Can Technology Reverse Climate Change?

IEEE Spectrum’s editors and writers investigate a dozen of the world’s most promising projects to cut greenhouse gases

2 min read
Opening illustration for this feature article.
Illustration: Francesco Muzzi/StoryTK

Do you believe that climate change is a vast left-wing conspiracy that does little more than create jobs for scientists while crippling businesses with pointless regulation? Or, quite the contrary, are you convinced that climate change is the biggest crisis confronting the planet, uniquely capable of wreaking havoc on a scale not seen in recorded history?

Many of you are probably in one camp or the other. No doubt some of you will tell us how disappointed/angry/outraged you are that we (a) gave credence to this nonsense or (b) failed to convey the true urgency of the situation. We welcome your thoughts.

In crafting this issue, we steered clear of attempting to change hearts and minds. Your views on climate change aren't likely to be altered by a magazine article, or even two dozen magazine articles. Rather, this issue grew out of a few simple observations. One is that massive R&D programs are now under way all over the world to develop and deploy the technologies and infrastructures that will help reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Governments, corporations, philanthropies, and universities are spending billions of dollars on these efforts. Is this money being spent wisely?

That question brings us to the next observation: The magnitude of the challenge is eye-poppingly huge. In 2009, representatives of industrialized nations met in Copenhagen and agreed on the advisability of preventing global average temperatures from rising more than 2 °C above their preindustrial levels. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that doing so would require cutting greenhouse gas emissions 40 to 70 percent from 2010 levels by midcentury. These targets then guided the Paris Agreement, in 2015.

Even before Paris, Bill Gates had declared his belief that only a series of “energy miracles" could make meaningful progress in reducing greenhouse gases.

That got us thinking: What might those “miracles" be? If they were going to enable substantial cuts within a couple of decades, they would have to be in laboratories now.

So we started looking around for these miracles. We focused on three of the largest greenhouse-gas-emitting categories: electricity, transportation, and food and agriculture. We considered dozens of promising projects and programs. Eventually we settled on the 10 projects described in this issue (and two others covered on our website).

We picked most of these projects because they seemed to hold unusual promise relative to the attention they were getting. And we threw in a couple for, well, the opposite reason. Our reporters went to see these activities firsthand, fanning out to sites in Japan; Iceland; Hungary; Germany; the Netherlands; Columbus, N.M.; Schenectady, N.Y.; LaPorte, Texas; Cambridge, Mass.; and Bellevue, Wash. They trooped up and down vertical farms. They flew in electric airplanes. They viewed entirely new microorganisms—genetically engineered with the help of robots—growing in shiny steel fermentation chambers. An algae-growing tank burbled quietly in our mid-Manhattan offices, sprouting the makings for a green-breakfast taste test.

After six months, we had soaked up some of the best thinking on the use of tech to cut carbon emissions. But what did it all suggest collectively? Could these projects, and others like them, make a real difference? We put these questions to our columnist Vaclav Smil, a renowned energy economist, who responded with an essay. Without stealing Smil's thunder, let's just say that they don't call them “miracles" for nothing.

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