How would you advise a $100-billion venture capital fund to spend its money on preventing dangerous levels of global warming over the next 100 years? Climate experts recently chose distributed renewable energy, energy efficiency, and next-generation nuclear power as the ones most likely to make a big impact on climate change.
The findings come from the Vision Prize, a nonpartisan research platform that uses charity prize incentives to carry out online surveys of climate experts. One of the biggest findings from the latest survey results is experts' concern that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underestimates future sea level rise, according to The Guardian. But equally interesting are the technologies that participating scientists recommended to combat climate change.
In the venture capital fund scenario, 29 percent of respondents said they'd put their money into distributed renewable power sources such as geothermal, hydro, solar and wind power. That was the leading investment recommendation; second place went to energy efficiency, with 26 percent saying they would focus their funds on that. Next-generation nuclear power (17 percent) and centralized renewables (10 percent) were the third- and fourth most popular responses.
Renewables also came in on top when the Vision Prize survey asked which technology would most likely help to significantly slow climate change during this century. Experts overwhelmingly chose renewables (more than 45 percent). Energy efficiency was next, with just over 20 percent.
Carbon capture and storage as a climate solution ranked noticeably low in both survey questions, but that does not necessarily mean such efforts are fruitless. It could simply mean that the experts prioritized other solutions above carbon capture. (See IEEE Spectrum's visit to the world's largest carbon-capture test facility.)
Similarly, "solar radiation management" through a variety of sun-blocking, geoengineering schemes fell well down the list of investment choices. And in response to a separate question, about the likelihood of solar geoengineering being deployed on a global scale by 2050, 88 percent of respondents indicated skepticism that it would happen within the next three decades.
Perhaps it's unsurprising that renewable power sources and energy efficiency came out on top. After all, both offer an alluring mix of near-term economic payoffs along with longer-term benefits such as boosting energy security and reducing the human impact on climate change. The same holds true to some extent for next-generation nuclear power, even if the shadow of Fukushima still hangs over the nuclear industry.
The Vision Prize results don't necessarily mean that scientists have ruled out more controversial geoengineering schemes entirely. But they do suggest that climate experts remain wary of prioritizing more extreme measures that lack some of the more immediate benefits which renewables, energy efficiency and next-generation nuclear power can deliver.
If you had a bank balance with 11 zeros and a burning desire to avert the negative consequences of global warming, where might you spend your money?
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.