As the world scrambles to reduce carbon emissions, new technologies that will be crucial in the fight against climate change are being supported by scientists, investors and policymakers around the world.
Outlandish ideas ranging from machines to siphon CO2 emissions from the air to trucks powered by hydrogen gas have become viable prospects, fueled by an increasing urgency to find ways to wean the economy off fossil fuels and the curb global warming.
“Innovation is the only way the world can reduce net greenhouse gas emissions from around 51 billion tons per year to zero by 2050,” wrote Bill Gates – co-founder of technology giant Microsoft and more recently founder of climate investment group Breakthrough Energy – in the FT last October.
Under the Paris Agreement, countries agreed to limit warming to 2°C – and preferably 1.5°C – above pre-industrial levels, but that will require a huge restructuring of economies away from their reliance on fossil fuels.
The fastest route to near-term decarbonization is to expand renewable energy to replace coal and gas. This becomes even more important as transport and home heating become electrified.
“The biggest piece of the puzzle is deploying existing technologies at scale,” says Faustine Delasalle, director of the Energy Transitions Commission. “The energy transition is based on massive investments in wind and solar energy.”
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While electrification and the deployment of renewable energy can go a long way, it will not be enough for some sectors. Cement and steel production, for example, cannot simply be electrified and run on renewable energy. Similarly, heavy transport – such as air travel, shipping and long-distance transport – poses a challenge.
But there’s no time to wait if we’re going to decarbonize in time, says Kurt Waltzer, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, a US-based environmental think tank.
“If we don’t diversify our focus, we won’t be able to reach our hard-to-reduce sectors,” he says. “If you don’t move in multiple avenues, you’re jeopardizing decarbonization.”
According to the International Energy Agencyby 2050, nearly half of the world’s emissions reductions will come from technologies that are “currently in the demonstration or prototype stages.”
These include approaches such as carbon capture and storage, which can prevent emissions from entering the atmosphere and instead bury them deep underground. An advanced type of CO2 capture system — known as direct air capture — later removes CO2 from the atmosphere after it is emitted.
Another technology that has attracted attention in recent years is hydrogen, which can be used as a fuel and does not emit CO2 when burned. If it is produced regeneratively, it is referred to as “green hydrogen”. Proponents say it could become a huge market, worth as much as $2.5 trillion worldwide.
The problem, however, is that carbon capture and green hydrogen technologies are expensive. Investment and scaling are required to bring costs down enough to become commercially viable prospects.
Fortunately, funds are flowing into the climate technology sector Investors are racing to support the next big thingand costs are expected to decrease in the coming decades.
According to a current PwC report. A full 14 cents of every dollar of venture capital investment today is allocated to the sector.
“Approximately $1 trillion is currently pursuing the new technologies in venture capital,” John Kerry, the top US climate diplomat, said at the CERAWeek oil conference in Houston this month. “There’s a lot of money now chasing this new future.”
Investors want to drive early-stage innovation and fund brand new technologies.
One example is nuclear fusion: Forcing two atoms together rather than splitting them, as in the fission process used in modern power plants. Achieving fusion – the reaction that powers the Sun – has puzzled scientists for decades, but funds are now being pumped into the technology. Investors hope it could unleash a supply of clean, limitless electricity.
Experts say the best hope of keeping global temperature rise under control is to adopt an “everything together” approach: mass deployment of existing technologies, scaling up and commercialization of early-stage alternatives — and striving for breakthrough technologies that do this do not yet exist.
“We have many of the technologies that we need now. . . to get us through the next 10 years,” Kerry said. “Then things will happen in the next 10 years that might even change the whole game.”
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