Climate change solutions: An overview of innovative technologies

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The urgent threat of climate change requires swift and decisive action from all quarters. As called for in the global Paris Agreement, in order to minimize the worst impacts of climate change and preserve a livable planet, it is necessary to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030 – and reach net zero by 2050.

Technology will play an important role in reaching these goals. Climate tech is already an everyday part of society – electric vehicles are a common sight, as are wind turbines and solar panels. Even things not necessarily thought of as ‘climate technology’ are making a difference, such as fast-boil kettles and LED lighting.

Indeed, innovation in climate tech is moving quickly, and has tremendous potential to help address climate change.

The Role of Data and AI

Data – or more specifically, its proper application – is already playing a significant role in tackling the climate crisis. From smart meters in homes to AI-driven building management systems that monitor and manage lighting, heating, water use and other energy consumption, data can help to identify opportunities to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions.

Meanwhile, developments in IoT (the Internet of Things) means that entire towns and cities can leverage connectivity to achieve carbon savings, such as real-time traffic management to prevent polluting traffic jams, and grid-connected renewable energy systems to more efficiently balance power loads based on real-time usage.

Reliable, quality data about energy consumption, trends and challenges is also key in helping scientists and researchers develop new climate technologies that can go even further in tackling climate change, such as the following:

Carbon capture

Carbon capture and storage, or carbon capture and sequestration (both abbreviated as CCS), is the process of capturing CO2 before it enters the atmosphere, then storing or burying it in a deep underground location. There is a related concept called ‘carbon capture utilization and storage’ (CCUS) where the captured carbon is reused in the production of commodities such as plastics, concrete, and even biofuel.

Direct air capture (DAC) projects work in a similar way, except this method collects carbon already in the atmosphere via large air filtration systems.

Rather than competing with emissions reduction and climate change adaptation, carbon removal is increasingly seen as a vital and complementary third pillar of climate action. There are CCS projects all over the world, with the technology quickly gaining prominence on the international stage and even having a dedicated pavilion at COP27.

According to BloombergNEF, global capacity for carbon capture in 2030 is set to increase six-fold from 2022 levels to 279 million tons of CO2 captured per year.

Solid state batteries

The environmental benefits of electric vehicles (EVs) are well understood, with figures showing their emissions are as low as one third of the emissions released by regular diesel or petrol cars. However, optimizing the type of battery used within them by switching to solid-sate batteries could make them even more sustainable.

Current EVs typically employ lithium-ion batteries, which use a liquid electrolytic solution to regulate the flow of current. Solid state batteries, on the other hand, use solid ceramic material as an electrolyte, and are a lighter, safer and more efficient alternative. Research by the European Federation for Transport and Environment, a non-profit organization devoted to achieving zero-emission mobility, indicates that fewer materials are used in their production, reducing the carbon footprint of an electric car battery by up to 39%. Additionally, solid state batteries charge much faster and last much longer, which could help drive a quicker uptake of EVs by consumers, further reducing emissions by removing petrol and diesel vehicles sooner.

Car manufacturers, including Ford and BMW, are working with suppliers to develop solid state batteries, which are predicted to start appearing in EVs in the second half of the 2020s.

Ambient temperature superconductors

The world depends on infrastructure that enables the flow of electricity from point A to point B, but transmission of electrical energy is a wasteful process. Researchers estimate that approximately 10% of energy is lost during transfer due to electron flow resistance and heat creation in conductors.

The recent discovery of ambient temperature superconductors promises a new era of energy management. These superconductors are able to conduct electricity with zero resistance, such that energy passing through a circuit can be conducted infinitely and with no loss of power. Progress in this area is slow; the technology is in its infancy, but its potential is significant. If commercialized, energy could be transmitted thousands of miles away without any energy loss, saving up to 200 million megawatt hours (MWh).

The technology could also revolutionize energy storage, leading to new efficiencies for the national power grid and energy storage for wind, solar and other green energy sources.

Magnetic cooling

Cooling – performed by refrigeration units, air-conditioning systems, and similar technologies – accounts for 10% of all global emissions, making it a key area for climate action.

Refrigerators currently use conventional gas compression-based cooling, where a refrigerant liquid continuously cycles through evaporation, compression, condensation and expansion. This process involves drawing in and releasing heat, as well as CO2 emissions. Fluorinated gases, which are widely used as refrigerants, also have a potent greenhouse effect.

Magnetic cooling technology could greatly reduce these impacts. This method relies on the property of magnetic materials known as the magnetocaloric effect, whereby their temperature changes during magnetization and demagnetization. A magnetocaloric material warms up when a magnetic field is applied. To achieve refrigeration, a substance, usually helium, is applied to the metal while it is under a steady magnetic field. The substance carries away the extra heat, the metal cools down, and then the magnetic field is taken away, which makes the metal cold enough to be used as a cooling unit. Most magnetic refrigerators currently used in labs to cool small objects use this method.

Research suggests that magnetic cooling technology has the potential for a 30% energy savings. Additionally, an absence of specialist refrigerants and gases would bring further environmental benefits, particularly for product end-of-life where fridges are often dumped in landfill, threatening soils and waterways with chemical runoff.

Climate Tech for Geoengineering

The climate fight is has become so urgent that scientists are exploring even more radical measures, with researchers investigating approaches designed to actively change weather patterns, landscapes and microclimates.

Often collectively known as geoengineering, these measures could include initiatives such as refreezing the poles by shielding poles from solar radiation to stop ice from melting; recycling CO2 using water electrolysis to produce renewable methanol; and even greening the oceans with lime powder to draw down carbon dioxide and reduce acidification. These approaches are still very much in the early stages of research – and can indeed present problems of their own – but could one day become a tech-driven reality in a bid to stop irreversible damage to the planet.

Challenges for Climate Tech

Technology will play a vital role in the climate fight, but it’s not a silver-bullet solution. Chief among the challenges facing climate tech is funding. While there are myriad innovative projects in the works, not all of them are able to access the financial support they need to get off the ground. Scalability is another issue. What works successfully in a laboratory setting cannot always be replicated in a real-world environment, may involve prohibitive costs, or be thwarted by social and political barriers.

Furthermore, climate tech, even if maximized, cannot be solely relied upon to mitigate future climate impacts. For example, if all the CCS projects that have been announced are implemented, there will be 279 million tons of CO2 captured every year by 2030. That may sound like a lot, but it only accounts for 0.6% of today’s emissions. Given its limited potential contribution, then, climate technology must not be viewed as some kind of panacea to the climate crisis. It certainly has a role to play within wider climate action, but real change can only come about with bold global efforts to actively reduce emissions and improve energy efficiencies.

The opinions expressed in this text are solely that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and/or its partners.

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