In defence of technology to secure net zero

Olivier Usher
3 April, 23

Debates about sustainability often turn into discussions about scarcity. How we tame our gas guzzlers so they sip fuel. How we shift people from business flights onto Zoom. How we change our diets to cut their ecological footprint.

And I get it: we’re facing an environmental crisis.

But being frugal won’t get us all the way to net zero. And this spartan message endangers public support for sustainability initiatives.

We need to inject a bit more optimism – in the form of new technology. 

I think it’s become far too fashionable to treat tech as a problem or a distraction. Tech doesn’t solve everything – but it does solve a lot. It’s a powerful tool, and a force multiplier for our efforts.

Though one argument goes that we have all the tech we need to achieve net zero already, and that a focus on new technologies is a distraction, I tend to disagree. It’s new technology that can clean up our economy when efficiency alone just reduces the mess. 

Technology can clean up our energy. 

Clean energy means replacing fossil-fuelled power stations with better and more powerful wind turbines and solar panels. It means creating a smart electricity grid that can handle the abundant but intermittent power they supply. 

It means new sources of electricity – like space-based solar power beamed back to earth, or fusion plants recreating the sun here on earth. It means new, clean, synthetic fuels so we can phase out fossil fuels from aviation and other high-performance situations. There will come a day in the not too distant future that the debate will not be about energy scarcity, but how we deal with too much of it.

Technology can clean up our industry. 

Synthetic feedstocks can cut the plastics and chemicals industries’ reliance on oil, making synthetic hydrocarbons out of water, CO2 and electricity. Hydrogen can replace coal in steelworks. Materials science and engineering biology can reinvent the stuff we use, redesigning it on a molecular level to be harder wearing or more sustainable.

Technology could also solve some of the daunting problems of creating a circular economy – creating new processes to dismantle, recycle and reuse resources, instead of sending them to landfill or incinerators.

Technology can speed up electrification.

When we clean up the grid, we clean up everything that’s powered by it. Vehicles, heating, air conditioning, and maybe one day flight, all decoupled from the huge emissions they currently produce. 

Important technological focus areas here include batteries (changing their chemistry to make them cheaper, more energy-dense and more efficient) and heat pumps (making them work better in poorly-insulated properties).

Technology can help fix the damage we’ve already caused.

The prospect of large-scale CO2 removal from the atmosphere isn’t an immediate one, but it’s not sci-fi either. Elon Musk’s $100m prize for negative-carbon tech shows how seriously this is being taken. 

And clever land management – enabled by big data, sensor networks and artificial intelligence – could be part of the mix too, turning forestry and agriculture into precision tools for sucking CO2 from the air.

The sustainability challenges we face are urgent. 

In the near term, they’ll need us to be careful about what we use, careful not to waste. Technology won’t advance fast enough to fix them all in time.

But every ounce of effort we put into these sustainability-boosting technologies inches us closer to net zero. It makes the sacrifice smaller. And makes the future brighter.

I’d rather dream of a future in which I don’t worry about energy efficiency – because all our energy is renewable. Where I don’t need to worry about overconsumption – because our industry is clean. Where I don’t need to feel guilty for turning the heating on – because it doesn’t come from a dirty gas boiler.

A future in which tech has started to repair the damage that we caused in the past.

A future of abundance.

Olivier Usher is Head of Research at innovation experts Challenge Works. His work includes investigating the potential for innovative and emerging technologies to solve the big challenges of our time and designing challenge prizes to incentivise their advancement.

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