While technology exists to enable economic growth without destroying the planet, we can’t rely on it as the sole solution to climate catastrophe, says Tom Pashby
Technology has delivered massive improvements to people’s lives and has enabled the UK to dramatically decarbonise its electricity grid. The pace of innovation and economies of scale mean that power generation from renewable energy sources has expanded and dropped in cost, and government and corporations invest billions in tech because they see it as a solution to the problem of the climate and biodiversity emergencies.
One of the most exciting areas of technological development in the climate action sector is negative emissions technologies (NETs), including carbon capture and storage (CCS).
NETs are held up by some as the silver bullet needed to enable the global capitalist system, which hinges on infinite economic growth, to keep going, while saving the planet from climate breakdown. Some NETs have been proven to work insofar as they do literally suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – but none has been able to do so at scale.
The operational and business models of NETs often present contradictions to their stated aims.
Operationally, they often require huge amounts of electricity. In most places where electricity is available on a grid, the grid electricity is more than likely to be at least in part generated by the combustion of fossil fuels. Circumventing this means siting direct air capture facilities near high-volume zero-carbon generators such as geothermal heat in Iceland, which is very limiting.
Business models are still being developed to create a market in which NETs can work for climate action. As things stand, one of the easier models is to sell the captured carbon dioxide to industries such as carbonated drinks manufacturing – but this releases the gas back into the atmosphere, cancelling out the benefit of removal.
Direct air capture entrepreneurs are faced with massive obstacles in terms of access to capital funding and those limited spaces where they can find proximity to zero-carbon electricity. Philanthropists are interested, but philanthropy is not an appropriate long-term revenue stream for tackling the global societal challenge of climate change. Philanthropists are free from democratic oversight and can withdraw their support whenever they wish.
While these technologies are being worked on, the climate emergency is getting worse, and the fossil fuel industry continues to expand extraction for combustion. There are significant gaps between the scale of action needed to mitigate and adapt to climate breakdown and commitments to action, and between commitments and delivery.
In the main, the technology for decarbonisation exists – such as building insulation, smart grids, wind turbines and solar panels. The main obstacle continues to be political will. Markets are moving regardless of political leadership, but the speed of capital flows is not fast enough to achieve net-zero global emissions in time to avoid more than 2°C of global heating.
Reliance on the future potential of NETs, CCS and bioenergy carbon capture and storage creates a serious risk of complacency and, given the extremely tight window in which we must act, they should be disregarded from climate action plans.
That might sound like an extreme position and disappointing for fans of NETs. Just to be clear, I am not against NETs, provided they are rolled out in a socially and environmentally just way, but we don’t have the time to add in variables to the problem of climate action.
We already have the tools to avert climate disaster – what’s needed is political will and financial capital, both of which can be deployed today.
Tom Pashby, AIEMA, is a digital journalist at IEMA