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No, we don't need 'miracle technologies' to slash emissions — we already have 95 percent

No, we don't need 'miracle technologies' to slash emissions — we already have 95 percent
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U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry recently stated, “I am told by scientists that 50 percent of the reductions we have to make to get to net zero are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have.” This comment echoes recent statements by Bill Gates that solar, wind and batteries are not enough, so we need “miracle technologies” to decarbonize our global economy. They also mimic statements in a 2021 International Energy Agency report that, “in 2050, almost half the reductions come from technologies that are currently at the demonstration or prototype phase.”

One might argue that, in all three cases, “new technologies” means improved existing technologies, such as improved batteries, solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, etc. However, hidden in the recent U.S. economic revitalization proposal is a call to fund CO2 capture and storage, CO2 direct air capture and small modular nuclear reactors.

Similarly, Gates has funded and argued for these technologies plus modern bioenergy, and the IEA report explicitly proposes the use of all four technologies for a decarbonized world. Ironically, the IEA acknowledges, “all the technologies needed to achieve the necessary deep cuts in global emissions by 2030 already exist.” But astonishingly, they then say that those technologies and their improvements are not enough to reach 2050 goals.

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Let’s examine the claim that we “need” new technologies such as carbon capture, direct air capture, modern bioenergy and modern nuclear to reduce sufficiently energy and non-energy emissions.

First, the four main energy sectors are electricity, buildings, transport, and industry. For electricity, the main clean, renewable electricity-generating technologies are wind, solar photovoltaics, concentrated solar power (CSP), geothermal and hydroelectricity. Collectively, these are Wind-Water-Solar (WWS) technologies. All are heavily commercialized. In fact, wind and solar are currently the lowest-cost electricity-generating technologies around. Wind and solar are also so plentiful that they can each power the world’s all-purpose energy many times over.

But storage is needed to provide backup energy. Existing electricity storage technologies include batteries, pumped hydropower storage, hydroelectric dams, CSP with storage, flywheels, compressed air storage, and gravitational storage. Already in many places, solar plus batteries is cheaper than coal or nuclear and is replacing both. In fact, battery costs have declined 90 percent in the past 10 years. No miracle is needed in this area, just more rapid deployment. Thus, we have no need for modern bioelectricity, nuclear, or carbon capture attached to fossil or bioelectricity.

Do we need miracle technologies to clean up energy in buildings? Emissions from buildings arise from natural gas for air heating, water heating, cooking and clothes drying and gasoline use in lawn mowers and leaf-blowers. Electric replacements for these are commercially available with dropping costs. They include heat pump air heaters, heat pump water heaters, electric induction cooktops, heat pump dryers, electric lawn mowers, and electric leaf blowers. Heat pumps use one-fourth the energy as their natural gas equivalents so cost less than gas heaters over their lives. No miracle is needed.

How about transportation? Electric vehicles are commercial and replacing fossil-fuel vehicles of all types and weights, aside from long-distance aircraft and ships, the longest-distance trucks and trains, and heavy military vehicles. Such long-distance, heavy vehicles are part of the last 5 percent of energy technologies that may take until 2035 to 2040 to commercialize. However, such vehicles can and likely will run on hydrogen fuel cells. To produce hydrogen, we will use existing and improved electrolyzers powered by renewable electricity. Thus, no biofuel, such as ethanol, biodiesel, or bio-jet fuel, is needed.

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What about industry? Energy for high-temperature processes will come from existing electric technologies: arc furnaces, induction furnaces, resistance furnaces, dielectric heaters, electron beam heaters, heat pumps, and CSP steam. No miracle is needed. 

How about non-energy emissions? Steel and cement manufacturing emit process-CO2. Biomass burning emits CO2, black and brown carbon (second-leading cause of global warming) and more. Rice paddies, landfills and manure emit methane. Halogens, used as refrigerants and solvents, leak. Fertilizers emit nitrous oxide. 

These all have current solutions. For steel, the hydrogen direct reduction process reduces CO2 during steel production by 97.2 percent. Replacing concrete with Ferrock eliminates process CO2 from concrete production. Recycling concrete helps further. Strong policies are needed to slow biomass burning. Collecting methane from rice paddies and landfills with pipes is an existing technology, as is the digester for trapping methane from manure. Policies to substitute less damaging halogens for more damaging ones and to strengthen seals to reduce halogen leaks have worked in the past. Using less nitrogen-based fertilizer and cultivating leguminous crops that don’t require fertilizers helps reduce nitrous oxide emissions. None of these techniques requires a miracle.

Some argue that we need to capture the chemically-produced CO2 from cement. Such CO2 represents only 1.4 percent of global warming, and some can be reduced using Ferrock and recycling cement. But why add carbon capture equipment to capture only CO2 from cement when this is an opportunity cost? The money for the capture equipment and its energy reduces more CO2 and simultaneously eliminates air pollution and mining if it is used instead to replace fossil fuel electricity or heat using WWS electricity. Further, it is more efficient to spend to reduce biomass burning, eliminating both CO2 and air pollution, or to increase reforestation, than to spend on carbon capture equipment, especially when captured carbon is used mostly to enhance oil extraction and create polluting synthetic fuels for burning. 

Some argue that we need direct air capture to reduce CO2 beyond those obtained from stopping emissions. However, we can obtain 350 ppm CO2 by stopping 80 percent emissions by 2030 and 100 percent by no later than 2050. Also, direct air capture is on opportunity cost, just like carbon capture so it is always better to spend on a different mitigation method.

In sum, we have 95 percent of the technologies we need today and the know-how to get the rest to address both energy and non-energy emissions. As such, no miracle technology, particularly carbon capture, direct air capture, modern bioenergy or modern nuclear power, is needed. 

By implementing only clean, renewable WWS energy and storage and implementing non-energy strategies, we will address not only climate, but also the 7 million annual air pollution deaths worldwide and energy insecurity. None of the “miracle technologies” addresses all three.

We and 17 other research groups have shown that we can do it with renewables alone worldwide and in the 50 United States. Such a transition reduces energy costs, and land requirements while creating jobs. The key is to deploy, deploy, deploy existing clean, renewable, safe technologies as fast as possible.

Mark Z. Jacobson is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. He works on climate, air pollution and clean, renewable energy solutions to these problems. He is the author of 170 peer-reviewed scientific papers and five books, including “100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything.” Follow him on Twitter: @mzjacobson