri-food system’, making the case for phosphate recovery from waste streams in response to an impending global phosphorus crisis. Chaired by Grantham Centre Director Professor Tony Ryan, the panel also included my supervisor Professor Duncan Cameron discussing how conventional agriculture is destroying our soils; Professor Hamdan Al-Fazari of Sohar University in Oman talking about the microcosm farm, an ambitious collaboration between Sohar and Sheffield; and finally Khalid Benhamou, Managing Director of Sahara Wind, presenting an innovative project that aims to use Morocco’s powerful trade winds to decarbonize fertilizer production.

Working on organic fertilizers myself, it was particularly interesting to gain insight from Khalid into how Morocco can work towards cleaner chemical fertilizer production, an industry it will likely dominate in the coming years. Morocco controls 73% of the world’s phosphate resources and it is looking to increase its production of blended fertilizers which, as well as phosphorus, contain nitrogen and potassium. Traditionally, nitrogen in the form of ammonia has been produced by the energy intensive Haber process, using both high temperature and pressure to react atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen derived from natural gas, a fossil fuel. This process produces six tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of hydrogen produced, and consumes 2% of the world’s energy each year. Morocco, buffeted by strong trade winds from the North Atlantic, is in the unique position of being able to couple the generation of sustainable wind energy with low-carbon fertilizer production by using the clean electricity produced to provide hydrogen, via the electrolysis of water, with zero carbon emissions, rather than natural gas.

Together with Professor Tony Ryan and Professor Duncan Cameron, Professor Al-Fazari then moved to discuss their ambition to develop the microcosm farm. Designed as an option for sustainable agriculture in dry desert environments such as those in Oman, the microcosm farm aims to use solar thermal energy to desalinate seawater for the irrigation of vast greenhouses. With a lack of suitable soil, they hope to use an artificial growth medium supplied with sufficient nutrients along with atmospheric CO2 enrichment to yield valuable crops, with any organic wastes processed to fertilizers and animal feeds. Innovations such as this may prove vital in the future, providing a sustainable option for food security in the face of the ever-growing challenges of climate change and desertification.

The enthusiastic response to these projects from our audience reflected the positive mood of the entire conference, with people eager to learn more about the global responses to the questions of sustainable development and climate mitigation. Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll learn whether this enthusiasm can be developed into concrete action required to enact the Paris climate agreement of last year. What’s most clear is that time really is of the essence.