As we speak, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) is happening in the Scottish city of Glasgow. As usual, talks, pledges, accusations and protests outside.
However, climate problems are complex and involve many moving parts. Multiple things need to be balanced, multiple interests need to be dealt with, and livelihoods of hundreds of millions will be impacted.
Implementing the pledges?
Reaching a common goal/pledge is already NOT easy: for example, the US, China, India and Australia refused to back the pledge to end coal. Coal accounts for 50% and 60% of electricity to power India’s and China’s economy respectively; coal also contributes more than a quarter of Australia’s exports. Domestic constituents in these countries will make it hard for the government to back out, no matter how environmentally conscious they are.
Even if a universal pledge can be agreed on, implementation will be hard. If most countries on this plant are not able to contain covid-19 or distribute vaccines effectively, how do you expect them to solve something much more complicated: reliance on fossil fuels?
It is always the weakest link that defines. If one large country could not stamp out covid-19, the whole world has to live with it. Similarly, if one large country sources for energy from coal, many others will have no choice but to burn more to remain competitive.
As long as the demand is there, as long as fossil fuel is still cheaper than more sustainable alternatives, we are heading towards doomsday. One parallel is: has the drug war solved the drug problem? We do not even need to go as far as nation building in Afghanistan.
Bolder actions are needed, but what are they? In my opinion, bold technology is a big part of the solution – to be more specific, bold technology led by bold entrepreneurs and backed by bold capital.
Possibilities from EVs
The real goal is to make carbon reduction cheaper to realise than sacrificing economic growth and social stability in large emerging markets.
Electric cars are a good example – transportation is the biggest emitter in the US, after all.
Tesla is leading the charge here – some of you might be aware that as early as 2006, Elon Musk had done the emission calculations when he still considered running SpaceX, rather than Tesla, his full time job:
What is more impressive was Musk’s drive to make all these happen, against all the odds, as well as the investors who stuck with him during all the ordeal.
Of course, we have heard many voices arguing that electric cars are hypocritical, because electricity, as mentioned above, still largely comes from fossil fuels. However, having electricity on the grid is already much better than millions of combustion engines on the road – and there are more comprehensive studies confirming the overall lower carbon footprint of electric vehicles versus those run on petroleum.
A more important, and probably exciting, prospect is the continuous refinement of technology that further increases efficiency and lowers carbon emissions for electric vehicles.
Capturing CO2 in the air to generate food
Much more possibilities can be achieved here compared to increasing the efficiency of internal combustion engines for sure. This is more than just installing more windmills or solar panels – these are great, but they alone are not enough. For example, nuclear energy harvested outside earth, and transported over a future interplanetary grid?
Ok that might be far fetched, but improvements can come from the areas where people least expect. A paper published in September by a group of Chinese scientists in Science described a new process to capture carbon dioxide from air and turn it into starch. This is still experimental, but opens possibilities of solving both the climate and food problems.
If more money and resources are invested in such bold technologies, with commercialization encouraged, we will eventually have much more sustainable and economically viable ways to solve the world’s sustainability issues.
Some of these efforts will fail, but it is OK, as long as eventually we reach something viable. Financiers can take the venture capital type of portfolio, and the regulators/governments should actively support, even seed, such initiatives.