By Kristy Dorsey

Carbon dioxide emissions are crashing as the world has wound down, with estimates that they could decline by as much as 5% in 2020, the biggest reduction seen since World War II. Such has been the impact of Covid-19 that Goldman Sachs analysts have speculated the world may have already reached “peak carbon” a decade earlier than expected.

Serious questions remain as to whether this will have any appreciable impact on climate change, with decades’ worth of CO2 and other greenhouse gases already accumulated in the atmosphere. Still, there’s no denying that the human pandemic has given the planet a chance to pause for a breather.

“This is not the way we would want to do this transition,” says professor Mercedes Maroto-Valer, director of the Research Centre for Carbon Solutions (RCCS) at Heriot-Watt University.

“We have to do this in a way that is economically sustainable, and leaves no one behind. When this health crisis ends, we need to focus on building an economy that is not only resilient against future pandemics, but also builds resilience against climate change and takes us off the course we are now heading down.”

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Appointed at the start of this year to head up the new £20 million Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre (IDRIC), the professor has been tasked with one of the thorniest challenges in meeting both UK and Scottish Government targets for carbon reduction.

The UK’s six largest industrial clusters by emissions release a combined 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, accounting for an estimated 7-10% of the UK’s annual CO2 emissions. They include Humberside, South Wales, Grangemouth, Teesside, Merseyside and Southampton.

Ms Maroto-Valer has until August to submit proposals to turn at least one of these sites into a low-carbon cluster by 2030, with the ultimate goal of creating the world’s first zero-carbon industrial cluster by 2040. This has to be achieved while also safeguarding existing jobs and economies.

The IDRIC is funded by UK Research and Innovation, the non-governmental group in charge of distributing money from the science budget of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The initiative is part of the wider £170m Industrial Decarbonisation challenge, which is being delivered by UK Research and Innovation through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

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The IDRIC’s proposals are due to go to UK Research and Innovation for approval in August, with the delivery phase expected to get underway in September backed by £20m of funding through to 2024. Its recommendations will be based on feedback from consultations led by Ms Maroto-Valer with industry, academia and policymakers.

The timeframe currently remains intact despite the barriers that have come with lockdown. The professor says she completed initial site visits before the restrictions on movement came into place, and has continued with consultations through videoconferencing.

Although the pandemic has forced the postponement of major events like COP 26, which was due to be held in Glasgow in November, Ms Maroto-Valer stresses that other essential work must continue in the background.

“Global governments right now are correctly focused on this health crisis, but climate crisis continues,” she says. “When our economies globally are getting re-started, we need to be ready to act.”

Originally from the Basque Country in northern Spain, Ms Maroto-Valer first came to Scotland in 1992 as an Erasmus student at Strathclyde University, where she stayed on to do her PhD on developing novel methods for understanding coal plasticity in steel making applications.

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She then spent seven years in the United States, where she was part of a research team looking into how to reduce emissions in power plants. She came back to the UK in 2005 where she worked in Nottingham before joining Heriot-Watt in 2012.

Her research on clean energy technologies has been recognised through various prestigious awards. Three years ago, she became the first woman to receive a European Research Council Advanced Award in Chemical Engineering for her work at Heriot-Watt into the safe underground storage of CO2 emissions.

The IDRIC is based at Heriot-Watt, where Ms Maroto-Valer leads the RCCS team in finding ways to clean up some of the most difficult sectors in decarbonisation, such as aviation and transport. Among other things, their work has created a method for converting carbon dioxide into aviation fuel, as well as construction materials.

“It is clear that the pandemic we are living in is affecting the here and now,” she says of the current situation. “Climate change has been called the challenge on the horizon, which is very different to the timescales we are dealing with now, but it remains one of the biggest threats we face in the medium to long-term.”