The Next Big Climate Innovations Are Already Underway
This essay has been adapted from the author’s full article, “Humanity on the Brink,” and is republished with permission.
Climate change poses an existential threat to human society as we know it, and the race is on to reduce global carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. What can we do? More importantly, what will we do?
Considering that half the technology needed to get to zero emissions either doesn’t exist yet or is too expensive for most of the world to afford, the road ahead needs to be paved with dramatic breakthroughs. The potential payoff in bending the cost curve of clean technologies (what Bill Gates often refers to as the “green premium”) is enormous, and businesses that can bring solutions to scale will be handsomely rewarded with multi-billion, or even trillion dollar valuations over the coming decades. Yet today, globally, we are spending only a small portion of the annual investment required to put the planet on a sustainable climate trajectory. More needs to be done.
With its tremendous wealth and record of technological innovation, the U.S. is uniquely positioned to put the world on the path to sustainability by replacing existing technologies with carbon-free alternatives. (Some might even say the U.S. owns a particularly large share of the burden given that it has caused 25% of all historical global emissions since the 1700s). At least $1.6 trillion in new annual investment will be required for the next 30 years to avoid warming exceeding 1.5 °C, and America’s private and public capital markets seem capable of meeting this challenge.
Today, investment is coalescing around several promising new technologies. On the removal side of the climate action fulcrum, there is substantial excitement about Direct Air Capture. Climeworks’s facility in Iceland, Orca, is the largest DAC installation to date, and could represent a major scientific milestone. Nonetheless, DAC is an expensive and largely unproven technology at this stage, but if it can work at scale, it would allow us to capture carbon dioxide no matter when or where it was produced. One study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that we’ll need to be removing about 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year by mid-century and about 20 billion a year by the end of the century. DAC may become a critical technology in getting to net zero. But even if this engineering challenge is solved, economic incentives (probably from governments) will be required to spur its growth since there is not a natural market for its commercialization at present.
In terms of reducing our energy footprint, hundreds of start-ups are working to solve the problem of long-duration energy storage to clean up our electricity systems. It’s extremely difficult and expensive to store electricity on a large scale, but that’s what we’ll need to do if we’re going to rely on intermittent sources like wind and solar to provide a significant percentage of clean electricity in the coming years.
America’s private and public capital markets seem capable of meeting this challenge.
Today, the dominant battery technology is lithium-ion which powers everything from your smartphone and other gadgets to EVs and commercial-scale electricity grids. And there lies the problem. Relying on lithium ion is a suboptimal solution long-term, and several companies are pursuing alternative technologies to solve long-duration storage. Most of the lithium-ion batteries depend on cobalt, which is expensive and often mined in regions cited for human rights and environmental concerns. The search is underway for battery chemistries that avoid cobalt as innovation shifts away from lithium ion phosphate to nickel magnesium, sodium sulfur, iron, manganese and other elements. Lithium-ion technology arrived on the market about three decades ago and we’re due for a significant breakthrough on this front. Lately, investors have been rewarding advanced start-ups working on this challenge with nine-figure series A and B investment rounds.
U.S. climate tech had a banner year in 2021, with venture capital dollars pouring into the sector and launching a renaissance, receiving as much as 6% of all venture capital dollars invested. Institutional investors have apparently shaken off the hangover from Clean Tech 1.0 a decade ago and even risk-averse pension funds are now aggressively funding the multi-billion dollar clean tech companies of the future. The popular kids at the dance right now are clean hydrogen, direct air capture, mass scale EV charging, and desalination, but let’s not forget about the promise of nuclear fusion which could become the technology humanity needs to solve the climate crisis once and for all.
And the emergence of new technologies like cloud computing and blockchain is producing novel demand-level challenges, as well as opportunities for continual innovation and mitigation (Bitcoin mining would rank 30th among all countries in energy usage if it were a country). High intensive server energy use driven by these technologies will need to be mitigated. Recognizing this fact, the e-payment sector in particular seems committed to managing its carbon footprint with companies like Stripe and Square signing voluntary long-term carbon removal agreements which will help these firms become operationally net zero by 2030.
But relying on technology alone to solve the climate crisis is a risky gamble for humanity. Ideally, the pathway to global net zero by 2050 also involves broad-based behavior interventions applied across countries and cultures. Individuals must feel empowered to contribute toward restoring the global ecological balance, and groups like Project Drawdown quantify the 100 or so current solutions which solve a large portion of the climate crisis. Interestingly, while some of these solutions involve industrial scale reform, others relate to simple individual choices.
The climate crisis is intensifying, not diminishing. We are headed for the cliff at an ever-increasing rate, with over 50% of all historical emissions having occurred since 1990, and one-third emitted since 2005. We have reached a perilous moment in our evolution. It does appear human consciousness has sharpened around climate change, and climate technology innovation is on a path of acceleration. Climate tech accelerators are popping up everywhere focused on supporting the next generation of innovators, and at the Watson Institute in Boulder, Colorado, where I teach, young scholars from around the world convene to work on critical issues like climate resilience. This certainly gives me hope, but I still wonder if humanity will be able to innovate fast enough to stave off the most consequential repercussions of the climate crisis.
Rob Kellogg has over twenty years experience working with businesses, government agencies and nonprofits in various leadership and entrepreneurial roles across diverse sectors. He founded the Sathi Fund for Social Innovators and is on faculty at the Watson Institute where he teaches transformative entrepreneurship in their semester accelerator in Boulder, CO. Since 2015, Rob has been active in the social entrepreneurship space, having served as a mentor, investor or advisor to 100+ founders and their ventures, many focused on climate restoration and adaptation.
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