We already have the technology to eliminate up to 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so what is it and what’s stopping us from hitting climate targets?
TODAY, GOVERNMENTS, COMPANIES, and tens of thousands of experts around the world all seem to agree, in some cases grudgingly, that in the next fifty years the natural world and humanity will spend most of its time lurching from one cataclysmic event to another.
In fact, if everyone is to be believed then by the year 2050, as the world’s population surges past the 10 billion mark, there are so many cataclysmic events, from the devastating impact of climate change that includes dramatic increases in desertification, forest fires, sea levels, soaring global temperatures, and storm events, through to significant increases in energy poverty and actual poverty, famine, inequality, and war, that it’d be hard for any one of us to think of these as being more apocalyptic events than mere catastrophic ones.
Of course, using either one of these two words, apocalypse or catastrophe, in a conversation about the future should be enough to make most people shudder and want to change it, which then prompts us to ask the question: Can we change this and create a better future for ourselves and the planet, or is this version of the future inescapable? And that’s what I’m going to look into during a series of special features as part of the 311 institute’s Future World Series, and in this special future I’m going to take a closer look at the Future of Climate Change and how, through the combination of human ingenuity and technology, we could potentially solve it.
SETTING THE STAGE
Today there are more reports about climate, climate change, and the future of climate than you can shake a rainforest full of sticks at, so when it comes to discussing statistics, in my opinion at least, it’s pretty much pick a report to quote and run with it, and if you don’t like that approach then just Google your own and then come back here.
One such report, which emerged last year and was widely reported by more credible organisations was one by Breakthrough in Australia, and it doesn’t mince words, warning that “climate change could bring about the end of civilisation as we know it within three decades.”
Endorsed by a retired Australian admiral the report’s authors say “in our opinion we need a war-time like response [to climate change] in order to avoid a doomsday scenario,” and then go on to add, “the report speaks, in our opinion, a harsh but necessary truth.”
Of course, whether you agree or disagree with this point of view is entirely down to you, but irrespective of the severity of many of today’s predictions, and despite some people putting their heads in the sand, in the countries I travel to, and the people I speak to, we can all see the seasons changing and new environmental patterns emerging – whether it’s stronger and more regular hurricane and storm events, more intense fires, a dramatic increase in the rates of desertification and higher tides, or the bleaching of the world’s coral reefs, to name but a few. The upshot of all this is that there is something we can all be certain of – the climate and local weather patterns are changing, and we then all turn to science for the answers.
In the Breakthrough report the authors sketch a scenario where by 2050 more than half of the world’s population faces 20 days a year of lethal heat, crop yields globally drop by a fifth, the Amazon ecosystem collapses, the Arctic is ice-free in summer, and sea levels have risen by at least half a meter.
In the worst case they add, “the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model, with a high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end.”
The report also states that by 2050 more than a billion people could be displaced by climate change – something that we’re already seeing happen today as different countries, faced by drowning cities and territories, like Jakarta and the Maldives, and even populations in the United Kingdom, make the tough decision to move inland and away from the rising floodwaters.
The figure that the report states though are nonetheless a lot higher than most estimates, with the World Bank estimating that 140 million people will be affected by 2050, for example. Breakthrough cites as evidence of their predictions a 2018 report by a Swedish non-profit, which in turn sourced it from a 2010 report by a German non-profit. That said a billion people live in areas that could be inundated by sea level rises this century, which is quite different to saying there will be a billion climate migrants by 2050. The authors also referred to a UN website which says: “Unless we change the way we manage our land, in the next 30 years we may leave a billion or more vulnerable poor people with little choice but to fight or flee.”
As for what other people think about this particular report Mark Maslin of University College London says the report “adds to the deep concerns expressed by security experts such as the Pentagon over climate change,” who are now making their own contingencies to move hundreds of US military bases in response, before adding, “maybe, just may, it is time for our politicians to be worried and start to act to avoid the scenarios painted so vividly.”
So, as emissions continue to climb, and as activist organisations like the Extinction Rebellion campaigners and school pupils continue to strike can we reduce and even reverse global greenhouse gas emissions? In short, yes, and now, one by one, I’m going to show you a pathway to reducing those greenhouse gas emissions, in all their forms, by up to a staggering 70 percent as we delve into climate change solutions for the agriculture, construction, energy, and transport sectors.
Today agriculture accounts for 26 percent of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with food production representing 82 percent of that total and the remainder being supply chain related activities, which makes it, from a GHG perspective one of the most polluting industries. From farting cows and savannah burning on land to the fisheries at sea, the fact of the matter is that feeding the world is tough and there are a whole bunch of activities that, like it or not, contribute to climate change.
Also, as I discuss in more detail in our Future of Food special feature, as we head towards 2050 where the global population will surpass 10 billion people the amount of food that we need to produce, as documented in a recent study in the journal Bioscience, will need to increase by an estimated 25 to 70 percent which means that unless we change our ways, in other words how we produce food, how we distribute it, and how efficiently we use it, this figure is only going to increase.
Fortunately though there are a host of new exponential technologies already coming through that could help us eliminate almost all of agriculture’s environmental footprint and make it a much more sustainable industry – from eliminating greenhouse gas emissions to eliminating the need to use anti-biotics, chemicals, hormones, pesticides, water, and everything else that goes into producing our food.
In the near term there are the more obvious solutions, including genetically modified crops and livestock that grow fast, produce high yields, and are resistant to disease and are able to ride out a variety of different environmental stresses such as drought. But, as attractive as these options might seem to people in the short term, as we find new ways to produce everything from super cows through to super high yield crops that, among other things were ironically were originally designed to grow in space and on Mars, over the long term these food production techniques will still rely on having huge tracts of land allocated to them, will still be subject to the same issues of food distribution and wastage, and will still carry a huge environmental footprint.
As we accelerate out of the near term though and shift our thinking from linear thinking to exponential thinking, from improving on the old to embracing the new, at first we’ll see the increasing proliferation of vertical farms that allow us to grow at least eight times the amount of produce as we do today using at least 90 percent less space and water, and 100 percent less chemicals and pesticides. Furthermore, as we continue to see the rise of fully autonomous robotic vertical farms the cost of producing this high quality organic produce will drop dramatically until it gets close to zero, and as these farms move into local warehouse complexes, and then into neighbourhoods and communities, the number of food miles that produce has to travel will be all but eliminated.
Now that we’ve, arguably, all but eliminated the environmental footprint associated with crop production, as well as in time fruit production, let’s now turn our attention to the pressing problem of sustainably supplying the world with enough protein, better known as meat.
Nature perfected the answer to this problem billions of years ago, namely the ability to turn one single cell into an infinite number of cells, and it’s only now that we’re unravelling natures secrets and leveraging this same, albeit biological technology, for ourselves.
The first type of technology using this ancient secret recipe goes by many names with the two most popular being Clean Meat or Lab Grown Meat. But, while these two technologies rely on taking single viable cells from animals and using Bioreactors to help them replicate and proliferate to create everything from on demand chicken nuggets to on demand fillet steaks, there are other foody exponential technologies we can lean on as well. By using a special type of 3D printer called a Bio-Printer we can also print, yes that’s print, gourmet food and beef on demand, and use genetic engineering to create milk and dairy produce without the cow – here, there, at home, or even in space. And it goes without saying that there are no cows, or fresh fields of grass in space – both of these methodologies are, arguably, the ultimate in sustainable farming models.
Furthermore, the meat products we can grow using these technologies means not only can we take a single cell from an animal, whether it’s a chicken, a cow, a sheep, or even a zebra to create authentic, organic meats on demand, but we can also do the same for fish, from salmon to tuna, too. And, again, because this entire manufacturing process can be automated as the technology becomes more refined we’re already seeing prices plummet, from $1 million per pound of meat five years ago to $363 today. As a result, in just a few years time it’s conceivable that we’ll be within a whisker of being able to produce these meats, these organic anti-biotic and hormone free, and these animal free meats, at wholesale supermarket prices, and then the price plummets further from there …
So, as you can see, using these technologies alone, and before even more emerge, we can already see a path to producing an almost unlimited amount of crops, fruits, and meats, on demand both locally and even within our own homes, sustainably.
And that’s how we eliminate over 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions … moving on though now let’s cast our eye to some of the other industries.
When we discuss greenhouse gas emissions not that many people automatically think about the construction industry, but today building just the core and shell of buildings account for over 10 percent of all GHG emissions and it’s in no big part thanks to the industry’s wonder material, yes, I am of course talking about concrete.
More than 20 Billion tonnes of concrete is produced every year, and that figure is increasing, using a manufacturing process that contributes at least 5 to 10 percent of carbon dioxide to global emissions – a number that’s only surpassed by the agriculture, energy, and transportation sectors.
When making concrete manufacturers often use a small amount of silicon and aluminium rich fly ash as a supplement to Portland cement in concrete, and while over the years there have been numerous attempts to replace Portland cement in concrete they’ve all failed – up until recently. Now though, thankfully, researchers in the US have finally discovered a low cost alternative Portland cement which means that the future of cement is green.
Asides from improving the environmental credentials of cement though there are other ways we can reduce, and even eliminate, the environmental footprint of the construction industry.
As new exponential technologies that help us design and manufacture buildings in new ways emerge, whether it’s 3D printing and robotics that help us print buildings and communities using a variety of new green construction grade materials, including materials made out of recycled plastics and Graphene based materials that are ten times stronger than steel but 99 percent lighter, or the use of new Creative Machines, Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven machines that can design buildings, communities, and even entire cities using the minimal amount of materials, it’s clear that the construction industry, should it choose to embrace these new technologies, has a very clear path to sustainability.
One of the biggest greenhouse gas culprits the energy sector has been lambasted for decades for its reliance on fossil fuels and for being responsible for over 25 percent of all global GHG. But in the absence of cost effective and efficient energy alternatives it’s little surprise that the global energy industry has, for so long, relied on these sources of fuel to generate the world’s electricity. Even when we do have the technologies to reduce our reliance on these fuel sources though it’s still not enough to enable the switch over – we have to have the collective cultural desire and will to switch, consumers have to vote with their feet, governments have to legislate, and companies, whether they be legacy incumbents or new visionaries, have to make the investments necessary to get them into the market and make them a success. And until recently very few of these had any substance.
Today though, unfortunately thanks to the visible ravages of climate change, everything is beginning to align in the future’s favour. We have new technologies coming through in the renewable energy sector, new global climate change treaties, powerful global climate change movements, and visionary companies and investors who are all spurring a green energy revolution.
When we take a closer look, for example, at solar panels today we have over 1 Trillion Watts of generation capacity installed and hundreds of record breaking installations being built or in plan. Furthermore, today’s commercial solar panels often have an energy conversion efficiency of around 20 percent, but we now have solar cells, concentrators, and panels that are 32 percent and 47 percent efficient that generate electricity from rain and snow, aswell as during cloudy weather and also at night, and we even have a pathway to creating spray on solar panels that have a staggering 80 percent efficiency. So, if you didn’t think fossil fuels were dead before, when solar panel efficiency is sitting at just below 20 percent efficiency, then any one of these solar developments should help change your mind and convince you that the future of energy production is decentralised, democratised, and green. And that’s before we discuss developments in other energy technology categories such as grid scale storage, hydro, wind, or tidal. And, “just like that,” we eliminate another 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But let’s move on again.
Transportation, in all its forms, accounts for over 14 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and needless to say, just like the energy sector the source of the vast majority of all these emissions are from fossil fuel sources. It can also be said that, like the energy sector, the transportation sector has been generally happy with the status quo over the years – the status quo in this case being the combustion engine, with the old adage “if it isn’t broken don’t fix it,” coming to mind.
After all, even though we’ve had technologies that could have helped us electrify the transportation industry for some time now it arguably took the entrance of Elon Musk and Tesla to shake the industry up and supercharge the development and adoption of electric vehicles. As I’ve said many times before though, and just to re-iterate the point, it’s not simply enough to have access to powerful technologies, companies have to innovate on top of them, integrate them together to form valuable relevant products and services, and then need to be able to execute efficiently and sell them into the market, and in this case, against all the odds that’s what Musk was able to accomplish. The result was a transportation revolution.
Now, as renewable energy generation technologies start to mature, as battery technology improves, and as companies and governments make significant investments in new energy infrastructure, we are finally seeing the transportation industry, from the airline and shipping industries, to the automotive and drone industries make the switch from fossil fuels to new green alternatives.
Even though electric vehicles replete with Lithium Ion (LiON) batteries are now, somewhat, in vogue, the industry isn’t standing still and now, because of Musk’s success, hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent by the industry and its partners to develop even better, more sustainable energy storage solutions – from LiON battery alternatives such as Calcium Ion, Lithium Metal, and Lithium Sulphur batteries that have higher energy densities, all the way through to new forms of high capacity 3D printed LiON batteries, polymer batteries that can charge electric vehicles in seconds, new wireless energy technologies that eliminate the need for supercharger networks, new solar energy technologies like those already mentioned, solid state batteries, and even structural batteries where the vehicle’s shells become the batteries.
The result of all this is that we can already see a future where future electric vehicles either have very few batteries, or are completely batteryless, like this concept Lamborghini and these solar powered vehicles, making the industry that eventually started going green even greener, and all of a sudden it looks like the industry that stood still for almost a century has gotten a taste of disruption, and now they’re all fighting to retain relevance in the new world order.
Even better though, as all these companies and their partners accelerate the development of new greener energy alternatives, including hydrogen based alternatives, other companies in the transport and logistics sector are benefiting, from the electrification of aircraft and even giant cargo ships, through to the electrification of rickshaws, vans, semi-trucks, and even flying taxi’s.
And that is how we eliminate a further 14 percent or so of greenhouse gasses, and all of this, dear reader, is merely the tip of the increasingly frosty iceberg …