by Peter Griffon, founding Director of the Science Media Centre. This article was first published in BusinessDesk.
OPINION: The good news about the Climate Change Commission’s draft plan to meet our Paris Agreement commitments and avoid the worst of climate change is that it doesn’t hinge on technology yet to be developed.
The commission has us doing the hard yards over the coming decades, weaning ourselves off fossil fuels industry by industry.
The plan rests on existing technology, renewable energy sources and electric vehicles, and acknowledges those options will continue to improve.
But it isn’t counting on forest planting, or a miraculous methane-busting vaccine for cows, or negative emissions technology making our job easier. There’s a good reason for that.
“A strong reliance on offsetting emissions through carbon dioxide removals could divert action and investment away from reducing gross emissions in other sectors – such as energy, industry and transport,” the commission points out.
Scientists hate discussion of “silver bullet” solutions to the climate crisis.
They argue rightly that fossil fuels should be left in the ground. But that shouldn’t stop us from aggressively pursuing innovation as an insurance policy to make sure we hit our emissions reduction targets.
Frankly, I place more stock in science and innovation than in successive governments having the spine to see through the required transformation of our country being proposed now.
The cleantech investment gap
The reality is that when it comes to developing technologies like large-scale battery storage, carbon capture and storage and direct air capture technologies, every country woefully under-invests.
As Bill Gates pointed out in December, all the governments in the world spend US$22 billion a year on clean energy research, around 0.02 per cent of the global economy.
“Americans spend more than that on gasoline in a single month,” he wrote. In his forthcoming book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, due for release on Feb 16, Gates will unashamedly push his case for a five-fold increase in clean energy research in the US, which would see the US spend as much in this area each year as it currently does on medical research.
Gates, who has put his money where his mouth is by investing in numerous climate tech start-ups – including Canada’s Carbon Engineering, argues the US should model its clean-tech research efforts on the National Institutes of Health, whose impact on the world of biomedical research over the past few decades he describes as “simply mind-blowing”.
The plan, says Gates, would generate 370,000 new jobs but also give the research effort the coordination it has so far been lacking.
That plan will likely gain a sympathetic ear from the Biden Administration and its climate envoy John Kerry, but also faces the headwinds of a covid-ravaged economy.
Still, the pandemic proved we are willing to double down on innovation when the perceived threat is great enough.
Who would have confidently predicted a year ago that within 12 months we would have numerous effective covid-19 vaccines developed and distributed around the world?
Part of that was down to the funding, government assistance and removal of regulatory barriers that made up Project Warp Speed in the US and similar efforts in Europe, Russia and China.
But the cutting edge clean-tech that excites Gates gets very little government support. It is largely funded by private investors putting money into the likes of Climeworks, a Swiss company I visited a couple of years ago.
In a town outside Zurich, big fans sitting on top of a waste incineration plant continuously suck in air.
Complex filtering technology captures the carbon dioxide. The trapped CO2 is then piped under some fields to grow tomatoes in nearby glasshouses. Some of it goes into carbonated drinks at a local bottling plant.
Another Climeworks plant under construction in Iceland will capture and store, in liquid form, carbon emissions from a geothermal plant. Climeworks claims its new Orca plant will be able to “scale carbon dioxide removal capacity by a factor of around 80 in three to four years”.
Chapter 5 of the Climate Change Commission’s report gives a good summary of the current state of this sort of technology: “Costs are highly variable but generally expensive,” it says of direct air capture and carbon capture and storage technologies.
But these technologies are early in the innovation cycle. They have huge potential to be scaled up to become cheaper, less energy-intensive and suitable for a wider range of applications, if the focus Gates advocates is applied.
Our own clean-tech efforts
What should we be doing here? Getting serious about clean-tech innovation in our own way. The biggest game changer would be a breakthrough allowing us to significantly mitigate methane emissions from cows and sheep.
“While there has been progress on inhibitors, these are not yet commercially available,” the commission points out.
“There is uncertainty around when inhibitors will be available, what their costs could be and how effectively they could reduce emissions. Therefore… our path has been set so that the budgets can be achieved without the use of either methane inhibitors or vaccines.”
If there’s a Project Warp Speed for Aotearoa, that is it. The NZ-led international research effort created by the Key government, the Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, has been plugging away at it since 2010, which says something about how most science plods rather than warp-speeds.
Elsewhere, we should be looking into carbon capture and storage for gas and geothermal plants and heavy industry, battery storage for our hydro plants and producing green hydrogen from renewable energy sources.
Some promising research and pilot projects are underway. But like most places, our clean-tech efforts are piecemeal. Last year saw the refunding of our Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs) to the tune of $373 million.
New CoREs included one focussed on heart health. Another one, Coastal People, Southern Skies, will research ways to rebuild coastal ecosystems. There’s no CoRE focussed on energy and clean-tech research, no National Science Challenge giving critical mass to clean energy efforts.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself admits that scenarios for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees beyond the middle of the century rely on carbon removal technologies that aren’t commercially available today. We have a role to play in global clean-tech innovation as a leader, not just a follower. Our carbon zero ambitions could benefit greatly from it.