Can Climate Technology Save The Planet?
Have you noticed there is a huge gap between what we hear about climate change from scientists and the technology and finance sectors?
“The empty pledges put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.” - United Nations Secretary-General
“Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?” - Springer Nature
“Discovery and quantification of plastic particle pollution in human blood” - Environment International
On another side…
“We can bury carbon dioxide, or recycle it as a valuable resource” - Financial Review
“New technique turns plastic waste into usable, clean fuel” - Business Recorder
“How artificially brightened clouds could stop climate change” - BBC
We have numerous scientific data showing us that many of us are already living with the effects of ecological breakdown. We live in a physical world, not in a virtual world where we can program everything. So, which side should we agree on?
Who Wants Climate Technology?
There are many new and not new technologies that are promising carbon emission reduction at various levels. While there is a variety of technologies that target a specific issue such as lab-produced food and smart building, the projects related to the energy sector such as carbon capture and storage are most funded. This is because 85% of global carbon emissions are the result of energy generation and consumption. Therefore, solving carbon-free energy is the number one priority.
We love to hear about these technologies because it gives us a sense that we don’t worry about changing our lifestyle or giving up anything. But is it an irresponsible fairytale? Can we even achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050? To find the answer, we need to look at where the idea came from and who is leading the technology solutions.
“We still want roads, so we need cement that you have to call ‘green cement’. We still want to be able to fly around, so you have to have aviation fuel that is made without any emissions at all.” - Bill Gates
“We still need oil, we still need coal, we still need wood. But if data can tell us how to use it efficiently, smartly, and that is what we think we can do.” - Jack Ma
“We can move all heavy industry and all polluting industry off of earth and operate it in space.” - Jeff Bezos
Big philanthropic donations tend to come from the leaders of tech companies who have a very technocratic view of the future. A lot of new things are being done with the donations that possibly couldn’t have been done without it. But sometimes the fund doesn’t go to the best interest of the majority. It is just one person with a lot of money who decides whatever they want. Therefore, it ignores the rest of society who have different ways of responding to these challenges.
Billionaire climate philanthropy is controversial for some reasons.
- This 1% of the world’s richest people are responsible for a million times more greenhouse gas emissions than the average person.
- We witness inconsistencies in the businesses that they are involved with. For example, big tech companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Meta make climate donations while continuing to build AI (artificial intelligence) for oil and gas corporations to speed up the discovery of new oil deposits.
- When it comes to how their funding is used and the justifications for that, there is an element of ideology that is important to recognize.
A Failed Example of Technological Solutions
We’re not allowed to say sh*t, and that’s part of the problem. We refuse the words because we refuse the reality. On average, a human produces more than 70 kilos of excrement per year. Globally, that represents 550 million tons of waste that must be evacuated and treated. Excrement management worldwide poses sanitation and ecological challenges that we almost never talk about. Bill Gates decided to reinvent the toilet so that it could be used even in countries without water-borne sewer systems. The universities which work for him are developing chemical solutions, reactors to destroy the bacteria in fecal matter, and electrolysis-based treatment walls. Their toilets end up looking like spaceships. He might have thought the spaceship toilet can be much smaller in the future just like computers. Unfortunately, poop is in atoms, and you cannot digitize it.
Luckily, we do have a much better solution for a cheaper cost. A composting toilet, a type of dry toilet can treat human waste by composting. All you need to do is drop some mulch after you finished. No odor and you can use the compost in your garden. This simple solution already existed, and many composting toilets could have been installed with the money invested in the spaceship toilet. If you are interested in composting toilets, have a look at Ecoflo.
Why Is Relying on Technological Solutions A Concern?
People around the world have different lifestyles, economies, climates, and cultures. Since climate change affects everyone on the planet, we need different lenses to think about these issues. Some can be a technical point of view, but the dominance of that is a real concern. More particularly, it is a concern because we like their view of the future tells us no need for changes. In fact, their campaigns have been very successful in distracting us away from the real challenges of climate change. Broadcasting media also favor technological views. But in all of the media, one key point has hardly been discussed, the reality that technology cannot solve the problem on its own. We still need to significantly slash our dependence on fossil fuels.
Remember, it’s not just those billionaires who have power, but we give them that power. Do you cheer their idea, “we can engineer the planet so that we can carry on business as usual”? This attitude is proven to be the key reason that we haven’t been able to act on the climate change issue for a century.
Carbon Capture and Storage
The real challenge is to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The climate does not care how we do it, but the number of CO2 molecules is the most important thing. To actually achieve this result, we need to look at how to generate and use electricity. When we can solve energy problems, we can electrolyze a lot of things. For example, we already have electric cars. Only the issue is the manufacturing process and the electricity itself still emit CO2.
How can we decarbonize the energy sector where the biggest portion of CO2 comes from? One of the technologies that have been promoted by the fossil fuel industry is carbon capture and storage. The key reason that people want this technology is we can continue living with fossil fuels. The carbon capture projects claim up to 90% of the CO2 can be captured. And this big promise has been getting a lot of money funded. However, a lot of these projects suffered technical problems and only captured a very small proportion of the emissions. Ironically, a technology that is used at the moment to limit the worst effects of global warming was developed in the first place to produce more fossil fuels. The big oil companies need to understand that if we don’t reduce oil and gas production and consumption, then we are not going to achieve net zero by 2050.
However, carbon capture is still useful during the transition period. There are some industries such as steel and concrete that are very hard to achieve net zero. Even if production is switched to renewable energy sources, there will always be an amount of CO2 left over from the manufacturing process. We will need carbon capture to stop emissions from the production of these materials.
We currently produce 50 billion tons of CO2 globally every year, and carbon capture projects have captured only 0.02% so far. Even for steel and concrete industries, over time, it must become more expensive for them to deal in carbon so that other technologies, renewable energy, become more viable.
In many ways, the development of and optimism around carbon capture goes hand-in-hand with the development of and optimism around hydrogen as a future energy solution. There is a big investment and forecasts show that hydrogen consumption will need to increase for the net zero targets.
Hydrogen is a perfectly clean fuel to burn. There are 2 main ways to produce it. One is using clean energy, and that leads to what we call green hydrogen. You can also make hydrogen from natural gas along with carbon capture and storage which removes the emissions from the chemical process, and that’s called blue hydrogen. Blue hydrogen has a large greenhouse gas footprint, actually worse than just burning natural gas directly for fuel instead. Blue hydrogen is a nice label but it still doesn’t get away from the fact that you’re emitting carbon to produce a gas. The science doesn’t support it, and it is a marketing strategy of the oil and gas industry.
Unfortunately, green hydrogen is still expensive, and we don’t produce in large quantities yet. If we start replacing everything with hydrogen, then we will continue to rely on fossil fuel companies extracting gas.
Do We Need More Green Technologies?
These complex and expensive technologies are talked of as essential to avoid making the climate catastrophe worse. But the fact is that renewable energy has become the cheapest way to generate electricity around the planet. Researchers found that energy could be reliably supplied with 100% renewable in different geographic locations and situations.
One reason investors are less keen on renewables is that because you can’t make much money doing it. With oil, we have about 40% of ship traffic on the high seas just to move fossil fuel around. Once people set up solar panels, they last for 25 years with very little cost. It is great for most of us, but if you are an oil company, that’s the dumbest business model. We are not making more use of renewables yet because the fossil fuel industry has been cultivating political power for a century.
Fossil fuel subsidies were $5.9 trillion or 6.8% of GDP in 2020 and are expected to increase to 7.4% of GDP in 2025. Underpricing leads to the overconsumption of fossil fuels which accelerates global warming and environmental problems. Therefore, the price should include both the supply and environmental costs of fuel use. Not only do the governments give money directly to fossil fuel companies, but also there is an indirect subsidy for not charging them for the insane amount of damage that they’re doing. Around the world, 9 million people a year die from breathing the particulates produced when fossil fuels are burned. That’s bigger than HIV, AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, war, and terrorism combined.
Some Green Technologies Are Really Green
We may not expect fast transitions from large corporations whose emissions are very high. But there are many smaller projects around the world that will make a difference.
Here are some examples:
3D printed Meat – 3D printed meat is grown from bovine stem cells from a cow or chicken egg and requires only 10% of water and resources compared to growing livestock. It also reduces significant amounts of carbon emissions.
Self-sufficient buildings – Buildings made from materials with smaller carbon footprints and produce enough energy to power themselves.
Renewable Energy Storage – The challenge with renewable energy is working out how to store the energy so that it is available consistently. The battery is becoming more efficient and cheaper.
We hope that we can get rid of greenhouse gases with carbon-free substitutes for the things our lifestyles depend on. This idea is called techno-optimism. I foresee a completely decarbonized economy where we still travel much as before, where we keep consuming goods from around the world, continue to put up large buildings, and still enjoy economic growth.
Technologies and innovations are great, but we don’t have time to wait. We still need a significant reduction in fossil fuel extraction and use. Therefore, we should prioritize the projects that actually reduce carbon emissions.
Environment International - https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/environment-international
Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived - https://www.nature.com/articles/nature09678
Still Not Getting Energy Prices Right: A Global and Country Update of Fossil Fuel Subsidies - https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WP/Issues/2021/09/23/Still-Not-Getting-Energy-Prices-Right-A-Global-and-Country-Update-of-Fossil-Fuel-Subsidies-466004
Composting Toilet - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhbE38mv4SE
Billionaires should focus on using resources for climate change not on space travel - https://www.euronews.com/green/2022/01/05/billionaires-should-focus-on-using-resources-for-climate-change-not-of-space-travel-public