Can new technologies solve climate change?

TECHNOLOGY

Elizabeth Robinson When Eshin Serin Consider how much you should rely on technical fixes in your mission to reach net zero.


This article is part of a series by LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on climate change and the environment (visit website).

It is already clear that significant progress in mitigating climate change can be achieved by transitioning to zero-carbon energy, reducing deforestation, and adjusting how food is grown and eaten. Renewable energy is increasingly cheaper to produce than fossil fuels. A recent study from the University of Oxford suggests that replacing fossil fuels with clean energy could save the world up to $12 trillion by 2050. “Clean energy,” which includes renewables, electric vehicles, energy efficiency and nuclear power, should provide sufficient incentives for a rapid decarbonization of the energy system, just for the economic argument over the fossil fuel industry.

We also know that moving away from fossil fuels has significant health and well-being benefits through reduced air pollution and a shift to a more active lifestyle and balanced diet. A net zero commitment can also reduce social inequalities. Especially in societies where inequalities are already very high, if investments are made in things like affordable and reliable low-carbon public transport, urban green spaces, and more efficient cooling and heating houses. help.

In reality, however, global emissions are still rising, and countries appear to be resisting implementing the pricing and regulatory policies necessary to accelerate the central energy transition to reach net zero. looks like This is partly due to vested interests and partly due to insufficient attention to just transitions, for example with respect to workers whose livelihoods are closely linked to fossil fuels.

At this stage, it is difficult to avoid the need for further technological solutions if the world is to have any hope of meeting the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, nearly half of the emission reductions needed to reach net zero globally by 2050 may need to come from technologies currently in the demonstration or prototype stage. .

What more could technology achieve?

Indeed, we must continue to develop technologies that increase energy efficiency and reduce demand, expand low-carbon energy generation methods to replace fossil fuels, and remove existing carbon from the atmosphere. On the latter front, carbon capture – used to address the most difficult-to-reduce industrial emissions, or to remove carbon directly from the atmosphere – often seen as a vital component on the road to net-zero. Iceland, currently the world’s largest facility for direct carbon capture from the atmosphere, can permanently remove only 4,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, but by 2030, multi-million tonne projects are on track. Costs are currently high, and there is currently no decommissioning market where operators can easily recoup these costs. For example, the business case for a project in Iceland may require a carbon offset purchase price per tonne of CO.2 $200-300 by 2030 and $100-200 by 2035. This represents a significant increase in the current carbon price under the European Emissions Trading Scheme to around $70-80 per tonne.

hydrogen is another area of ​​great innovation potential in the transition to clean energy. This versatile fuel is low carbon as long as it is produced using low carbon methods. The most common methods of producing low-carbon hydrogen require renewable energy and adequate supplies of water. To address the latter, some scientists are working to draw this fuel “out of thin air.” These methods are costly, and it is estimated that even with a carbon price of around €200 ($237) per tonne, green hydrogen may not be competitive.

Nuclear fusionThe cost of ITER, an international megaproject aimed at bringing nuclear fusion to life, has risen from an initial estimate of €6 billion to now could reach 22 billion euros. Confidence that fusion will eventually be commercialized, however, has been weighed down by rapid growth in private sector investment in recent years and the breaking of a historic record for sustained fusion energy earlier this year. Probably stronger than ever.

At the more controversial end of the spectrum, geoengineering Technologies such as solar geoengineering, which reflects sunlight off the surface of the Earth, and “seeding” clouds and oceans to alter rainfall and increase carbon uptake from the oceans. (Some scientists have even proposed plans to refreeze the Arctic and Antarctic.) Such technology offers the potential to lower global temperatures while applied, but does not reduce the carbon dioxide concentration of It contributes to climate change, and there is a risk that the temperature will return as soon as you stop. And while we can achieve this by reducing or removing carbon dioxide, we cannot reduce ocean acidification either. There is also considerable uncertainty about the impact these technologies may have across space and time. For example, if these technologies altered tropical monsoon rainfall, there could be greater negative impacts on food security, especially in low-income countries.

Whatever the promise, you shouldn’t rely too heavily on technical fixes

even if enabled new Technology offers the world’s best (and perhaps only) chance to limit global emissions to net zero. We must not delay incorporating today’s ready-to-use solutions in the hope that future technical fixes will save us. jeopardize the climate, putting Paris at serious risk of overshooting its temperature targets and jeopardizing intergenerational equity. By then, it may be too late. Experience from some previous carbon capture and storage projects suggests that the technology may not work perfectly at first, and that learning by doing (which takes time) will lead to innovation. It has been shown to be an important part of the process.

The rapidly declining cost of photovoltaic (PV) and wind power could suggest that the same could happen for new technologies. But over-allocating public resources to new innovations (which can have socially regressive consequences, depending on how the costs are recovered) can undermine the public legitimacy of the transition as a whole. . The threat is likely higher for investments in more controversial technologies, such as solar-terrestrial engineering, which currently have low levels of public support.

Many of today’s early-stage technologies could become part of a more comprehensive (or desperate?) plan to address climate change. In particular, if current trends continue, the world could miss many of the goals and aspirations of the Paris and Glasgow climate agreements. But we already have a very good idea of ​​the immediate measures that can deliver urgently needed emissions reductions, net-zero growth, and health and well-being co-benefits. This is no reason to delay the sensible climate mitigation actions that can and must be taken now.

An update on these issues will be presented at ‘Whatever It Takes – Is There A Plan B For Climate Change?’ chaired by Elizabeth Robinson and hosted by LSE Environment Week on 20 September 2022 at 6:30 pm Hear perspectives from expert speakers. The event will be held in the old building on campus and does not require tickets or pre-registration.Click here for details see here.

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  • This blog post It represents the views of the author, not the position of LSE Business Review or London School of Economics.
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