Someone recently asked me what were the big challenges in climate tech and what were the areas where I personally hoped to help. Following is a high-level overview that won’t be earth-shattering to anyone already in the field but should be a decent synopsis for outsiders and neophytes. If you’re someone looking for the right on-ramp into climate tech, I hope you will see below that there are lots of possibilities – pick a lane and let’s go!
There are many challenges in the way of building the sustainable, prosperous, equitable future and we need to be working on all of them simultaneously. Actually we need to go back in time and start working on all of them decades ago! Physicists haven’t yet solved time travel yet, though, so we’ll have to settle for making very rapid progress in the present. As they say, the best time to start working on these problems is decades ago, the second best time is today, and the worst time is in the future.
To borrow a bit from fellow Rice alum, John Doerr, in his book Speed & Scale, our efforts need to fall into several categories:
- Electrify everything that can be easily electrified: vehicles, of course, but also buildings – especially heating and cooling – and production of some materials. As a bonus, electrification of vehicles and homes dramatically improves the quality of the air that we breathe.
- Completely decarbonize electricity so that all of these electrified goods and services are running on green energy. This will take more than just deploying more renewables; it will also take innovations in electricity storage, smart grid optimization, and distributed energy resources. As a bonus, this improves reliability and resilience of our power infrastructure.
- Fix food & agriculture, which right now are incredibly inefficient, carbon-intensive global supply chains. We need to transition to more sustainable agricultural practices (eliminate food waste, increase land use efficiency, deploy regenerative techniques, farm vertically in urban areas) while also developing new scalable technologies. I am particularly excited by advances in synthetic biology, such as lab-grown meat.
- Protect nature – forests, peat bogs, coastlines, etc. We need to protect and restore these existing carbon sinks and find nonintrusive ways to introduce new ones. This is an extra challenge because climate change tipping points are already working against us – e.g. increased wildfires are depleting our stock of forested trees. Although these are referred to as “natured-based” solutions, technology can be a huge help, for example by using drones to plant seeds and satellite data to monitor and optimize the growth of new forests.
- Decarbonize air travel and shipping – these modes of moving people and goods are hard to electrify due to the high density and weight of batteries. Of course battery technology is improving daily and new paradigms for electrified logistics are being developed but, in the meantime, carbon-neutral and carbon-negative fuels such as green hydrogen and ammonia are being explored.
- Decarbonize industry – another hard-to-electrify category is heavy industry: the manufacturing of steel, concrete, and many chemicals. The raw materials for these products often have a high carbon footprint and then the manufacturing processes require very high temperatures that are historically hard to achieve with electricity. There are interesting innovations under development that use carbon-negative materials for cement and concrete, green hydrogen for smelting steel, and point source carbon capture to reduce chemical manufacturing emissions.
- Scale up carbon removal. Because it will be hard to power some sectors with carbon-free electricity, we will likely find ourselves still contributing a surplus of greenhouse gases (GHGs) for a long time – possibly indefinitely. And even if we achieved zero GHG emissions tomorrow, there is so much accumulated GHG already in our atmosphere that 9 out of 16 predicted climate change tipping points are already active. The clear conclusion is that it won’t be enough for us to slow down or even stop our GHG emissions; we will need to get really good at pulling GHGs out of the atmosphere and possibly the ocean as well if we want to keep anthropogenic global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. These technologies are in their infancy right now so we need a moonshot-caliber approach to improve their efficacy, efficiency, scalability, and costs as quickly as possible.
Note that nowhere did I suggest austerity measures or people needing to forego things that improve their quality of life. My vision of the sustainable, prosperous, equitable future is one of abundance. Technological innovation is not a panacea but, not only can it help ward off climate change, it can improve the lives of many at the same time. Insomuch as these are challenges, they are also incredible opportunities.
I will add one more challenge/opportunity than must not be ignored: equity. It will take investment of more than USD $100T to address everything I have listed above and the returns will be exponential – the greatest wealth creation opportunity in the history of human civilization. If we do it right, many people and communities – including and especially those most affected by climate change – will participate in that upside. If we do it the way it’s traditionally been done, though, it will concentrate wealth even further in the hands of mostly White, mostly male people who are already rich. Sociofinancial innovation is needed to share climate wealth more equitably.
As for the big challenges I think I can personally help with, much of my career and expertise (including my patents) have been in smart grid and smart building innovation. There is still a lot of work to do there, but I think we have pretty clear pathways to success in those areas now.
In optimizing my time – the one resource of which I can never raise more – for impact and additionality, I think I add the most value now by focusing on the much harder and ambiguous challenges of decarbonizing industry and carbon removal. These are crucial challenges with incredible opportunities for innovation and we are already behind in addressing them.
To paraphrase JFK at Rice Stadium as he exhorted a nation to achieve the similarly hard and ambiguous challenge of putting a person on the Moon:
We choose to decarbonize industry and scale up carbon removal in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.
Challenge accepted – now LFG!