The current pandemic exit strategy stands on the shoulders of science. Everyone on this planet – 7.8 billion people – are anxiously waiting for new test kits, new medications and new vaccines that will pull the entire world out of our common, troubled waters. Will science and technology be capable of doing the same for the equally urgent goal of decarbonising our common, unsustainable energy system?
‘Several recent developments give us grounds for increasing optimism about the world’s ability to accelerate clean-energy transitions,’ said Fatih Birol, director of the International Energy Agency, during the launch of the Energy Technology Perspectives 2020 report. The report mentions advanced batteries, carbon capture, ‘green’ hydrogen (that not produced from fossil fuel sources – see page 28) and bioenergy as promising keys to decarbonisation.
It’s taken for granted that progress in science and technology will provide incremental assistance from now until the monumental goal of a 2050 free from man-made carbon emissions. But I’m banking on something bigger – a giant leap or, better, a string of them. The New York Times recently reported on the advancements of SPARC, a prototype fusion reactor that’s being developed at MIT. Much smaller and cheaper than ITER (the huge reactor under construction in France with equally huge costs and uncertainties), SPARC is expected to use hydrogen isotopes instead of uranium to generate energy, and to produce less waste (and be less dangerous) than fission plants. There’s some truth in the joke, popular in the scientific world, that nuclear fusion ‘is always 30 years away’. But what if it becomes viable in five or ten years’ time? SPARC isn’t alone; California’s TAE Technologies and the UK’s First Light Fusion are working on the same task.
Then there’s the plastic conundrum. In 2016, a plastic-eating bacterium was discovered at a Japanese waste site. In a more recent study, scientists have managed to create a super-enzyme that’s capable of eating plastic six times faster than before. Double or triple that and you get a remarkable breakthrough.
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently declared that China, the world’s biggest CO2 emitter, will be carbon-free by 2060. The Middle Kingdom will certainly pursue such a difficult goal, although the supreme leader (now 67) won’t be there to witness its completion.
Thankfully, however, there’s a planetary army of scientists who, for academic or commercial reasons, are avidly researching the next breakthroughs. Perhaps this is what the world needs.