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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Technology Can Fix the Climate Mess—but Not Without Help

This morning, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change dropped its most contentious report yet. Following previous installments on how humanity’s abuses of the land and the sea are exacerbating climate change, and how things are generally not good (although hope is not altogether lost), this one tackles the thorniest question: how we’re supposed to come together as a species to fix this mess. The assessment, which was authored by hundreds of scientists, makes it clear that humanity has the tools to fight climate change. It just lacks the political will to do it.

“The jury has reached the verdict and it is damning,” said António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, during a Monday press conference announcing the findings, calling the report “a litany of broken climate promises. It is a file of shame cataloging the empty pledges that put us firmly on track toward an unlivable world.”He invoked climate catastrophes—“unprecedented heat waves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, the extinction of a million species of plants and animals”—and warned against those who would brush the report aside. “This is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies,” he said. 

One of the report’s more sobering conclusions is that we would need to cut emissions by 43 percent by 2030 and keep warming to the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Yet countries’ current climate pledges are setting up an increase in emissions between now and then, the report’s authors conclude. We need emissions to peak by 2025, they write, but without dramatically strengthening mitigation efforts, we’re on track to see an alarming 3.2 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. 

“The IPCC tells us that we have the knowledge and the technology to get this done through a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewable and alternative fuels,” said Inger Andersen, under-secretary-general of the UN and executive director of the UN Environment Program, speaking at the press conference. These changes must be accomplished, Andersen continued, “through moving from deforestation to restoration, through backing nature in our landscapes, oceans, and cities; through transforming our cities into green and clean spaces; and through behavior changes to address the demand side of the equation.” 

The report focuses on solutions and concludes that there are actually options available in every sector—including energy, industry, and transportation—to halve emissions by 2030, and to even reduce them by as much as 70 percent by 2050. But at the moment we’re headed in the wrong direction. By building more fossil fuel energy infrastructure, for instance, we’re locking in the creation of future emissions, instead of going all-in on renewables.

“Despite the fact that the growth rate of emissions has slowed over the last decade, emissions have continued to climb,” says James Edmonds, a lead author of the report and a researcher at the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a collaboration between the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland in College Park. “The good news story is that over recent years, humans have come up with some technology improvements that have been extremely valuable.”

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Advances in battery technology, for instance, have driven down electric vehicle prices, leading to increased adoption among drivers. The costs of lithium-ion batteries, and of wind and solar power, dropped by up to 85 percent between 2010 and 2019. In many cases, they are now cheaper than fossil fuel-derived power. This is helping industrialized nations, like the United States, actually begin to bring down emissions. (The nation is also burning more natural gas, which produces fewer emissions than coal but is still not good for the climate because it’s a carbon-rich fuel.) 

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The report also notes improvements in industry and manufacturing, such as advances in sensors, robotics, and artificial intelligence that have boosted energy management. Heat pumps, another abatement technology listed in the report, can help reduce the energy demands of buildings—which are responsible for 40 percent of energy use in the US—because instead of relying on fuel-burning furnaces, they exchange heat between the indoors and the outdoors. Because they’re fully electric, they can be powered by rooftop solar panels.

So in some ways, the energy future is looking bright. “In many areas, such as wind and solar, the technology exists to decarbonize, I’d say 90 percent of the grid, quite rapidly,” says environmental economist Mark Paul of the New College of Florida, who wasn’t involved in the new IPCC report. That potential, he says, “comes from investing money, but it also comes from regulations. We've seen many states that have passed clean and renewable portfolio standards to essentially force utilities to decarbonize.”

Paul adds that the price of solar has crashed 99 percent in the past few decades, so more and more people have access to the technology for their homes. (Although the report notes that the price point for EVs has fallen overall, it’s also true that sticker price varies by region and that they remain unaffordable for many drivers.)

Yet while a mixture of technologies that draw on renewable energy or are more efficient can help us decarbonize, they still comprise only a small slice of global energy generation. The report notes that in 2020, photovoltaics only made up 3 percent of the electricity produced worldwide, wind power about another 7 percent, and EVs only 1 percent of the global passenger car fleet. 

The report concludes that the sticking point is investment. While more money is flowing into climate mitigation, it’s not nearly enough. To Paul, it’s best to think of these outlays as seed money. “Contrary to the traditional economist story, decarbonization will be experienced as an economic boom,” he says. “There are plenty of jobs to be had. But it is a real problem that as of right now, we don't necessarily have a trained workforce at the ready for things like retrofitting buildings.” That’s the second sticking point, he says: There aren’t enough people ready to install technologies like solar panels and heat pumps, or to retrofit buildings to make them more energy-efficient. 

“Germany has fairly well-evolved trade school programs, but here in the United States we've woefully underinvested in the trades,” says Paul. “As a result, we have real shortages in trained workers to help us decarbonize as quickly as we might like to now. Of course, that problem can indeed be resolved if the government invests in both creating these jobs and training workers.”

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These investments, along with money to encourage the R&D and manufacturing of green technologies and the expansion of public transit, would create tens of millions of jobs over the next decade, Paul says. In the US, the Biden Administration was even considering creating a Civilian Climate Corps that would employ Americans to do this kind of work, but that proposal is now languishing, thanks to infighting among congressional Democrats.

These kinds of technologies focus on homes, business, and cars—and in some ways those are the low-hanging fruit of carbon reduction. There are sectors that are much harder to decarbonize, like air transportation. To counterbalance the emissions from these sources, the report stresses, humanity needs to pursue carbon-dioxide-removal technologies—possibly including removal for methane, another potent greenhouse gas.

A concept known as direct air capture, or DAC, calls for the construction of facilities that suck in air and pass it over membranes that extract the CO2. (The gas would be pumped underground to be locked away forever.) But last year, a team of scientists modeled what it would take to deploy enough of these facilities to make a dent in atmospheric CO2 levels: A wartime-style investment of 1 to 2 percent of global gross domestic product would remove 2.3 gigatons of the gas annually by 2050. That’s a fraction of yearly CO2 emissions, and we’d need 10,000 plants by the end of the century to reach 27 gigatons. 

Energy experts like Edmonds, one of the report’s authors, also worry about DAC’s moral hazard—it creates the temptation to rely on a not-yet-scaled technology to remove atmospheric carbon, instead of making a concerted effort to reduce emissions today, using current technologies. “I think about DAC as a ‘backstop’ technology,” says Edmonds, sort of like an emergency brake to pull. “It sets a ceiling for the most expensive thing that will be needed in getting emissions to zero.” It’s an additional tool, he says, but “It is never the main event.”

In the meantime, the report’s authors say, we should be harnessing the carbon-sequestering powers of the planet itself. Nature-based solutions—efforts like reforestation and ecosystem restoration—pay for themselves with a triple dividend: They sequester carbon, boost biodiversity, and aid in human well-being, the IPCC report notes. 

As just a few examples out there, protecting California’s otters means there are more predators to eat the invertebrates that will otherwise mow down carbon-absorbing kelp and seagrasses. Restoring wetlands protects other kinds of marsh plants that trap carbon, and that vegetation in turn acts as a speed bump against storm surges. Protecting forests from logging encourages the growth of trees, which sequester carbon on even longer time scales.

“Nature is the elephant in the room,” says Bronson Griscom, senior director of natural climate solutions at Conservation International, who wasn’t involved in the report. Half of the carbon we pump into the atmosphere each year is reabsorbed by the planet, he points out. “Right now, without us actually actively causing this to happen, it's just sort of something nature's doing for us in the background. Nature is sponging up half of our mess,” he says. “If we were to restore and protect those systems, rather than, frankly, just hammering the hell out of them, it stands to reason that nature can do more—can do quite a bit more.”

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But here’s the rub: As the planet rapidly warms, it’s getting increasingly difficult for these ecosystems to keep doing their work. In California, for example, climate change has turned the landscape into swaths of tinder—and a catastrophic wildfire releases long-sequestered carbon right back into the atmosphere. Indeed, a paper that was published last month in the journal Nature Communications Earth and Environment found that such nature-based carbon storage is a powerful tool to mitigate climate change but simply won’t work unless done in parallel with ambitious emissions cuts.

We’ll need to leverage both nature and technology if we’re going to head off the worst of climate change. And as the report’s authors stressed today, we need to get moving. “What this report has done is to show how taking action now can move us toward a fairer and more livable world,” said Jim Skea, cochair of the working group that produced the assessment, during Monday’s press conference. “We know what to do, we know how to do it—and now it’s up to us to take action.”


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