Could new technology solve climate change? | LSE Business Review – LSE

Elizabeth Robinson and Esin Serin consider how far we should be relying on technological fixes in the mission to reach net zero.


This article is part of a series by LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change & the Environment (visit website ).

It is already clear that significant progress upon mitigating weather change can be achieved through a move to zero-carbon energy, reducing deforestation and adjusting how all of us grow food and what we eat. Renewable energy is increasingly becoming cheaper to produce than fossil fuels – one recent Oxford University study suggests that replacing fossil fuels with clean energy could bring global savings of up to $12 trillion by 2050. And the particular International Energy Agency has found that there is now more employment within ‘clean energy’ – including renewables, electric vehicles, power efficiency and nuclear power – than in the fossil fuel industry, so the economic argument alone should provide sufficient incentive for rapid decarbonisation of the particular energy system.

We also know that a transition away from non-renewable fuels would bring significant benefits for health and wellbeing through reduced air pollution and shifts towards a lot more active lifestyles and balanced diets. And a commitment to net zero can also reduce social inequality, particularly in already highly unequal societies, if investments are made in, for example , affordable plus reliable low-carbon public transport, urban green spaces, and homes with more efficient cooling and warming.

Yet the fact is, worldwide emissions are still increasing, and countries are seemingly resistant to implementing the particular necessary pricing and regulatory policies in order to speed up the energy transition that is so central to reaching internet zero. In part, this is because of vested interests, in part because not enough attention is being paid to a just changeover, for example with respect to workers whose livelihoods are closely linked to precious fuels.

At this stage, it will be hard to avoid the need for further technological solutions if the world is to have any hope of meeting the Paris Agreement temperature goals. Indeed, by 2050 almost half of the particular emission reductions required in order to reach global net absolutely no may need to come from technologies that are usually currently at the demonstration or prototype stage, according to the International Power Agency .

What more can systems achieve?

Certainly, we need to continue to develop technologies that will increase energy efficiency and reduce demand, to expand low-carbon methods of generating power to replace fossil fuels, and to remove existing carbon from the atmosphere. On the latter front, carbon capture – used either to address the industrial emissions that are most challenging to reduce, or to remove carbon directly from the atmosphere – is often seen as an essential element of pathways to net zero . The world’s current largest facility with regard to capturing co2 directly from the atmosphere, in Iceland, can permanently remove only 4, 000 tonnes associated with CO₂ per year, but several million-tonne-scale projects are due in order to come online by 2030. Costs are usually currently high, though, plus there will be currently no market regarding removals intended for operators to easily recover these costs. For example , the particular business case of the Icelandic project may require the carbon offset purchase price for each tonne of CO 2 associated with $200–300 by 2030 and $100–$200 simply by 2035, which represents a significant increase on the particular current carbon prices under the European Emissions Trading Scheme of around $70–80 per tonne.

Hydrogen is another area where there is usually large innovation potential to get a move towards thoroughly clean energy. This versatile fuel is only low-carbon to the extent that it is produced in the low-carbon way. The most common method of producing low-carbon hydrogen requires ample supply of renewable energy and water. To address the latter, some scientists are working to pull this gas “ from thin air ”. These methods arrive at a high cost, with estimates that eco-friendly hydrogen might not become competitive even if co2 prices were around €200 ($237) per tonne.

Nuclear fusion , which could provide a good effectively unlimited source of low-carbon power, offers been considered to be ‘a few decades away’ for many decades currently. The cost of ITER – the  international megaproject   aiming to provide fusion to life – can now run to €22 billion, up through an initial estimate associated with €6 billion dollars. But confidence that blend will eventually be commercialised is perhaps stronger now compared to ever, with  private sector investment  growing rapidly in current years and a historical record on sustained fusion power broken earlier this year.

At the particular more controversial end of the spectrum are geoengineering techniques such as solar geoengineering, which reflects sunlight away from the Earth’s surface, or ‘seeding’ clouds and oceans to modify rainfall plus increase carbon absorption from the seas. (Some scientists have actually suggested a plan to refreeze the North and South Poles . ) Such techniques offer the potential to reduce global temperatures while they are being applied but do not reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, which means they do not address the root cause of environment change and risk temps going back upward straight away in case they are discontinued. Nor do they reduce ocean acidification, whereas reducing or even removing co2 dioxide can achieve this. There is also considerable uncertainty around the impacts these technologies may have across space plus time: if they altered tropical monsoon rains, for instance, the negative implications pertaining to food security could be substantial, particularly in lower-income countries.

Whatever the promises, we should not over-rely on a technological fix

Even if enabling new technology is the world’s best (and perhaps only) chance to limit worldwide emissions in order to net zero, we must not delay in embedding solutions readily available today in the particular hope that some future technological fix will save us. If we perform, we will be in significant risk of overshooting the Paris, france temperature goals and threatening intergenerational equity as we imperil the futures of younger generations and those not really yet born. By the time brand new technologies are available in a form that works, from an affordable price, it could be too late. Experience with a few of the particular carbon capture and storage projects to date illustrates that technologies may not work perfectly at first go and learning-by-doing (which takes time) is definitely an essential part associated with the development process.

The rapid fall in the price of solar photovoltaics (PV ) and wind power might suggest the same could happen for newer technologies. However, the over-allocation of public resources in order to new innovations (with the possibility of socially regressive consequences , depending on how costs are usually recovered) could undermine the particular public legitimacy of the transition as a whole. This threat may be higher with regard to investment into the a lot more controversial technology, which currently have low levels associated with public support, like photo voltaic geoengineering .

Many of today’s early-stage technologies may progressively become part of a more comprehensive (or desperate? ) plan to address climate change, especially with the world set to miss many of its Paris Agreement and Glasgow Climate Pact targets plus aspirations, when current trends continue . But we all already have the very good idea of the particular immediate steps that can deliver urgently needed emissions cutbacks, net zero-compatible growth, and health and well-being co-benefits. This particular leaves simply no reason in order to delay sensible climate mitigation action that will can plus must occur now.

Hear the latest perspectives upon these issues from expert speakers with ‘Whatever It Takes – Is There A Plan B For Climate Change? ’, chaired by Elizabeth Johnson and hosted by the LSE Environment Week on 20 September 2022 at 6: 30pm. The particular event can be taking place within the Old Building on campus with no ticket or pre-registration required – for more details see here .  

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Notes:

  • This blog post   represents the views of the author(s), not really the position of   LSE Business Review or the London School associated with Economics.
  • Featured image by  James Rathmell on Unsplash
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