State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Kerry Was Correct: Decarbonization Will Require New Technology

I know that some climate advocates see climate change as an indicator of the failure of capitalism and argue that its solution requires a new social order, new consumption habits and a massive change of our political and economic power structure. I don’t see that happening, yet I still want my three-year-old granddaughter to live in a world where we’ve addressed the climate crisis. So how do we get from here to there?

It’s useful sometimes to ground analysis in fact. One environmental fact is that overall, the air and water in the United States are cleaner today than they were in 1970. America consumes more today and pollutes less than it did 50 years ago. How did that happen? In the case of air, regulation of motor vehicles and power plants resulted in new stack scrubbing technology, fuel switching and the mass adoption of the catalytic converter. Due to fuel milage standards, cars became lighter, more energy-efficient and cleaner. Power generation and vehicles (not heavy industry) have always been the largest sources of air pollution, and we use more cars and electricity today than we used 50 years ago. Technological innovation coupled with strong regulation resulted in improved air quality. We see similar results with sewage treatment and with the management of non-point sources of water pollution.

The technology of air, water and waste management has advanced dramatically since we created the EPA back in 1970. I believe that decarbonization is in the early stages of the same process. The technology we have now can get us started, but if it was really where it needed to be, it would already be in use. Electric cars are a good example. Yes, we need more charging stations and public policy should do even more to encourage early adoption. But what we really need is a battery so good that it can deliver a charge for 500 or 1,000 miles. We need an electric vehicle that costs less than today’s internal combustion vehicles. Those electric vehicles will require technological innovation that I am certain we will see but is not yet available. Those technologies will make the internal combustion engine obsolete. We are close. In fact, Ford recently announced the electronic version of its best-selling truck. According to Ford’s press release:

“The truck of the future is here. The F-150 Lightning is the smartest, most innovative truck Ford has ever built. From near instant torque to intelligent towing, seamless connectivity to software updates, plus power for your home, a power frunk and a digital screen that’s larger than any currently offered on a full-size truck – F-150 Lightning is a driving and ownership experience unlike any other.”

With federal tax incentives, the cost of the truck is competitive with the gasoline-powered version. The Ford F-150 is an indicator of technological process, and we will soon learn if it is able to win over truck-buyers.

Solar technology is also improving, but current technology is expensive, toxic, and large. Smaller, less toxic, and cheaper solar cells are now being invented. During the debate after John Kerry’s recent interview on BBC One’s Andrew Marr show, I kept hearing from climate experts and advocates that we have the technology we need and the search for new technology is just an excuse for inaction.  I’m reminded of the pictures of people with the first cell phones in the 1980s. They were the size of a brick, cost about $10,000 (in 1980 dollars) and had very limited battery life. In 2004 we got the flip phone with seven hours of battery life, and a few years later, Apple invented the iPhone, which led to the small computers we keep in our pockets today. Sure, we had cell phones 40 years ago, but they were not ready for prime time. The need for additional research and the development of new technology is not an excuse for inaction today but an argument for a broader set of actions than simply using off-the-shelf technology. A key action is research leading to new technologies.

The transition to renewable energy and electronic vehicles has begun, but additional technological innovation and infrastructure investment will be needed to succeed. The larger problem will be the greenhouse gases produced when we manufacture steel, cement, and food. These industrial processes must also reduce their production of greenhouse gasses and developing the technology needed for these changes will be a massive national undertaking. As Ula Chrobak observed in a recent issue of Popular Science:

… making electricity is only about a third of global emissions and a quarter of US emissions, explains Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute. There are other energy-intensive sectors that can’t readily switch to sustainable alternatives. Industrial processes—including steel, cement, and chemical production—are not straightforward to clean up. One reason is that many rely on temperatures of around 1,000°C, which can be easily produced through a fossil-powered furnace, but doing the same with an electric heater requires a prohibitively expensive amount of energy. The process of turning atmospheric nitrogen into fertilizer, for instance, produces 1.4 percent of all global CO2 emissions. For these industries, hydrogen and carbon capture technologies may be needed to help remove all emissions.”

In addition, industrial agriculture must reduce methane emissions and reduce its overall environmental impact.

Greta Thunberg certainly believes that only lifestyle change and radical system transformation will solve the climate crisis. In a tweet responding to Kerry’s interview, she ridiculed his views and joked: “Great news! I spoke to Harry Potter and he said he will team up with Gandalf, Sherlock Holmes & The Avengers and get started right away!” Science and technology sometimes seem like magic, and certainly, the negative impacts of technology often seem like a nightmare, but the positives and negatives of technology are facts. There have been trade-offs as we exchanged the constant quest for food, clothing, and shelter for a post-industrial brain-based economy. Manual labor was replaced with machines and very few of us would know how to live off the land even if there was enough land for us to live off of it. In any case, it’s too late to turn back. We live in a world dominated by technology that we must learn how to manage and regulate.

Another fact is the fragility and need for stability in our current political, social, and economic order. Our lives are interdependent. A breakdown of fuel, water or food systems can lead to economic and physical distress and ultimately political chaos and disorder. The benefits of our technological, interdependent lifestyle outweigh the costs. Most people in the developed world care about the planet and will change some of their behaviors to protect it, but they are not open to fundamental change. They like their cars, air-conditioning, barbecues and (when it’s possible again) vacation travel. The climate crisis will only be addressed by solutions that allow people to maintain the parts of their lifestyle they consider essential. Telling people their behavior will destroy the planet is not an effective political strategy. Providing a way to maintain their lifestyle while protecting the planet works better and will allow us to address the crisis of global environmental sustainability.

Mitigating climate change and adapting to the warmer planet we now live on will be a generation-long slog in the mud. There will be no magic fixes, but a slow set of changes to manufacturing and energy technologies. We will need political will, legal and regulatory changes, capital, and decades of determined effort. We do not yet have the political, organizational, or technological capacity to manage the negative impacts of the technologies we now use. If the past is any guide, the technologies we develop to combat climate change will themselves create environmental impacts that we will also need to remedy at some point.

John Kerry was correct. We need new technology. But we also need to build our scientific understanding of the planet itself. Our understanding of ecosystems, oceans and biodiversity must become comprehensive so that we can better understand the impact of new technologies on this planet. We also need to develop the organizational capacity to make use of this expertise and deploy it for the betterment of humanity. Global environmental sustainability is a fundamental challenge that requires learning and hard work across many problems and possible solutions.

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Michel Delafontaine
3 years ago

I agree we need new technologies but also behavioral changes. I am working in an organization with boots on the ground that attempts at taking both actions. These are good intentions but they lead to unintended consequences. Developing renewables will create a rather large quantity of stranded assets. Dramatic changes are not going to solve our problems: we should discuss transition and not revolution. Greta Thunberg might be right to ask us to drastically change our behavior but that will require giving appealing alternatives. Getting 500-1000 mile range EVs on the market will not be enough, we have to change the charging paradigm if we want to succeed at this.

Nancy Anderson
3 years ago

I hold (at least) these truths to be self evident: 1. the climate crisis is upon us now and we have not a single moment to dither in order to keep global temperatures — the irreversible damage that will cause — below 1.5 degrees C. Time really matters. 2. We have the first generation of technologies like solar + wind power to supply electricity in hand + these must be massively deployed. Still you are right that there is much to be improved on (your example of solar panel limits are valid), and it’s both arrogant and dumb to think that the material sciences have reached maturity. Kerry wasn’t wrong, just sloppy in his choice of words.

Here’s my question — what, in your view, are the most significant societal institutions for creating climate priorities, mobilizing support and then taking effective + socially equitable climate action, thus committing always scarce political, social and financial resources? We won’t get a second bite on this apple and the hobbled US federal government + GOP opposition appear to se us up for failure.