Will technology save us from climate change?



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It goes without saying that I believe technological innovation has a great role to play in curbing humanity’s emissions and reversing some of the damage we’ve already done.

That’s why I do what I do, and why we started Carbon Re.

But in this rush towards technology-based solutions, we should not forget about the role of nature-based solutions, as well as the impact of technological solutions on the environment. I want to give two examples here to highlight these issues:

  • If whale numbers (1.3 million today) returned to pre-whaling numbers (4–5 million), this would enable the removal of 1.7 Gigaton of CO2 every year (global emissions are 51 GT/year). This is a result of the C02 absorbed by whales and, more impactfully, the growth in pythoplankton they enable. Thank you Professor John Shawe-Taylor for talking about this. You can read more about it here.
  • Climate Tech solutions are not risk-free for nature; they can have a substantial impact on the environment, and we need to take these into consideration. We all know that wind farms can be harmful to birds, for example, but these harms can be mitigated by good planning and designs (see this excellent article by the RSPB) and as the RSPB points out, climate change is “the single greatest long-term threat to birds and other wildlife”.

We can’t hope to save the planet from runaway climate change without new technologies, but increasingly, many have been pinning their hopes on direct air capture (DAC) solutions.

DAC plays a small but important role in the IPCC’s modelling of mitigation pathways. Whilst important, an over-reliance on DAC comes with its own challenges:

  • Relying on direct air capture to meet climate mitigation goals, could lead to 300 exajoules of energy being required by 2100, more than half of global demand today and a quarter of projected demand by the end of the century.
  • It would also require building 30,000 large-scale DAC installations. To put this in perspective, there are fewer than 10,000 coal-fired power plants stations in the world.

For more, read this excellent analysis by Carbon Brief and a comprehensive paper in Nature Communications.

So what should we do?

Focus on two things: cutting emissions at the source and restoring the natural environment.

The first is so obvious that it needs re-stating: we need to cut emissions at the source and we need to do this in the so-called ‘hard to abate’ sectors. For example, according to the International Energy Agency, construction and buildings are responsible for 39% of global CO2 emissions. But they are too often overlooked. We hear so much about wind, solar and cars as the vehicles (pardon the pun) for decarbonization but how often do we see coverage of decarbonization in cement, steel, or heating and cooling in buildings? My take: nowhere near as much as we should.

This needs to change. The only reason we would need DAC at an unimaginable industrial scale is because we do not decarbonize our biggest sources of emissions. So instead of figuring out how to remove carbon from the atmosphere in 2100, we should aim to remove emissions from sectors such as buildings, shipping and aviation quickly.

The second area of focus should be restoring the natural environment. I didn’t think nearly enough about the environmental and ecological aspect of climate change until I interviewed Will Marshall, CEO of Planet, at last year’s CogX. Will talked about an ecosystem emergency ecosystem. He also wrote about this in his Medium blog, highlighting some of the horrifying statistics:

82% of the wild animals by mass already gone… 50% of live corals already gone… 75% of freshwater ecosystems gone…

When we look at the impact of restoring whale population levels on climate mitigation, the huge potential in afforestation or reforestation, or the threat to global food security posed by declining bee populations, it becomes evident that nature is as at least as important as technology to our climate problem, if not more so.

Until recently, it was generally assumed that people and businesses would be resistant to the short term costs of decarbonization as the impact would only be felt generations later. The idea that there won’t be much suffering from climate change for decades now looks increasingly foolish. The heat dome that has caused so much misery and deaths in Western Canada and the Western USA is one of numerous yearly reminders that the planet’s climate is already dangerously disrupted. Scientists used to be reluctant to assign specific events to climate change; this is rapidly changing.

We’re already late, let’s at least show up.

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