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Metrology’s role in reaching net zero targets

Emma Richardson, Research Lead at NPL, discusses how metrology – the science of measurement – can help the UK Government, industry and stakeholders across the energy and environment sector ensure the target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is reached.

Understanding net zero 

When considering the challenge of addressing climate change and achieving net zero, we can break this into two key activities: understanding where we are now and where we want to be. There are also important questions surrounding how we got here – a vital consideration when exploring climate justice, which can in part be informed by climate science. 

Understanding where we are now with regards to net zero requires quantification of GHG sources and sinks. This necessitates accurate, cost-effective, long-term climate and emissions measurement systems, both remotely from space and through direct terrestrial measurement, as well as robust climate frameworks and standards applicable on an international scale. Metrology can assist with this by ensuring the data, standards, and instruments used are reliable, traceable, and comparable.  

NPL is working to improve the way we measure the current climate and monitor our emission inventories through the expert use of earth observation instruments, remote sensing and ground-based measurement techniques, which can help to develop improved climate models and better analysis methods for understanding the composition and sources of GHG emissions.  

Supporting innovation through measurement 

Creating strategies for how we reach ‘where we want to be’ – which for the UK is net zero GHG emissions by 2050 – will require innovative solutions that help us achieve decarbonisation across all sectors of the economy. This will involve enabling new energy sources and vectors, deployment of energy efficiency measures and exploitation of GHG removal technologies such as carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS). You can find out in more detail how measurement is supporting the energy transition here.  

NPL’s research is exploring the measurement needs and challenges associated with the use of hydrogen gas as an alternative, decarbonised energy source for heat and transport. There are a number of technical and measurement challenges that arise from the production, distribution, storage and end uses of hydrogen and as such, the necessary instruments, protocols, technologies, and standards to ensure efficacy and safety need to be developed. This can include, for example, developing standard test methods to assess the performance and durability of fuel cells and electrolysers, accurately investigating and understanding the warming potential of hydrogen and assessing the susceptibility to hydrogen embrittlement of repurposed gas network pipeline materials to avoid leakage.  

Removing and storing GHG’s before they can reach the atmosphere will be essential to decarbonising challenging sectors such as energy, cement and steel production. CCUS has been described by the CCC as a necessity, not an option to ensuring the net zero target is reached. The exploitation of CCUS opportunities will present a range of measurement needs and challenges across the capture, transportation, storage, usage processes, such as: measuring and comparing the efficiency of different capture techniques and configurations, supporting the development of emission measurement technologies including improved understanding of dispersion of emitted CO2 to support safety assessments and improving CO2 flow monitoring to support process control. A detailed analysis of the role of CCUS and potential measurement needs have been outlined in detail in NPL’s 2021 Energy Transition report

The path to net zero 

The need to decarbonise our economy and achieve net zero, whilst monitoring and adapting to climate change, is driving huge transformation in all sectors. Managing the sometimes conflicting needs of society and our environment is clearly a complex challenge. It demands a whole system approach supported by a global effort, with decision making that needs to be anchored in trustworthy science and data. It is the role of research institutes such as NPL to both facilitate and interrogate the activities of policy makers, academia and industry to ensure that climate action is driven by accurate information. This need for accuracy is crucial as we accelerate activity on the path to reaching net zero, as there is no room for error when it comes to tackling the shared societal threat of climate change.  

If you would like to see more about the role of metrology in supporting climate action decision making, further information is available at the Measurement for our planet website here. Through this programme, NPL is showcasing how metrology is improving confidence in the data upon which policy makers and industry leaders alike will depend, as they develop, implement and monitor climate action strategies.  

28 Jul 2021