From more frequent heatwaves to storms, droughts and other extreme weather events, the ravages of a warming planet are only intensifying. If human activity has left us teetering on the edge of potentially irreversible climate tipping points, we’re also responsible for fixing it.
The good news is that there’s a reason for hope. Our capacity to innovate has ensured the survival of human civilisation through millennia. Innovation has helped us through healthcare, societal, and environmental emergencies. It’s quite clear now that relentless and radical innovation is the only way to push ahead of a crisis as extensive as climate change. We’ve made progress towards reducing our carbon footprint, yet the challenge ahead remains enormous. But, we can be optimistic that human ingenuity will help us turn the situation around.
Here are four of the most exciting technologies that could shape the future of our response to climate change:
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it’s going to take more than just reducing emissions to achieve the ambitions of the Paris Agreement and limit future temperature rises to 1.5°C. Because the warming effect of greenhouse gases can persist for thousands of years, we also need to actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to avert the worst effects of climate change and achieve net zero targets. Even with significant emissions reductions, the IPCC estimates that we will need to remove up to 1 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over this century. This is urgent considering that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are now over 50% higher than pre-industrial levels.
Luckily, considerable progress has been made with Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) technologies, providing hope for their large-scale deployment. After decades of testing and being relegated to the niche corners of the global energy landscape, CCUS technologies could finally be sufficiently feasible to attract the financial backing necessary to be applied on a climate-relevant scale. With more financial and policy support, carbon capture technologies could help solve emissions challenges for the biggest polluters such as manufacturing, electricity generation and transportation, which are collectively responsible for over 73% of our emissions.
There’s more. Rather than simply storing the captured carbon dioxide underground, innovation is making it possible to convert it into useful products like sustainable aviation fuel, which could help to decarbonise global aviation. Another exciting project hopes to use over 1 million tonnes of captured CO2 a year to develop a revolutionary single-cell protein for the animal feed industry.
Livestock accounts for roughly 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions. This presents a huge challenge for the climate especially as the demand for meat continues to rise with economic and population growth worldwide. Lab-grown meat and plant-based alternative proteins could help meet this growing demand while getting rid of planet-heating emissions from livestock. However, conventional cultured meat production processes present both ethical and sustainability challenges. For instance, the media used to grow the meat (fetal bovine serum) is traditionally produced from blood drawn from foetuses in pregnant cows during slaughter.
However, sustained innovation has enabled the development of a novel, economical and environmentally friendly medium for cultured meat using cells taken painlessly from living cows. This will provide a pathway to a truly viable and ethical alternative to traditional resource-intensive meat production. With increasing global demand for meat substitutes, this presents an exciting opportunity for substantial environmental benefits while reducing pressure on important resources like land and water.
New wave nuclear power
Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources will be key to tackling climate change. Often, visions of wind turbines, solar panels, and hydroelectric dams come to mind when confronted with the aforementioned. But, what about nuclear power plants?
Nuclear power holds great potential in a world confronting climate change as the only low-carbon generation technology that can provide a reliable, constant baseload of energy to balance the variability of other renewable energy sources. It’s already been powering the UK for generations, currently provides one-third of our clean energy, and is the cheapest electricity going into the grid. Now, we need more nuclear power to reach net zero.
In 2009, the UK Government’s Low Carbon Industrial Strategy announced a commitment to establishing “a Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre that combines the knowledge, practices and expertise of manufacturing companies with the capability of universities.” Officially launching in May 2012, the Nuclear AMRC – led by The University of Sheffield, The University of Manchester and Rolls-Royce – supports UK manufacturing companies upskill and get ready to bid for work in the nuclear supply chain.
As well as commissioning and building more nuclear power plants, advanced fusion and fission reactor designs promise to make nuclear a cheaper and safer option. Scientists in the UK have also shown that nuclear fusion can release record-breaking amounts of energy, providing a vivid demonstration of its scientific and technological feasibility and of robust new materials that could be used to build reactors in future. With the right incentives and support, these innovations offer solid options to address climate change through a safe, sustainable, efficient, and low-carbon energy supply.
Deep Eutectic Solvents (DES)
Emissions related to energy use for the manufacturing of metals sits at about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making this industry the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide based on energy use. Smelting, the age-old method of purifying metal from its ore, pumps massive quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Very high energy requirements and a reliance on coke in processes make the metals industries incredibly difficult to decarbonise.
Fortunately, disruptive deep tech company, Descycle, is leveraging DES to pull metals from waste products without the need for large amounts of heat and energy. Currently, over 50 million tonnes of electronic waste – or e‑waste – is produced annually, with only 20% of that being formally recycled. DES technology could provide an avenue to recycle and reuse the metal resources we already have, reducing reliance on newly mined metals. What’s more, Descycle is also investigating the use of DES to extract metals from ore in remote mine locations. By challenging traditional energy-intensive metal processing methods, DES has the potential to ensure low carbon and sustainable metals sourcing.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but rather a microcosm of the wider landscape of disruptive and innovative technologies that could help tackle climate change. It’s particularly exciting to know that organisations like CPI are committed to fostering the cross-industry and academic collaborations to enable the development, scale-up and commercialisation of some of these ground-breaking innovations.
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