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Caixin Global

Opinion: Three Ways Tech Innovation Can Help Us Meet Climate Goals

A man walks on the seaside before a cloud burst of rain in Udaipur, Digha, approximately 200 kilometers from Kolkata, on May 21. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has predicted that the Monsoon rain will likely arrive a week early this year due to twin cyclones, Asani and Karim. Photo: VCG

To avert the most damaging impacts of climate change and secure a safer future, the world needs to rapidly shift to a low-carbon economy. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment, greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 and decline rapidly thereafter, if further warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels is to be limited.

Reaching that goal will require us to rapidly scale up existing clean energy solutions, develop new ways to make and store clean energy, and explore ways to reverse historical emissions. Technological innovation will play a crucial role at every stage. Here’s how:

Scaling up existing clean energy solutions

Innovation has already been instrumental in bringing us clean and cheap energy solutions like wind, solar and nuclear power. To take advantage of these existing sources of clean energy, we need to scale up their deployment and continue to increase their efficiency. Advancements in 3D printing and artificial intelligence (AI) will play a crucial role.

AI models are already being used to optimize the shape of wind turbine blades and forecast the unpredictability of wind-energy production to manage fluctuations in supply and demand.

3D printing is enabling manufacturers to produce lighter solar panels with greater surface areas, boosting the efficiency and lowering the cost of solar power. 3D printing will also allow manufacturers to create complex designs of next generation nuclear reactors that can be rapidly prototyped, tested and brought to market.

Developing new ways to make and store clean energy

Ramping up today’s climate solutions will only get us so far toward our climate goals. Reaching net zero will require emerging technologies and solutions not yet widely available or affordable.

If intermittent renewables like wind and solar are to displace significant greenhouse gas emissions, better energy storage solutions are required. While recent advances in battery technology are encouraging, there is a need to develop safer and lighter batteries that don’t rely on rare materials. It’s early days, but quantum computing may help unlock better combinations of material properties and designs for next generation batteries.

In addition to finding new ways to store energy, there is a need to tap into new sources of energy like nuclear fusion, which has long been considered the “holy grail” of energy research with its potential to provide a limitless source of safe, sustainable, and efficient energy source.

Unlike existing nuclear reactors which split uranium and other heavy atoms into smaller nuclei in a process known as nuclear fission, nuclear fusion works by combining lighter atoms like hydrogen to generate a plasma hotter than the core of the sun.

Plasma is inherently unstable, making it challenging to sustain the process required for nuclear fusion inside a reactor. But milestones like DeepMind’s use of deep reinforcement learning to discover new ways to control fusion reactions offer hope that nuclear fusion is becoming a viable energy source for the future.

Transitioning to a net-zero future can’t be fully solved with existing and future renewables and batteries. Long-distance transportation requires energy carriers with a very high energy density. Shipping and aviation, therefore, continue to rely on fuels rather than stored electricity. Green hydrogen and synthetic biofuels could help these traditionally high-polluting industries transition to cleaner energy. Advances in gene editing and synthetic biology will likely open new possibilities to improve the efficiency of biofuel production, by tweaking the genes of the plants used to make them.

Reversing historical emissions

Even with ambitious energy transition efforts, deliberately pulling greenhouse gases out of the environment will likely be a critical tool for counterbalancing historical emissions, as well as off-setting emissions from slower-to-transition industries.

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) encapsulates a wide array of approaches that capture carbon dioxide directly from the environment and store it in natural or man-made reservoirs to create negative emissions.

Research developments range from plants designed to store extra carbon dioxide in their roots to water treatment technologies that store carbon from the ocean in rock. But huge investment will be required for these and other CDR technologies to be deployed at scale and in time to meet the urgent needs of the climate crisis.

Initiatives like the Earthshot on carbon removal are a good starting point, but greater public-private mobilization will be required.

Shaping the transformation

By bringing together innovative start-ups with more established companies, the World Economic Forum facilitates the sharing of ideas and solutions that will shape transformations in the energy sector and beyond. We’re excited to welcome over 100 experts and entrepreneurs among the Technology Pioneers and Global Innovators communities at the Annual Meeting 2022 in Davos.

The Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR) also plays a role in shaping the innovation landscape in artificial intelligence, blockchain and other technology domains by facilitating collaboration between start-ups, established businesses, governments and civil society. Via its fast-growing network of national and sub-national centers, the C4IR helps pilot, iterate and scale technological solutions including drone delivery of medical supplies in Rwanda and railway track maintenance using AI in Brazil.

The climate crisis won’t be solved by technology alone. Meeting ambitious climate targets will require a massive effort from governments, businesses, and individuals. But I’m optimistic that innovation can help us reduce emissions now, and extract emissions in the near future.

Jeremy Jurgens is Managing Director of the World Economic Forum and Head of the Forum's Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The views and opinions expressed in this opinion section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial positions of Caixin Media.

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