In the movies, the solution for global disasters comes at the nail-biting end. Not so in real life. It won’t be The Rock that saves this rock we live on.
Dr. Ally Hextall, played by Jennifer Ehle, tries to save the world from a virus in the movie Contagion. Credit: Warner Bros.
On the big screen, scientific ingenuity has helped humankind avert extermination time and time again. By creating a computer virus that halts an alien invasion in Independence Day; by building a mind-controlled robot army in Pacific Rim; by inventing a vaccine in the nick of time in Contagion.
Now the peril is real. Fresh warnings from the World Meteorological Organisation this month suggest the recent onslaught of wildfires, floods, droughts and other climate-linked disasters will grow worse in the next few years, as temperatures soar to record levels.
So you might be forgiven for hoping that some undreamt of breakthrough will appear at the 11th hour to help us defeat climate change before it defeats us.
The unglamorous truth, according to climate expert Dr. Naomi Vaughan at the University of East Anglia’s School of Environmental Sciences, is it probably won’t.
“To address climate change, we need to stop burning coal, oil and gas,” Vaughan said. “That’s simple.”
Solutions to climate change aren’t sexy.
While the transition to a fossil fuel-free future can’t happen overnight, we already have the tools we need to achieve it — if we roll up our sleeves and make some hard choices.
“We’ve got a huge toolkit of stuff already,” Vaughan said. “That’s a mix of technologies that have been developed recently or that have been there a long time and have gotten a lot better, together with really dull stuff like regulation.”
But since that “dull stuff” will mean lifestyle changes for ordinary people and lower profits for powerful companies, officials are instead talking up technology: in some cases as an excuse to delay cuts to emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
But before we douse hopes for a Hollywood ending with the cold water of reality, let’s take a look at seven types of climate technology making headlines now: the three most recent and radical; the two most talked about this year; and the two that may yet help us save ourselves.
Refrozen poles and solar panels in space
The radical trio all entered the global conversation last autumn, beginning in September when scientists proposed using planeloads of aerosol particles to refreeze the North and South Poles. Then in November, European science ministers meeting in Paris approved Project Solaris, a plan to explore assembling giant solar power stations in Earth’s orbit.
The year ended on a high, when the U.S. National Ignition Facility in California produced energy-using nuclear fusion for the first time: a long-awaited advance that may one day allow us to produce ample power without generating either toxic waste or greenhouse gases.
True, any one of these ideas could one day change the game. But not yet. And perhaps not ever.
“There are a lot better ways of reducing climate change than dreaming up some fancy technology that may take 10 years to develop and may well never, ever emerge,” said Alister Doyle, a News Decoder correspondent and author of The Great Melt: Accounts from the Frontline of Climate Change.
“We’re all kicking it down the road and we risk kicking the bucket before we ever develop these technologies,” Doyle said.
Capturing carbon may not be the answer.
Now to the two areas that have the die-hard polluters most excited: carbon capture and hydrogen.
Carbon capture is not one but a range of technologies that aim to either stop emissions before they leave a factory or to suck carbon directly out of the air. Carbon is then either stored underground, often in the fissures left after fossil fuel extraction, or used in other products.
Despite the degree of recent buzz about its potential, the roots of carbon capture are much older — and much less green — than you’d expect. A version was actually used a century ago to divide carbon dioxide from natural gas. Then in the 1970s, the oil industry found that injecting C02 into oil fields made oil extraction that much easier.
Reinvented as a green technology, carbon capture is being showered with investment and incentives from governments and corporations, among them the world’s largest fossil fuel producers.
Vaughan agrees carbon capture has a role to play in the fight against climate change.
Can we speed up Mother Nature?
Carbon capture has the potential to help reduce emissions from heat-intensive industries like steelmaking and glass production, or what she calls “those industrial processes that look like something out of Mordor.” Although given the cost, many companies will be reluctant to adopt it if not held to account.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) in its many guises also offers us the unique ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere thousands of years faster than nature alone.
However promising, though, carbon capture cannot solve the climate crisis on its own.
Firstly, it is too expensive. To be economically viable, the cost of carbon capture would have to fall below $100 per tonne, roughly the current price of carbon in the European Union. And while companies are racing to reduce costs, they are still well above that — even without factoring in piping and storage.
Secondly, there’s the space question.
“You’re just not going to be able to mop up our current level of fossil fuel emissions with CCS,” Vaughan said. “The scale of the storage capacity means that’s not an option at all.”
Saving carbon might save money.
Finally, there is the very real prospect that companies and countries that emit the most greenhouse gases will use the promise of carbon capture as a justification for inaction.
Lingering government resistance to taking the tough measures necessary to avert a crisis is the result of lobbying by powerful industries, coupled with the longstanding belief among many politicians that the energy transition will be economically ruinous and unpopular with voters.
Most economists, however, think these costs are overestimated. In fact, many say a shift to green energy would benefit the global economy, potentially saving the world trillions of dollars.
The second existing technology being touted these days is hydrogen. There’s a lot to love about hydrogen: it could one day power hard-to-decarbonize sectors, heavy industry, shipping and air transport included, with water its only by-product. But like carbon capture, hydrogen is costly.
“I think hydrogen if you can get it down to a decent price, then tremendous,” Doyle said. “But you need a lot of energy to produce it at the moment.”
Nature’s power generators
Now we come to two technological successes that may yet help us find a happy ending: solar and wind.
Solar prices have plunged. In 1975, it cost $105 to generate a single watt of energy. By 2020, that cost had fallen to just 20 cents, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In many parts of the world, solar is now the cheapest way to generate electricity.
“The progress on the cost of solar is just insane,” Vaughan said. “It’s one of the most hopeful stories of the current period. And wind is also brilliant.”
Perhaps the only good to come out of the inflation shock sparked by the war in Ukraine is that it accelerated the shift toward renewables. According to the IEA, greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels rose just 1% last year and are expected to level off by 2025.
This is a tipping point that has come later than it should have. But with a lot of hard work, and eventually the help of carbon capture, it may just have come soon enough.
The answer to climate change, Doyle and Vaughan agree, lies not in some yet-to-be-discovered technology but in changes we can and must make now.
It lies in shifting to clean electricity generated by wind, sun, tides, rivers and, where feasible, the earth. It lies in turning down the thermostat, flying less, redesigning dwellings to make heating and cooling more efficient. It lies in green appliances and lightbulbs. It lies in planting trees to capture C02 and cool urban areas and in restoring peatlands, which are valuable carbon sinks.
Above all, it lies in telling those in power we want them to act now.
Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we don’t need magic or a miraculous scientific breakthrough to save ourselves. We have all the power we need right now.
Three questions to consider:
- What technologies are being developed that could help fight climate change in the future?
- What technology exists now that can help lower the temperature of the Earth?
- What can you do now to help fight climate change?
Sarah Edmonds is a former Reuters journalist who has worked in seven countries on three continents, variously as a financial markets and economics correspondent, news editor, bureau chief and news operations manager.