The BBC broadcasted an interview with US Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry and journalist Andrew Marr. Marr posed a series of challenging questions on America’s climate policies, including coal phaseout, carbon footprints, and green innovation.
When asked if Americans will have to cut back on some regions of their carbon-intensive lives, such as eating red meat, Kerry responded, “I believe you’re providing people with a false option.” You don’t have to sacrifice your quality of life to accomplish some of the goals we all know we need to complete. He went on to say that half of the emissions reductions required to reach net-zero by 2050 will come from “technologies we don’t now have.”
Climate activists were furious, especially with the last sentence.
Part of the difficulty, it appears, was Kerry’s ambiguity regarding his intent. His intended meaning, according to a State Department spokeswoman, is shared by many energy modeling specialists. In a statement to Popular Science, a spokeswoman stated, “Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Kerry is convinced that we can fulfill our 2030 targets by scaling up technology that exists now.” “However, according to an IEA [International Energy Agency] research, roughly half of the emissions reductions required to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 must come from technologies that are not yet commercially available.”
So it’s not that half of the technologies that the IEA and other experts say we need don’t exist; some of them do, but they’re still in their infancy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) stated in its Energy Technology Perspectives 2020 report that to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, we’d have to scale up technologies that are now only at the prototype or demonstration stage, noting that “approximately 45 percent of all emissions reductions in 2050 would come from technologies that have not yet been commercially implemented, even on a minimal basis.”
And a new analysis from the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued this week backs this up. The paper claims that by extending the renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies we now have, we can significantly reduce emissions by 2030. After that, we are reducing emissions to zero by 2050 will need the maturation of inventions such as direct carbon capture, hydrogen fuel, and better batteries.
If it seems strange, let’s start by dispelling a widespread misconception: equating power with the global carbon footprint. With current technologies, electricity could nearly entirely remove its carbon footprint. According to the new IEA research, renewable energy will account for 90% of power output in 2050, with most of that capacity coming from solar and wind.
However, according to Zeke Hausfather, head of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, power production accounts for roughly one-third of world emissions and a quarter of US emissions. Other energy-intensive industries are more difficult to transition to sustainable alternatives. Industrial operations, such as steel, cement, and chemical manufacturing, are challenging to clean up. One issue is that many rely on temperatures of approximately 1,000°C, which may be easily achieved with a fossil-fueled furnace but are prohibitively expensive to achieve with an electric heater. The conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to fertilizer, for example, emits 1.4 percent of all CO2 emissions worldwide. Hydrogen and carbon capture systems may be required in these industries to help eliminate all emissions.
There’s also transport, shipping, and aviation to consider. Electric large rigs exist already, but they have a long way to go before they overtake their diesel counterparts. On the other hand, cargo ships and airplanes are more difficult to electrify, which is why the IEA predicts that going net zero in those industries will necessitate hydrogen, synthetic fuels, and biofuels—all of which are now unavailable.
In an email to Popular Science, Jesse Jenkins, the director of the Princeton ZERO Lab, said, “There is no question that we need to accelerate innovation to attain net-zero at an affordable cost and at the pace we need to combat climate change.” “However, the difficulty is less about creation and more about making technologies like as CCS [carbon capture and storage], air capture, biomass gasification, and electrolysis—all of which have been conceived today and shown at pilot or commercial scale—cheap, mature, and scalable.”
In other words, Kerry’s intentions are essentially consistent with the mainstream climate modeling community. However, the reason it ignited disputes in the climate world may be more complex. “People are using this as a surrogate for their own wider disputes, whether it’s futuristic techno solutions vs. technologies that are now accessible or large-scale capitalism reforms vs. green growth,” says Hausfather.
In essence, some academics and campaigners feel that we now have all we need for a 100% renewable-powered world. In contrast, others think that innovation will be critical to eradicating some recalcitrant pollutants. Then there’s the question of whether capitalism and continuing economic expansion (which underpins current climate models) can ever be divorced from environmental concerns. As a result, Kerry’s idea that technology can address many of our climate problems without requiring deeper societal reforms rubbed some people wrongly.
Some environmentalists also wonder if looking forward to future developments distracts us from focusing on the here and now and implementing established remedies. Kevin Surprise, an environmental studies researcher at Mount Holyoke College, says, “I believe the biggest issue is that waiting on these [new technologies] to someday come online is a means to delay more immediate and effective ways that we know can work right now.”
Experts believe that there is a lot we can do right now to scale up proven technology and reduce emissions. The disputes about how we want a climate-friendly society to appear in 2050 will continue to heat up.