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Could new technologies solve climate change?

Elizabeth Robinson and Esin Serin consider how much we would have to rely on tech fixes in the mission to reach net zero.

It is already clear that significant progress in mitigating climate change can be made by switching to carbon-free energy, reducing deforestation and adjusting how we grow food and what we eat. Renewables are becoming increasingly cheaper to produce than fossil fuels – a recent study from the University of Oxford suggests that replacing fossil fuels with clean energy could result in global savings of up to $12 trillion ‘by 2050. And the International Energy Agency has found that there are now more jobs in ‘clean energy’ – including renewables, electric vehicles, energy efficiency and energy nuclear – than in the fossil fuel industry, so the economic argument alone should provide enough incentive for a rapid decarbonisation of the energy system.

We also know that a transition away from fossil fuels would bring significant health and well-being benefits through reduced air pollution and a shift towards more active lifestyles and balanced diets. . And a commitment to net zero can also reduce social inequality, especially in already highly unequal societies, if investments are made, for example, in affordable and reliable low-carbon public transport, urban green spaces and homes with more efficient cooling and heating.

Yet the fact is that global emissions continue to rise and countries seem reluctant to implement the pricing and regulatory policies needed to accelerate the energy transition that is so essential to reaching net zero. This is partly because of vested interests, partly because insufficient attention is paid to a just transition, for example with regard to workers whose livelihoods are closely linked to fossil fuels.

At this point, it will be hard to avoid the need for new technological solutions if the world is to hope to meet the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement. Indeed, by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency, almost half of the emission reductions needed to reach global net zero will have to come from technologies that are currently at the demonstration or prototype stage.

What more can technology do?

Certainly, we must continue to develop technologies that increase energy efficiency and reduce demand, expand low-carbon energy generation methods to replace fossil fuels, and remove existing carbon from the atmosphere. On this last front, carbon capture – used either to treat the hardest-to-reduce industrial emissions or to remove carbon directly from the atmosphere – is often seen as an essential part of pathways to net zero. The world’s largest current facility to capture carbon directly from the atmosphere, in Iceland, can only permanently remove 4,000 tonnes of CO₂ per year, but several projects on the scale of one million tonnes are expected to be come online by 2030. Costs are currently high, however, and there is currently no market for removals that allows operators to easily recoup these costs. For example, the business case for the Icelandic project may require a carbon offset purchase price per tonne of CO2 $200 to $300 by 2030 and $100 to $200 by 2035, representing a significant increase in current carbon prices under the European Emissions Trading System from around $70 to $80 per ton.

Hydrogen is another area where there is great innovation potential for a clean energy shift. This versatile fuel is low carbon only insofar as it is produced in a low carbon way. The most common method of producing low-carbon hydrogen requires an adequate supply of renewable energy and water. To answer the latter, some scientists are trying to get this fuel “out of nowhere”. These methods come at a high cost, with estimates that green hydrogen might not be competitive even if the carbon price were around €200 ($237) per ton.

nuclear fusion, which could provide an effectively unlimited source of low-carbon energy, has been considered “decades away” for many decades already. The cost of ITER – the international megaproject to bring fusion to life – could now be as high as €22 billion, down from an initial estimate of €6 billion. But confidence that fusion will eventually come to market may be stronger than ever, with private sector investment rising rapidly in recent years and an all-time record of sustained fusion energy broken earlier this year.

At the more controversial end of the spectrum are geoengineering techniques such as solar geoengineering, which reflects sunlight away from the Earth’s surface, or cloud and ocean “seeding” to modify rainfall and increase carbon uptake from the seas. (Some scientists have even suggested a plan to refreeze the North and South Poles.) Such techniques offer the possibility of reducing global temperatures during their application, but do not reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, which means that they do not attack the root. due to climate change and could immediately raise temperatures if they are interrupted. They also do not reduce ocean acidification, whereas reducing or removing carbon dioxide can achieve this. There is also considerable uncertainty about the impacts these technologies could have across space and time: if they alter tropical monsoon rains, for example, the negative implications for food security could be significant, particularly in low-income countries.

No matter what the promises, don’t rely too much on a tech solution

Even if the activation New technology is the world’s best (and perhaps only) chance to limit global emissions to net zero, we must not delay integrating solutions readily available today in the hope that a future technological solution will will save. If we do, we run a significant risk of exceeding the Paris temperature targets and threatening intergenerational equity by jeopardizing the future of younger generations and those yet to be born. By the time new technologies become available in a form that works, at an affordable price, it may be too late. Experience from some of the carbon capture and storage projects to date shows that the technology may not work perfectly the first time and that learning by doing (which takes time) is an essential part of the development process. ‘innovation.

The rapid fall in the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power might suggest that the same could happen for new technologies. However, the over-allocation of public resources to new innovations (with the possibility of socially regressive consequences, depending on how the costs are recouped) could undermine the public legitimacy of the transition as a whole. This threat may be higher with respect to investments in more controversial technologies, which currently enjoy low levels of public support, such as solar geoengineering.

Many of today’s early-stage technologies could increasingly be part of a more comprehensive (or desperate?) plan to tackle climate change, especially with the world set to miss many of its targets. and aspirations of the Paris Agreement and the Glasgow Climate Pact, if current trends continue. . But we already have a very good idea of ​​the immediate measures that can deliver the urgently needed emissions reductions, growth compatible with net zero, and co-benefits for health and well-being. This leaves no reason to delay sensible climate change mitigation action that can and must happen now.

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To note: The post office gives the point of view of its authors, not the position USAPP– American Politics and Policy, neither the London School of Economics nor the IMF, its board of directors or its management

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About the authors

Elizabeth RobinsonLSE Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment
Elizabeth Robinson is Director of LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.

Esin SerinLSE Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment
Esin Serin is a Policy Analyst at LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.