Future technology won't solve our climate crisis

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The Morrison government has recently reiterated that they won’t make a commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, instead announcing a ‘technology road map’ and focusing on hydrogen and lithium technologies to help us achieve our Paris agreement targets.

In this Fiona Katauskas cartoon, An alien asks, 'Take me to your best hope for avoiding a climate catastrophe'. Someone comments, 'Guess that rules out our leader'. Cartoon Fiona Katauskas

Putting aside that to uphold our end of the Paris agreement, we will have to become carbon neutral by 2050, the idea that new and emerging technologies will save us from the climate crisis is a popular one, even outside of the government. New technology is created all the time, and surely those smart scientists can find a new way to make our transition to carbon-neutral quick and painless.

Unfortunately, when it comes to limiting our emissions there’s no silver bullet, and there’s unlikely to be one before we hit an increase of 1.5 degrees. However, scientists do say that we already have all the technology we need to get to net-zero.

What we don’t have is the political willpower.

ClimateWorks Australia’s Anna Skarbek and Anna Malos explain in a piece for The Conversation that the electricity, transport, and land sectors all have the technology to be able to significantly cut their emissions, without economic disruption. This can be done in the land sector by revegetation and forestation, in electricity generation by increasing renewables and phasing out coal, in transport by introducing vehicle emission standards and shifting to non-carbon vehicles, and in construction by updating standards for buildings and appliances. 

None of these changes are unachievable or unrealistic. Many of these regulations have already been implemented in places like the European UnionWith proper planning and policy, the route to net-zero is a lot less painful then it seems. 

 

'Although focusing on shiny new technologies can be exciting, it shouldn’t be at the expense of investing in the technologies we already know work.'

 

For example, state government initiatives, previous government investments, and market forces have already helped Australia meet its 2020 renewable energy target — meaning 23.5 per cent of our energy production is renewable.

This is a great start, but there’s still a long way to go to net-zero. This is where the Morrison government thinks that new technologies will be able to plug the gap, allowing them to continue on with business as usual.

But although renewables such as wind and solar are tried and tested, and can even be cheaper than non-renewable energy, the technologies that the Morrison government are looking into are still in their infancy.

Hydrogen, for example, is a technology that has been talked about for decades as a revolutionary product for manfacturing heat, electricity generation, and transport, but has had relatively few successes. 

There have been advances in the research. Currently, hydrogen fuel cells are at the stage of being technologically ready, but not yet commercially viable. This will change as more research is done and investments are made, and CSIRO sees hydrogen as one day becoming a profitable export for Australia.

But, for all its potential, in electricity generation and transport hydrogen is used as the ‘battery’, meaning that you still need renewables or a dirtier form of energy to be able to power the electrolysis and split water into hydrogen. Currently, there are 80 hydrogen fuel cell power plants operating in the United States, most of them using hydrogen produced from landfill gas to operate the fuel cells.

Another technological solution with high hopes is carbon capture. This is a system where you suck the carbon dioxide out of the air and put it back underground.

Many heavy industrial plants use carbon capture to try to capture the carbon dioxide before it hits the atmosphere, which is helpful, but not for the carbon dioxide already in the air.

Newer research has looked into how we can pull carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere, hopefully removing some of that excess carbon and averting the climate crisis in the meantime. Unfortunately, this technology is still in its beginnings, and it’s a difficult problem to solve.

On average, we’re putting around 2.57 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the air every second. A hardwood tree can absorb around 48 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. Even a device that could absorb 100 times more carbon dioxide than a tree would still have its work cut out for it. 

So, although focusing on shiny new technologies can be exciting, it shouldn’t be at the expense of investing in the technologies we already know work.

Relying on the technology of the future to save us from ourselves isn’t only a cop out, it doesn’t even make financial sense. The technology we need to get to climate neutral is here and widely available.

The transition is already occurring in a number of industries. All the government needs to do is invest in these tried and true carbon neutral technologies, and put policies in place to help make the switch happen.

It’s not rocket science.

 

 

Jacinta BowlerJacinta Bowler is a science journalist and fact checker living in Melbourne. 

Main image credit: Cartoon Fiona Katauskas

Topic tags: Jacinta Bowler, climate change, renewables, emissions

 

 

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Existing comments

Yes to this excellent summary of the current state of technology to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions. The political problem is that talk of high tech new scientific developments provides a shiny bright distraction to divert attention way from Government rejection of the already proven and currently available, technologies to reduce net emissions to zero by 2050. The Prime Minister speaking on coronavirus is usually accompanied by recognised health specialists. When will he give the same respect to climate scientists, by speaking together with them, to set in train the concerted effort required to respond to the longer term concern of climate change?
Ian Fraser | 19 March 2020


Why it is true that our politicians lack the political will to act on Climate change likewise the population of our nation. It is easy to look for a scape goat without looking at ourselves as well. While science may tell us we have the technical knowledge to address the issue have we, the people who inhabit this plant, the desire and objective to demand action that is likely to affect our well being and standard of living especially given that it is the West that owns 80% of the worlds resources and profit not people is the objective. Ask ourselves where is our money invested and have we demanded of the banks and superannuation corporations, profit of non profit to stop funding coal implying a less return on our savings?
Ray Cleary | 19 March 2020


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