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.
‘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.