The world now knows we need to get to net-zero emissions, or even negative emissions, to make up for lost time fighting climate change. But what gaps in technology need to be filled to make that a reality?
What technologies can help us achieve net-zero
Climate action is now in motion. However, our actions have not happened quickly enough to hit the targets set by the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In order to meet these goals, technology must rapidly develop to achieve more decarbonization and carbon capture.
In order to understand what technologies could help to meet climate mitigation goals, first we have to look at what technologies are available to address the problem. Here are a few types of technology that are helping to fight climate change:
- – carbon capture and storage
- – biofuels and clean energy
- – energy storage and battery technology
- – monitoring technology to measure progress
Each of these technologies can help us achieve net-zero emissions. But the current goal being 2050 at the latest to reverse the damage of the last 100 years of industrialization, time is not on the side of technology development. Here are the ways we might fill the gaps in time.
Carbon capture technologies
Carbon capture can be as simple as filters on factory smokestacks, and as complex as planting forests and using carbon-absorbing paving stones to recapture carbon released into the atmosphere. These technologies have been in development for 50 years, but recently more of these products have been released, with 70% of carbon capture applications in the oil and gas recovery space, according to a report from the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
This sounds like progress, but only 300 million tons of carbon have been captured around the world, which is only a fraction of what is required to meet Paris Agreement goals. These technologies require significant infrastructure investment as well, such as pipelines and storage facilities, which competes with other priorities and investments to mitigate climate change.
Biofuels and powerfuels
Powerfuels are any power source such as hydrogen, methane, propane or synthetic liquid fuels. Biofuels are more specifically fuels created using a source such as plant materials like ethanol made from corn or biodiesel made from waste materials. These fuels can fill gaps in the power supply by offering cleaner alternatives to oil and gas. However, the cost of producing these fuels can still outweigh the benefit, while also creating blockages and waste in the food supply when fuels are made from the same source materials as the food supply. Such can be the case with ethanol made from corn.
The best bet for powerfuels or biofuels comes from creating circular solutions that make use of waste products. This solves the plastic and food waste crisis at the same time it creates new sources of fuel, while not creating cost issues except in cost of production, which is going down as these technologies mature.
Powerfuels such as hydrogen or ammonia can help decarbonize sectors that are hard to electrify, as well. This would include industries like aviation, maritime shipping and manufacturing of steel, cement and chemicals.
The problem with biofuels and powerfuels is the energy and cost required to convert source material into fuel. If these technologies can be matured to use clean energy to produce the fuels needed, it could be a more viable option. We expect powerfuels to fill gaps in industries rather than be widely applicable solutions. Electrification is a more general solution to power needs for most applications, including home and vehicle charging and powering the grid for residential and commercial use.
More than 80% of global energy is still supplied by fossil fuels, so there is a lot of room here for everyone to pitch in to help decarbonize the world from fossil fuel use in the industrial sector.
Solar, wind and battery technologies
Renewable energy is a simpler topic. Wind and solar technologies have matured and are now cheaper to produce than traditional fossil fuel-sourced energy. The issue here is investment in shifting the grid to clean energy, which is a massive undertaking now underway.
Rising gas and oil prices are pushing the change to occur more quickly, but the grid still needs more storage capacity to hold on to energy produced by wind and solar tech. Homeowners can produce some of their own power, though the cost of solar panels is still prohibitively high.
With increasing efficiency of solar cells and cheaper home batteries, homeowners can increasingly contribute clean power to the grid. And to remove peak demand from the grid during evening hours when residents are home using electricity for charging EVs and powering home appliances. Government incentives to help residents afford solar, and programs that make use of battery technology to store energy produced during off-peak hours for high-demand times will help take the pressure off.
The need to accelerate the adoption of these technologies favors wind and solar, which are easier to scale than hydro plants, geothermal or nuclear power generation, which take longer term investment. The IEA’s Roadmap for Net Zero by 2050 lays out a path to rapidly scale up solar and win this decade, including more than tripling the amount of wind and solar power generating tech installed annually by 2030 compared with 2020. Rooftop solar and efficient small wind turbines could help achieve net-zero for cities.
Smart tech to measure climate progress
Energy efficiency is an often overlooked area where energy demand is reduced by way of requiring less of it. According to a McKinsey study, energy efficiency has the potential to reduce global emissions by 40%. More efficient lighting, appliances and other power-hungry technology can be paired with smart technology for monitoring power use and optimizing efficiency.
Smart technology could include smart power meters, in-home or in-office energy monitoring tech that reduces power use during off hours, improved control systems for industry, smart grids and tech for advanced manufacturing that reduces power use at scale. AI can also help predict power needs across a grid to help balance out power requirements and avoid waste.
How plausible is it that we achieve net zero emissions in time?
Beyond technology, governments also need to be looking at ways to make it possible for business and residential power customers to afford clean energy and reduce demand. Low-income customers aren’t able to install solar on rooftops, for example, without significant changes to cost and opportunity for participation on the individual level.
With this comes the reminder that the vast majority of emissions actually comes from industry, and top polluting companies and countries are the main target for reducing emissions in time to meet climate targets. We expect that a combination of government incentives and grants paired with improved technology could be deployed in time to decarbonize society, but it needs to be paired with government oversight for uncooperative companies and government entities so that the opportunity to stop climate change doesn’t pass us by.
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