Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

COP21 Diaries: Embracing technology

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Energy
A Mobisol solar-powered mobie phone charging station in Tanzania A Mobisol solar-powered mobie phone charging station in Tanzania Mobisol
08 Dec
2015
Marco Magrini reports for Geographical on daily events at the COP21 UN climate change conference in Paris

Let technology save us. ‘Since the Copenhagen summit, in 2009, the world made tremendous progress in a set of technologies,’ says Ernest Moniz, the US Secretary of Energy, in Paris for the COP21 United Nations climate change conference negotiations. ‘We had innovations that brought sensible cost reductions in solar and wind energy, not to mention lighting. As we move on addressing future emission reduction, we will have even more tools to rely on.’

Two major innovation-centered initiatives have already been announced in Paris – even before any UN-wide agreement is signed. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition, led by Bill Gates, includes 28 star investors such as Virgin’s Richard Branson, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The partnership, which hasn’t yet announced how much money will be invested in solving the climate challenge, will be focused on the 20 countries who are participating in a second initiative, ambitiously called Mission Innovation. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Brazil, China, India and several others have committed to doubling their energy R&D efforts over the next five years, with a forecasted governmental investment of $20billion.

Leaders Mission Innovation Launch Event croppedUS president Barack Obama and other world and business leaders launch Mission Innovation at COP21 (Image: Gobierno de Chile)

‘Energy is responsible for two thirds of greenhouse gases emissions worldwide,’ argues the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s executive director, Fatih Birol, who attended a panel on innovation. ‘If the Paris agreement doesn’t have energy at heart, it will be inadequate. We need innovation to bring down the cost of clean techs and to make them more effective.’

Since time is ticking, we also need breakthroughs. ‘First of all in the energy storage space,’ argues Moniz, who used to be the director of the Energy and the Environment Lab at MIT. ‘We must test different chemistries, in order to employ the most abundant elements,’ and have less reliance on so-called ‘rare earths’ and other expensive atoms.

Today, the IPCC, the climatic body under the auspices of the United Nations, showcased a full array of small innovations here at COP21 that may add to the monumental effort. Fairphone, developed in the Netherlands, sources conflict-free tin and tantalum from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A mapping project helps Pacific island state governments better understand and communicate climate change risk to local communities. Another IT project provides 100,000 Ugandan farmers with the tools to collect, analyse and receive agricultural advisories, crop and livestock market information. In Rwanda and Tanzania, the Mobisol system, which combines solar energy, mobile technology and microfinance, can run four to five LED lights, a radio, a TV, and a mobile phone charging devices for ten phones. However, this is just the starting point.

Where politics can’t go, human ingenuity – and a bit of luck – can perhaps do the trick

The needed technological change has to be as far-reaching as possible. Once clean sources of electricity are available, electric vehicles can drive us into a more sustainable energy future. ‘The IEA,’ Birol remarks, ‘has shown that if global warming is to be limited to 2°C, at least a fifth of all vehicles on roads by 2030 should be electric.’

The prospective Paris agreement will impose some restrictions on emissions, but not enough to stay below the dreaded 2°C mark. ‘It’s just sufficient to avoid the most disastrous climate change,’ Moriz contends.

If we are to steer clear of climactic disasters, innovation is more than needed. Not only is human civilisation required to deploy low-carbon technologies, we also need carbon-negative solutions – in other words, we have to take some carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere. CCS technology – carbon capture and storage – is almost a myth, thanks to its expense and unproven track record. Smaller projects like CarbonCure (where CO2 emitted in cement production is captured and stored back in cement bricks) are paving the way to a future carbon negativity on a larger scale.

That’s why R&D investments, not in the tens of billions, but in the hundreds of billion, are needed. Where politics can’t go, human ingenuity – and a bit of luck – can perhaps do the trick.

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Geophoto

With guaranteed sunshine, bright blue skies and not a hint…

Oceans

A review of coral-saving methods is helping communities decide which…

Polar

A seven-year study of Patagonia’s ice sheets has revealed the…

Climate

The environmental impact of Bitcoin is higher than its virtual…

Geophoto

With a camera in everyone’s pocket, the once rarified world…

Climate

The idea of the Earth as a self-regulating, living organism…

Oceans

A temporary fishing ban has been imposed by the European…

Wildlife

A look at the contribution of hippos to the savannah…

Wildlife

The new app encourages young children to connect with the…

Energy

A type of panel has been invented that can generate…

Tectonics

In the 4th century BC, Aristotle proposed that earthquakes were…

Climate

The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management pledges to achieve net…

Tectonics

Earthquakes from time immemorial have attracted the attention of the…

Tectonics

A planned kayaking expedition in Nepal took on a whole…

Tectonics

Scientists from Bristol University are working in conjunction with EDF…

Tectonics

In the 1930s, Charles Richter developed a simple scale for…

Tectonics

Researchers at Colombia University have answered a question that has…