Elizabeth Robinson and Essing Serine Consider how much we should rely on technical fixes in the mission to reach net zero.
It is already clear that significant progress can be made in mitigating climate change by switching to zero-carbon energy, reducing deforestation and adapting the way we grow and eat food. Renewable energy is increasingly cheaper to produce than fossil fuels – a recent Oxford University study suggests that replacing fossil fuels with clean energy could save up to $12 trillion globally by 2050. The IEA finds that there are now more jobs in ‘clean energy’ – including renewables, electric vehicles, energy efficiency and nuclear power – compared to the fossil fuel industry, where economic arguments alone should be for energy The rapid decarbonization of the system provides sufficient power.
We also know that moving away from fossil fuels will bring significant health and well-being benefits by reducing air pollution and shifting to a more active lifestyle and balanced diet. A commitment to net zero can also reduce social inequalities, especially in societies that are already highly unequal, if they invest in affordable and reliable low-carbon public transport, urban green spaces and homes with more efficient cooling and heating.
Yet the truth is that global emissions are still increasing, and countries appear reluctant to implement the pricing and regulatory policies necessary to accelerate the energy transition that is critical to achieving net-zero emissions. This is partly due to vested interests and partly due to insufficient attention being paid to a just transition, such as for workers whose livelihoods are closely linked to fossil fuels.
At this stage, it is difficult to avoid the need for further technological solutions if the world is to meet the temperature targets of the Paris Agreement. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, nearly half of the emissions reductions needed to achieve net-zero global emissions by 2050 may need to come from technologies currently in demonstration or prototype stages.
What else can technology achieve?
Of course, we need to continue to develop technologies that increase energy efficiency and reduce demand, expand low-carbon power generation methods to replace fossil fuels, and remove existing carbon from the atmosphere. In the latter aspect, carbon capture – To address the hardest-to-reduce industrial emissions, or to remove carbon directly from the atmosphere – often seen as an essential element in achieving net-zero emissions. The world’s largest facility to capture carbon directly from the atmosphere, currently in Iceland, can only permanently remove 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, but by 2030 several million-ton projects will come online. However, the costs are currently high and there is currently no market for operators to easily recover these costs.For example, the business case for an Iceland project may require a carbon offset purchase price per ton of CO22 Or $200-300 by 2030, and $100-200 by 2035, which represents a substantial increase in carbon prices currently around $70-80 per ton under the European Emissions Trading Scheme.
hydrogen is another area with huge potential for innovation towards clean energy. This versatile fuel is low carbon only to the extent that it is produced in a low carbon manner. The most common methods of producing low-carbon hydrogen require an adequate supply of renewable energy and water. To address the latter, some scientists are working to extract the fuel “from thin air.” The costs of these approaches are high, and it is estimated that even at a carbon price of around 200 euros ($237) per ton, green hydrogen may not be competitive.
nuclear fusionThe availability of effectively unlimited low-carbon energy has been considered “decades away” for decades. The cost of ITER – an international mega-project aimed at fusion – could now reach 22 billion euros, up from an initial estimate of 6 billion euros. But with private sector investment growing rapidly in recent years, and the record breaking of sustained fusion energy earlier this year, confidence that fusion will eventually be commercialized may now be stronger than ever.
On the more controversial end of the spectrum is geoengineering Technologies such as solar geoengineering reflect sunlight off the Earth’s surface, or “seed” clouds and oceans to alter rainfall and increase carbon uptake in the oceans. (Some scientists have even proposed plans to refreeze the Arctic and Antarctic.) These technologies offer the potential to lower global temperatures when applied, but not to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, meaning they don’t solve the fundamental problem if they stop being used. Causes and Risks of Climate Change Temperatures will pick up immediately. Nor do they reduce ocean acidification, which can be achieved by reducing or removing carbon dioxide. There is also considerable uncertainty about the spatial and temporal impacts of these technologies: for example, if they alter tropical monsoon rainfall, the negative impact on food security could be large, especially in low-income countries.
Regardless of the promise, we shouldn’t over-rely on technical fixes
even if enabled new Technology is the world’s best (perhaps only) opportunity to limit global emissions to net zero, and we must not delay embedding today’s off-the-shelf solutions in the hope that some future technological fixes will save us. If we do, we run a huge risk of exceeding the Paris temperature target and threaten intergenerational equity as we jeopardize the future of the younger generation and the unborn. By the time the new technology is available in a viable form at an affordable price, it may be too late. Experience with some CCS projects to date has shown that technology may not work perfectly at first, and learning by doing (which takes time) is an important part of the innovation process.
The rapid decline in the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power may suggest that the same could happen with new technologies. However, over-allocation of public resources to new innovations (with potentially socially regressive consequences, depending on how costs are recovered) could undermine the public legitimacy of the entire transition. This threat may be greater in terms of investing in more controversial technologies that currently have low levels of public support, such as solar geoengineering.
Many of today’s early-stage technologies may increasingly be part of a more comprehensive (or desperate?) plan to tackle climate change, especially if current trends continue and the world will miss out on many of the goals and aspirations of the Paris Agreement and the Glasgow Climate Pact . But we already know all too well what can be done now to achieve much-needed emissions reductions, net-zero compatible growth, and the co-benefits of health and well-being. There is no reason to delay reasonable climate mitigation action that can and must be taken now.
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notes: post giving the opinion of its author, no Location USAPP – US Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics or the International Monetary Fund, its Executive Committee or its management
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About the author
Elizabeth Robinson – Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment, London School of Economics
Elizabeth Robinson is director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.
Essing Serine – Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment, London School of Economics
Esin Serin is a policy analyst at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment at the London School of Economics.