Can Technology Save Us From Climate Catastrophe?

April 12, 2022
Est. Reading: 5 minutes

The Answer Depends on Five Complicated Questions

Five wind turbines on a windfarm.
Windfarms are among the technologies scaling rapidly and reducing CO2 emissions. Photo by David Vives on Unsplash

As the dangers of climate change become increasingly apparent and documented by scientists, one proposed strategy for avoiding disaster is generating increasing public support: invest heavily in technological innovation. The most prominent advocate for this view is the Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates. In summarizing his book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” he notes that to get to zero emissions by 2050 “we need to find ways to generate and store clean electricity, grow food, make things, move around, and heat and cool our buildings without releasing greenhouse gases.” To do this, he notes, some existing technologies (e.g., batteries) need to come down in cost, while others currently “don’t exist at all.”

Analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA) similarly concludes, “Reaching net zero by 2050 requires rapid deployment of available technologies as well as widespread use of technologies that are not on the market yet.” In their scenario to reach net zero by 2050, “almost half the reductions come from technologies that are currently at the demonstration or prototype phase.” This includes innovations like hydrogen fuel generated entirely with renewable energy, and a range of devices for removing, storing, and utilizing CO2 (CCUS) from the atmosphere. Other potentially significant technologies for achieving net zero yet to be fully proven workable or economically feasible include small modular nuclear reactors and lab-grown cell-based meat produced without the energy and waste from live animals.

My view is the likelihood technology will save us depends on five complicated issues, each the subject of considerable uncertainty.

1. Funding. Will the funds necessary for research, development, and deployment be available? Gates argues governments must provide billions of dollars for early-stage technologies as private finance will not take the risks. The Build Back Better plan passed by the House of Representatives included $555 billion for this purpose but died in the Senate, while the earlier infrastructure bill Congress enacted included some but not nearly enough funds for climate technology. Negotiations toward a smaller climate budget package continue. President Biden’s budget proposal for 2023 includes $45 billion for what has been described as “a whole of government” approach to climate change, much of which is unrelated to technology (e.g., helping fossil fuel-dependent communities and investments in weatherizing homes in rural America against climate extremes). On the other hand, climate tech venture funds willing to take risks with the hope of a big payoff from a climate solution are proliferating and growing rapidly.

2. Technology status. Is the technology proven, available, and economic? The most optimistic response comes from renewable energy advocates who point out the cost of solar electricity has dropped over 80 percent since 2010 and in most places is now cheaper than fossil fuels. Analysts differ about the extent to which reliable power requires some form of backup when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing. Advocates see the need for backup as small while others see it as a significant and as yet unresolved issue. And as noted the IEA and other analysts doubt net zero carbon emissions can be achieved by 2050 without a significant role for CCUS and other early-stage technologies. In support of this conclusion 47 of the 50 national strategies for net zero so far formalized reference some form of carbon removal. Currently, only about 0.1 percent of CO2 emissions are captured and stored by CCUS technologies, while direct air capture is at an even earlier prototype stage with much higher costs. Yet another variable impossible to quantify is the identification of creative climate solutions, such as the creation of solar cells able to generate power at night and the placement of solar cells over canals to generate power while simultaneously reducing land requirements and evaporation losses.

3. Scalability. Can technologies be scaled to the level necessary in time to make a difference? The challenge is not only in the US but in other large GHG emitters including Russia, China, and India where US influence is limited. Renewables currently account for only 3% of India’s energy but last year Prime Minister Modi announced a target of net zero by 2070 and 50% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2030. Meeting these goals while the economy grows, the poor are lifted from poverty, and total energy consumption doubles will require a dramatic transformation of the national energy system in a relatively short time. The UN climate convention now has a Technology Executive Committee looking into ways to promote national systems of innovation with an emphasis on developing countries. Scaling is obviously an even greater issue for very early-stage technologies like direct air capture.

4. Politics. Is the necessary public/political support in place? The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to increased demand for expanding oil and gas production in conflict with the longer-term need to phase out fossil fuels. Opposition to wind and solar projects and restrictions on natural gas have become the subject of partisan politics. In Texas, the state pension fund threatened to withdraw funds from BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, for greening its portfolio; in response, the investment fund announced it would continue to invest in fossil fuel companies. State and local initiatives, often based on misinformation campaigns, are organizing to block solar and wind projects, while some offshore wind projects have been opposed by environmental groups based on fears of impacts on marine life and fisheries. Some states have adopted laws to prevent local bans on new natural gas hookups.

5. Cost-Benefit. Can it be done without creating other environmental problems? Environmentalists are divided about nuclear power as a non-carbon source of energy, and many oppose carbon capture arguing “why spend the money to outfit systems with pipes and filters when solar power is already cheaper than coal power?” Perhaps the biggest environmental controversy is the prospect of solar radiation management, the potential for cooling the atmosphere by spreading particles to reflect sunlight. Supporters advocate research to evaluate the feasibility of this option should climate change prove truly catastrophic, while opponents argue the concept has unacceptable risks.

Like Gates, I believe technologies can save us from the most disastrous consequences of global warming and climate change. My assessment is that whether this will happen depends much more on political and financial decisions than on engineers and technologists. Still, other relevant influences include marketing decisions by large corporations (e.g., Ford Motor’s commitment in 2019 to make an electric version of the F-150 pickup) and behavioral changes like eating less beef. These very human choices will have the most influence on the fate of the planet.

Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003)

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