Can tech save us from climate change?
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Can tech save us from climate change?

THE consequences of humanity’s disregard for the planet are starting to feel very real for many people.

This summer saw wildfires rage through California and large swathes of Europe, Japan was hit by a crippling heatwave followed by devastating floods, Australia experienced – and still is experiencing – its worst drought in living memory, and repeated hurricanes have battered the coasts of the United States.

The latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) comes with the stark warning that this looks set to worsen considerably if we don’t take drastic action now. Not next year, not in this decade, not after the next election cycle – Now.

With the cost of inaction – both financial and emotional – ratcheting up the world over, some are putting their faith in a technological breakthrough solving the crisis.

SEE ALSO: This is not a drill: Our final call to save the planet from rising temperatures

Politicians who rail against climate action regularly point to Silicon Valley as our best bet. But is there any reason to think this and can tech really be our planetary saviour?

In short, it doesn’t look good.

Experts in the field warn we can’t simply expect a technology to “come to the rescue.”

The IPCC report highlighted a number of measures that need to happen in order to stay below the 1.5-degree Celsius increase and avoid complete disaster. These include government action in areas such as, eradication of coal, switch to clean energy, increase of energy crops, and planting of new forests – but even with all of these implementations, the planet will still need to rely on advancements in technology, such as carbon capture plants.

Progress on this front, however, has been slow and the costs associated with it continue to be unsustainable.


Firefighters try to extinguish flames during a wildfire at the village of Kineta, near Athens, on July 24, 2018. Source: Valerie Gache/AFP

Last year, the world’s first commercial plant for capturing carbon dioxide from the air opened in Switzerland.

The Climeworks AG facility near Zurich is the first ever to do this on an industrial scale. The carbon it captures is then sold directly to a buyer. Alternative methods of containing the carbon is to bury it under the ground.

The plant currently only captures a tiny fraction of the amount generated by fossil fuel plants. To achieve their goal of capturing one percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, they will need another 250,000 similar plants.

Optimistic estimates from the IPCC suggest we need to remove at least 100 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2100; worst case, we’re looking at 1000 gigatons. While the cost of doing this has dropped dramatically – from US$600 per ton in 2011 to US$94 now – we’re still looking at an astronomical number to reach the target.

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To clear the full 1000 gigatons would cost US$94 trillion – more than the gross product of the entire world. No one can claim this is a viable solution just yet.

Silicon Valley has been directing resources into making carbon capture plants more cost-effective. But rather than put all their eggs in one basket, they’re also looking into other, more farfetched ideas in pursuit of salvation.

San Francisco-based startup accelerator, Y Combinator, is offering financial support for researchers in in areas they believe hold promise for the future. Some of them are pretty out there, but then, all innovation is before it becomes the norm.

One such idea is engineering phytoplankton to survive in waters with less mineral availability. This would allow them to spread to vast stretches of the ocean that are currently uninhabitable for them and carry out photosynthesis that removes carbon from the air.


Cattle on a dry paddock in the drought-hit area of Quirindi in New South Wales, Australia, August 7, 2018. Source: Glenn Nicholls/Shutterstock

Another is harnessing the process of mineral weathering, when carbon dioxide reacts with rocks to form mineral bicarbonates. While this happens naturally, the problem is, it’s a very slow process. If researchers can find a way to efficiently speed it up, without releasing more carbon through the process, then this could be a significant carbon-win.

Possibly the most out there is the idea to flood parts of the desert, creating algae beds that absorb carbon. Unfortunately, current cost estimates for this hover around US$50 trillion.

Before we start getting excited about any of these potential solutions, Y Combinator are the first to admit that they likely won’t work. But they recognise that without investment, we will go nowhere.

SEE ALSO: The real culprits of climate change

To make new discoveries, you need research. To research, you need money. And that’s the clincher across the world – governments simply aren’t spending enough on climate technologies and research. A lot of the pioneering advances are being driven by business and private investment.

Fearing the impending onslaught on climate funding by newly elected president Donald Trump, tech mogul Bill Gates set up the US$1 billion Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund to support climate innovation.

Even Gates, a man whose life is defined by tech innovation, admitted simply crossing our fingers and waiting for tech miracle to save us is not a strategy. Miracles don’t come for free – we have to spend the money if we want a breakthrough.