Decarbonizing with Digital: 8 Tech Advancements Critical for Scaling Climate Action

Global leaders are gathering to discuss critical climate action. Will technological advances catalyze commitments to take action at scale?

For the 26th time since 1992, world leaders convene in Glasgow, Scotland for COP26 to discuss their targets and plans to radically reduce emissions. It is a scene we’ve witnessed before, as international leaders gather around the objective of preventing further catastrophic impacts to humanity, economies, and the biosphere. 

Yet much has changed since Paris in 2015, the last such episode, wherein 195 countries pledged to develop plans. The world has endured myriad extreme weather events, shifting the “climate crisis” from concept to lived experience devastating countless people, businesses, crops, water supplies, species, and ecosystems. Shifts in both policy action and political instability; increases in both wealth disparities and inclusive investments– not to mention a global pandemic– have all impacted how leaders plan for the future. 

Technological advancement marks another critical catalyst for change since Paris– a shift that has accelerated beyond predictions in both speed and scope. The influence of the Tech industry– on the global economy, businesses in every sector, governments and geopolitics, and information ecosystems– has demonstrated technology’s power to catalyze change. Now we arrive at a pivotal moment in our species’ trajectory when our tools can actually align with financial, social, and political will towards sustainable and regenerative transformation

We Have Technologies, What We Don’t Have is Time

Technological solutions are not a panacea. No technology is without risk; our modern tools have a litany of societal and environmental dangers. But techno-scientific solutions are crucial for the following reasons:

  • To scale solutions towards energy transition (infrastructure, supply chain, products, data, iteration/R&D time to market) 
  • To enable new capabilities, systems, markets, and structures rendering extractive methods and business models obsolete 
  • To demonstrate cost efficiencies (to justify scale and efficacy of “clean” investments; plummeting cost of renewables; Moore’s Law and Wright’s Law)
  • To circumvent fragmentation or lack of political will, policy alignment, or global collaboration needed 
  • To drive equity and economic inclusion by distributing opportunities, value, access, power

The world’s largest and most influential investors are slowly awakening to the financial imperative to invest in energy transition, because they see business opportunity. What we have are technologies and money; what we don’t have is time. The key is funding to connect strategic, cultural, and political will with technology to turn ambitious ideas into reality.

Goldman Sach’s Carbonomics division estimates more than $50 trillion USD will be need in infrastructure investment to reach net zero by 2050. But preventing further climate crisis takes more than “climate tech.” Many more technologies than those listed will influence and accelerate this transition.

We will be surprised by the extent of technological innovation the moment the right financial incentives are there.

–Michele Della Vigna, runs Carbonomics Research at Goldman Sachs 

All Tech on Deck to Decarbonize with Digital

Today’s leaders must look beyond “green” tech, across the whole of techno-scientific innovation, to achieve our objectives. This imperative occurs simultaneously to a broader awakening among businesses, governments, markets, and culture that digital transformation must drive more than revenues and cost savings, it must align value with societal and planetary priorities. 

Our analysis identifies the following technologies for which the primary barrier to impact is not function, but finance. These include, but are not limited to so-called “climate”, “green”, or “clean” tech categories which refer to those designed for emissions reduction and decarbonization. Equally important are those that facilitate behavioral changes, new design methods, collectives and markets, and automate operational changes. 

Tesla is the world’s first “climate tech” to reach $1 trillion valuation, but it won’t be the last. Image source: Pexels

1. Electric Vehicles. EVs have gone from low-range specialty to the future of transportation. Since 2015, global EV sales have quadrupled; just about every large automaker is pouring billions into their EV strategies. Days before COP26, Tesla reached a trillion dollar valuation. EV infrastructure, from charging stations to logistics to Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) networking, is also rapidly advancing, compounding market expansion from early adopters to mainstream. What’s more, these are paving the way for electrification across two- and three-wheeled buses and trucks, heavy machinery, aviation, and shipping. 

Plastic Bank offers an open marketplace for communities to collect plastics and receive premiums for recycling materials into the global manufacturing supply chain. Brands then manufacture with “Social Plastics” which are tracked using blockchain for real-time data visualization, transparency and traceability. Image source: Plastic Bank

2. Blockchain. The technology commonly known (and dismissed by environmentalists) for its (crypto)currency application Bitcoin, has matured significantly in the last five years. An advancement in information infrastructure, distributed ledgers enable recordkeeping that is visible and immutable across participants (without requiring a central authority). It also offers radical potential for decarbonization, via carbon conscious supply chain transparency, energy trading, peer-to-peer electrical grids, compliance and reputation tracking, tokenized incentives towards sustainable/circular consumerism, offset marketplaces, participatory governance, and beyond. 

Source: Ourworldindata.org

3. Solar Technologies. The growth of photovoltaic (solar-powered) electricity sources has been, well, white hot over the last decade. Thanks to advancements in silicon and semiconductors, networking, large scale designs and installations, solar tech is far more viable than it was in 2015. While the market currently faces several supply chain limitations, solar already surpassed coal as a far cheaper energy source, declining in price 89% in just ten years

In 2009, solar was 223% more expensive than coal, now it’s far less. In 2019, solar and wind accounted for 72% of all new capacity additions globally. Renewables exemplify how dramatic reductions in price help shift economics away from extractive practices.

4. Wind Technologies. Despite accounting for just 2% of energy globally, wind power has already avoided annual emissions of more than 1.1 billion tons of CO2 annually. Advancements in technology are only accelerating the 53% growth rate of global wind installations. The digitization of turbines, from design to maintenance to energy optimization, has radically improved economics. Meanwhile, myriad innovations in electrolysis, edge computing, and modularity are accelerating green hydropower and new storage solutions for Power-to-X: the next generation paradigm for energy grids.

5. Synthetic Biology & Biofacturing. Advancements in synthetic biology, genomics, and automation are transforming how we understand, model, and emulate nature. We are re-engineering “recipes” for chemicals, fuels, and materials (made from microbes and other bio-based compounds instead of petrochemicals), as well as foods and fashion (made of plants and cell cultures rather than through industrialized agriculture). Biofacturing is already reshaping value chains across plastics, packaging, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, electronics, agriculture, and sanitation, not only reducing carbon emissions across sectors, but enabling circular economics between them. This emerging “bioeconomy” represents a $4 trillion market by 2040, according to McKinsey.

Zymergen is using soil microbes, fermentation, AI, and robotics to develop alternative materials ‘inspired by nature’s biodiversity rather than traditional rigid petroleum-based compounds. Hyaline, for example, is a family of breakthrough polyimide films developed using microbes and sugar, which electronics manufacturers can then specify to unique combinations of transparency, temperature resistance, adhesiveness, and electrical and mechanical properties. Image source: Zymergen

6. Internet of Things. The so-called IoT measures and connects “things” (physical objects, equipment, and environments) through the application of sensors, networked hardware, and software. A study by IoT Analytics and the World Economic Forum found that 84% of existing IoT deployments can address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

This chart is from a 2018 study was based on 640 IoT deployments. IoT Analytics is tracking 1600+ enterprise IoT deployments in 2021. Image source: World Economic Forum

IoT offers tremendous potential because its applications can unlock data and sustainable optimizations to make across every industry: smart homes and buildings management, factory machinery, cranes, and robotics for efficiency automations, smart city applications (traffic, waste, lighting), industrial resource management (water, materials), smart agriculture, conservation monitoring, and consumer health. Considering its countless applications and rising demands to support sustainability initiatives, it is no surprise IoT Analytics recent report finds energy (not including oil & gas) among the most opportune areas for IoT investments in 2022.

7. Artificial Intelligence. AI and related advancements software capable of interpreting language, images, and patterns has surged in recent years, thanks to ever bigger data, better algorithms, and faster processing speeds. The viability of AI to accelerate our energy transition, by optimizing energy demand, forecasting, operations, and distribution, among countless other applications, represents billions in savings and trillions in net value according to a recent study by the World Economic Forum. Indeed, energy is but one sector for AI application: from material science discovery to agricultural monitoring, smart buildings to image analysis for carbon sequestration modeling, AI’s recent advancements are critical tools for automating sustainable and regenerative processes. 

Climeworks direct air capture technology combined with the storage process developed by the Icelandic company Carbfix removes carbon dioxide from the air and stores it permanently underground. Image source: Climeworks

8. Carbon Capture & Storage Tech. Infrastructure made specifically for capturing and storing carbon has been around for decades, but recently several novel technologies and approaches are recalibrating the economics of CCS– its greatest roadblock to wide scale deployment. From using sponges to crystals, to methods for converting CO2 into other materials, including biofuels. “CCS is both a technological and an environmental race,” says Canadian energy analyst Matthias Alleckna. Next-generation CCS solutions are emerging to be both viable and profitable, which may be why oil giant Exxon is doubling down on investment, forecasting carbon capture to be a $2 trillion market over the next 20 years

The Orientation for Innovation is Changing

The technologies outlined above are just some of the innovations in humanity’s toolkit. Advancements in green hydrogen, fusion, carbon negative concrete, anywhere direct air carbon capture, batteries, and electrified airplanes are just some of the proverbial “wild cards” that may not be ready for mission critical scale, but they spell transformative potential for tomorrow’s toolkit. 

What they also represent is the inevitable orientation of innovation: towards sustainable and regenerative designs, and away from extractive ones. COP26 is the world’s moment to accelerate this change, harnessing our emerging tools in alignment with humanity’s top priority.

 

Thumbnail Photo by Matheus Bertelli from Pexels

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