Though I am an expert in behavior change, I don’t think it is likely that we will curb human appetites for reproduction, meat, transport or energy sufficiently to avert the climate crisis. However, when the going gets tough, billionaires go offworld, doomsday preppers buy bunkers, and the rest of us put our faith, careers, political advocacy and seed capital into technological innovation and the brands that will advance it.
Luckily for us sub-billionaires, climate-centered innovation has been growing, and there are now a handful of promising technologies that could change our future. These are some of the categories that get me excited, a few companies to watch, and some ideas about how you can support innovation.
Carbon Capture (CC)
Carbon is the main negative byproduct of our industrial economy. The theory is that if you can capture carbon and sequester it in a cost-effective way, you could reduce the CO2 burden and lower global temperatures. Proof of concept tech has been around for decades, and is now nearly commercialization. Solutions can either remove carbon from the air or interdict at the smokestack.
The Catch: Most CC technologies can’t remove carbon that’s already in the atmosphere, but rather work best at emission sources (like factories or power plants). This means slowing carbon emissions growth rather than reversing it. Also, it takes energy to extract the carbon, so if the underlying source of energy is dirty, you’ll possibly be making things worse.
Transportation accounts for a plurality of all carbon emissions in the industrialized world. Passenger cars, airplanes, buses, trucks and ships emit a staggering amount of carbon when operating, despite improved fuel economy pressure and demands.
Electrification of transport promises to reduce greenhouse emissions in two ways. First, power can be generated by a low-impact source, such as solar or wind. Second, electric propulsion is much more efficient than combustion engines. An electric engine can use 90+% of the power it receives, while combustion vehicles rarely break 50% efficiency. Battery technology of course plays a huge role here, given the weight-to-power ratio.
Moreover, autonomy in transport promises to further improve efficiency, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Software can be programmed to choose the most efficient driving style and telemetry, and these savings can amount to 10% or more. This has already been well proven in aviation, where 2 decades of autopilot enhancements for efficiency have borne fruit.
The Catch: Replacing all existing transport with electrified alternatives will take time, money and produce greenhouse gas emissions of its own. Battery technology has been relatively slow to improve, is getting more costly/complex and requires resources to produce.
Climate engineering is one of the disciplines that aims to change the climate through specific, direct interventions. One of the best regarded — and controversial — ideas is to darken the world by increasing cloud cover. This approach is called Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and could be delivered either by covering the oceans in low clouds or simulating volcanic eruptions at high altitudes. While it would impact crops and quality of life, such a darkening would have a significant impact on reducing temperatures. This could be useful as a stopgap measure until other ideas catch up.
The Catch: We lack appropriate weather models and global governance that would help us estimate and implement SRM. Moreover, we’d use energy to power SRM, and that would need to be from clean sources.
The earth’s trees are a large carbon “sink”, sucking in CO2 and sequestering it. As deforestation has picked up steam (including the devastating Amazon and African fires), the impacts on climate only grow.
It’s obvious, but recent research suggests that if we could plant 1 trillion trees (requiring approximately 900 Million Hectares), we might be able to offset most of climate change’s impact. This may seem daunting, but there’s plenty of space, and now a set of technology companies that are innovating tree planting itself. Using drones and AI, we could reforest the planet with minimal human involvement (and likely using clean electricity).
The Catch: Part of the reason for deforestation is human demand for housing, raw materials, agriculture, and animal husbandry. Those demands aren’t likely to taper anytime soon, so this may become a sisyphean task.
Energy Production & Management
Energy production is the single biggest greenhouse gas emitter on earth. But it’s not just burning dirty coal or natural gas that contributes to energy’s impact on the world: it’s a combination of production, distribution and storage that can all be innovated upon.
At the core, the goal is to reduce the impact of energy generation, loss from transmission, and the need to have excess capacity to deal with peaks and valleys in demand. Much of the innovation here has been in rooftop solar and local or municipal battery storage. When the sun is shining, you capture the energy. When it’s not, you distribute the energy from batteries located near the source.
Improvements in solar arrays, wind/geothermal tech, nuclear safety and battery systems are all poised to make a major dent in this phenomenon.
The Catch: It takes resources to build new sources of power and to decommission existing power systems. Utilities are highly regulated and can be scared of investing in transitional technologies — especially those with high capital costs.
The food we eat contributes dramatically to carbon output. While it’s difficult to get people to change their eating habits in a proscriptive way, there are a number of companies that are innovating strongly in the space. At their core, most of these firms are trying to create viable alternatives to existing foods (e.g. meat) that taste/behave as close to the “real thing” as possible. The lesson appears to be that quality matters, and by keeping things mostly the same (but changing underlying processes), it’s easier to sell the behavior change.
The Catch: Growing plants might be less carbon-intense than meat, but it still involves many of the same processes. There is a novelty factor that may be obscuring real demand for such alternatives.
What You Can Do About It
First, deal with your climate anxiety. Feeling overwhelmed by the climate crisis can prevent you from taking action that matters. It’s easy to post a picture of the burning Amazon on Facebook, but much more important to take a constructive stand to change things. Yes, cutting down on your straw usage is a good thing — but you could do more.
Here are some ideas that might just help you feel better about the situation (and could change the world):
- Invest. Through sites like Microventures and Kickstarter you can fund many of these companies and projects directly. Even small amounts of money help, and if you choose wisely you might even see a return on your investment.
- Work. Looking for a new job or career? Why not bring your skills and talent to the ecological transformation industries? Yes, it’s high risk, but so is not doing something.
- Advocate. Persuade your political representatives that further investment in these technologies is not only warranted but essential. Make sustainability part of your platform for deciding who to support politically and which brands should get your money.
- Influence. Learn more about some of these products and try them yourself. Tell others about your knowledge and experience and excite them as best you can.
If we could take a fraction of our climate anxiety and channel it into resources: money, people, support, we might be able to forestall this crisis. Systematic change is essential, but all change starts somewhere. If not you, who?