Is it possible to disrupt climate change?
Yes, it is, but we need to choose the right path.
What is broken in the current political strategies and how can we fix this? How did we solve similar problems in the past?
There is a political will, but the path is wrong
In the liner notes for the album “The Freewheelin” Bob Dylan writes about the album’s 6th track, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” that “it is a desperate kind of song”.
Reading its opening lyrics,
“Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
And where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked, and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.”
one begins to sense an underlying threat in Dylan’s narrative.
The sense of underlying threat deepens as the story develops, and forewarnings appear in images such as
“I heard the sound of a thunder, that roared out a warnin’
I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.”
while haunting scenes meet us, such as
“I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning”.
As in most of Dylan’s lyrics, meaning can be manifold and often resists interpretation, but A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall is undoubtedly a song that concerns itself with a sense of foreboding.
Around the world today, a similar unease seems to be felt by the younger generation. The younger generation is facing a future made uncertain by rapid climate change. Young people’s fears take on many guises, from worldwide grassroots organizations and protests, occupation of public spaces, and even young women and men going on birth strikes.
Sixty years after Dylan wrote his foreboding words, they resonate deeply with the mood of today’s youth.
Once in the song, however, we are presented with something that could resemble a thin line of hope, as Dylan sings,
“I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow”.
Without attributing too much symbolism to what began as an individual act of protest, something did happen, and something fundamental did shift when Greta Thunberg, in August 2018, at the age of 15, started spending her school days outside the Swedish Parliament, the Riksdag. For three weeks during school hours, Thunberg sat outside the Riksdag, holding up a sign that read “Skolstrejk för klimatet” — or School strike for the climate — as her act and call for more decisive action on climate change.
This straightforward and effective action spread to worldwide protests, where young people followed Thunberg’s example and symbolically refused to invest in their future if world leaders did not act to secure it. This form of protest became known as the so-called “Greta effect”. Thunberg’s position in the environmental debate has since only grown in significance and strength. Her argument very much mirrors her public persona: Direct, firm, and unwavering, she stood in front of World Economic Forum leaders in January 2020, stating, “Our house is still on fire […]”, “We don’t need to lower emissions. Our emissions need to stop if we are going to save the world.”
Reductively speaking, it has taken a young woman to give voice to the generation inheriting a climate disaster. The demands made by Thunberg will to many, seem implausible. Many will argue that the world is neither willing to make the sacrifices required, nor economically, socially, and in terms of infrastructure, set up to stop burning fossil fuels.
However, let us try to put our minds at work and take a moment to look into the current and future possibilities to make a change. Supposing we can replace our reliance on fossil fuels with an alternative that doesn’t emit CO₂. Are we able to implement the changes needed to replace fossil fuels?
The story of leaded fuel
To answer this question, we go back a century to the roaring 1920s — a decade of economic growth and prosperity that swept Americans into a consumer society and mass culture. The decade was fueled by music, growing freedoms, fast living, and fast cars. The 1920s was also when refiners started adding lead compounds to the gasoline required by these fast cars, as the lead boosted octane levels and improved a car engine’s performance. The lead additive is how exhaust fumes from vehicles using leaded gasoline eventually accounted for 90 percent of airborne lead pollution in the United States.
This problem didn’t go unnoticed. A public health report initiated in 1926 acknowledged that exposure levels might rise over time. “But, of course, that would be another generation’s problem”, the journalist Deborah Blum sarcastically writes in an article for Wired on the report’s conclusion that it found no reason to prohibit the sale of leaded gasoline.
Documentation showed more and more clearly, the health consequences of the pollution caused by the leaded fuel. Studies showed how children that grew up in urban areas with higher traffic density had higher blood lead levels than their rural counterparts. There were far-reaching consequences for such children. Due to their physical immaturity, the affected children were the most susceptible to systemic and neurological injury. Among the children’s lead poisoning impacts were a lower I.Q., hyperactivity, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities (1).
Studies also documented how lead pollution caused cardiovascular problems in adults and adverse reproductive effects for women. In adults, high blood lead levels were also linked to elevated blood pressure, causing hypertension, heart attacks, and premature death.
After 50 years, the severe health risks were finally publicly acknowledged by authorities. The U.S. began phasing out leaded gasoline, a far-reaching and, it seemed, almost insurmountable process that required a replacement with a new type of fuel, new motors, and a new set of standards by which refiners and car manufacturers had to abide.
By 1974, one of the most significant global environmental health improvements to date had commenced, and it came to set an example of a public-private partnership that impacted future generations beyond measure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced the regulation that initiated this transition. The EPA introduced rules requiring new cars running on unleaded gasoline, equipped with catalytic converters as a first requirement. Catalytic converters reduce toxic gases and pollutants into less-toxic pollutants.
Alongside this requirement, the EPA also ruled that gasoline dispensers for leaded fuel must use larger nozzles. Furthermore, cars designed for unleaded fuel must have restrictor plates installed on the fill pipes of vehicles’ fuel tanks, preventing accidental fueling with leaded fuel. Last but not least, all gas stations were required to offer unleaded gasoline at their stations at least at one pump.
Additionally, to promote the production of unleaded fuel, EPA set out standards requiring all refineries to decrease the average lead content of all gasoline and decrease the total amount of leaded fuel produced. The intention was that the phase-out of leaded fuel should start in 1975.
In the end, the phase-out got delayed until 1979 with a series of regulatory adjustments. Over time, further adjustments and regulations followed. Allowances to produce a specific average quantity of leaded fuel were gradually reduced, depending on the size of a refinery (2).
The average lead concentration counted the total of both leaded and unleaded gasoline — and this method provided refiners with the incentive to increase unleaded production while not necessarily removing lead from their leaded petrol. This process went hand in hand with car-owners retiring their pre-catalyst automobiles — using leaded fuel — and replacing them with new cars requiring unleaded fuel. In less than 10 years, by the early 1980s, gasoline lead levels had declined about 80% — the combined result of regulations placed on refiners and gradual turnover of car fleets.
The possibility to trade lead credits among refineries was introduced from 1982 to 1987 to soften the economic burden. The political decision to implement a trading system helped ease the financial burden caused by the transition to remove lead, especially for smaller firms. More significantly, however, it ensured that the entire refining industry had some flexibility in allocating the lead reduction among its firms.
Consequently, there was widespread support for the phase-down — one exception unsurprisingly being the Lead Industries Association — and with new regulations and modifications gradually put in place over the coming years, the transition was an undeniable success.
From a health perspective, blood lead levels in the U.S. had by 1991 dropped 77 percent compared to before the EPA was put in place. The benefits were also economical. Calculations showed that the U.S. saved more than $10 for every $1 invested in the phase-down. Reduced health costs that came with the reduction of lead exposure and more efficient fuel made this transition a good business case. In short, the regulations put in place by EPA, forced the car industry to invent better products. The result meant the innovation of safer fuel additives, providing better performance than lead gasoline and reduced damage to the motors.
Over less than 20 years, an industry that had been ‘fueled’ by lead had undergone a complete transition. By 1996 the change was done, with all leaded gasoline phased out of the U.S. market.
The story of leaded fuel mirrors several aspects of our own time. Like Deborah Blum notes on the addition of lead to gasoline in the 1920s ‘being another generation’s problem’, the rising CO₂ levels caused by our burning of fossil fuels are coming generations’ challenges.
Change in the gasoline industry was in part driven by the health impacts witnessed from exposure to lead. These impacts echo those that, we suspect, exposure to elevated CO₂ levels is causing.
Supposing we, for both health and climate reasons, arrive at a point when we can replace our reliance on fossil fuels with an alternative that doesn’t emit CO₂. This alternative might, for example, be biofuel. With the story of the phase-out of leaded fuel, we can begin to understand that transitions are possible: Changes don’t have to be synonymous with adverse economic effects. If appropriately conducted, a shift can become another success story, as shown in the past in the U.S. A success story that spread throughout the entire world over a relatively short period.
The Paris Agreement
Why conduct this thought experiment? After all, the world has plans to combat climate change through the “2016 Paris Agreement” that 196 state representatives have signed. Are we not on course for a change and resolution to the problem of global CO₂ emissions?
Zooming in on the Paris Agreement, its long-term goal is to keep the rise in global average temperature substantially below 2 °C (3.6 °F) from pre-industrial levels. It further intends to pursue avenues that limit the increase to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F). This all sounds promising, right?
Yes, it all sounds promising. However, the formulation of the goals in the Paris Agreement gives each country the freedom to determine its contribution to achieving this worldwide goal. Furthermore, no mechanism forces any country to set specific emissions targets by particular dates. Each signatory nation has to plan and regularly report on its contribution to reducing fossil fuel emissions and global warming. Still, each target set by each country is their own volition (3).
The only requirement made of the Paris Agreement to each signatory nation is that each of a nation’s new targets should go beyond previously set targets. Therefore, the Paris Agreement is not a binding agreement with set targets but rather only an agreement on intentions. Each nation’s contribution towards this common goal is encouraged only by a “name and shame” system.
Each country manages its Paris Agreement commitments through the Climate Change Performance Index, Climate Action, and the Climate Clock. In 2020, studies in Nature — a scientific journal featuring peer-reviewed academic research — concluded that none of the major industrialized nations were neither implementing the pledged policies nor meeting their pledged emission reduction targets. (4)
How can all this information be translated into a picture that gives us a comprehensive insight into the state and future of worldwide CO₂ emissions?
If we examine fossil fuel CO₂ emissions, the graph above illustrates worldwide emissions from 2000 until 2019. The chart accounts for a mix of growth and slight decrease between the five biggest emitters in the world, China (+0.9 per year from 2014 to 2019), the U.S. (-0.8 per year), E.U. (-0.7 per year), India (+4 per year), and Russia (+ 1.1 per year). China, the largest emitter and responsible for 27% (6) of the fossil fuel CO₂ emissions in the world, shows a slow increase in emissions, and the country has so far only pledged to stop increasing its emissions by 2030 — with no discussions of an eventual decrease taking place as yet.
Coming back to the research published in Nature, the report also concluded that even if all major industrialized nations did meet their emission reduction targets, this would still not keep the global temperature rise “well below 2 °C”. The reason being that, as much as this is a worldwide plan and goal, it is also a global problem and cause. The emissions recorded from the rest of the world are continuously increasing, which cannot be offset by the combined decrease of the five main emitters. The rise in CO₂ levels and fossil fuel emissions is a global problem that needs to be solved globally. In the same period both European and U.S. companies moved their production sites to other parts of the world. Thereby decreasing emissions locally, while increasing emissions globally.
Earth Overshoot Day
Moreover, while the graphs illustrate this dynamic simply, a more complex dynamic exists behind these numbers and columns. The Earth Overshoot Day (EOD) gives us a better insight into this dynamic. EOD is a calculated illustrative calendar date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds Earth’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year. The term “overshoot” represents the level by which the human population overshoots the sustainable number of resources on Earth.
Additionally, a Country Overshoot Day calendar exists. A country’s overshoot day is when the EOD would fall if humanity consumed like the people in this country. The Country Overshoot Day is also known as the country’s Ecological Footprint as the illustrated calendar below. It shows Qatar as the first country listed on February 9th. A list of countries such as Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates, Canada, Kuwait, the U.S., Australia, and Denmark follow.
The County Overshoot Day brings about a pressing question. If China is responsible for 27% of emissions, why do they not figure so high up on the calendar? China is not at the top of the list because, unlike the graph that illustrates each country’s fossil fuel CO₂ emissions, its Ecological Footprint also considers this country’s consumption, adding imports to and subtracting exports from its national production.
Coming back to China’s share of emissions, it is imperative to understand that of all CO₂ emitted in this country, for instance, in 2018, the Chinese market only consumed 90% of this. Products exported to mainly E.U. and the U.S cause the remaining 10% of emissions. This points towards that we are operating with a broken accounting system. Furthermore, this means that the calculations for each country’s CO₂ consumption aren’t accurate (8).
We are witnessing a supply and demand dynamic, in which China is indeed emitting the highest amount of CO₂. But this is because China is manufacturing what the rest of the world consumes. This improper accounting for emissions presents a strong case for revising how we calculate each nation’s fossil fuel emissions. We need a system in which the import for each country should figure in its total CO₂ consumption for these calculations to be genuinely representative and for each government to be genuinely accountable for its total CO₂ consumption.
We also see that Denmark, which considers itself a frontrunner in the fight against climate change and seemingly displays a visionary commitment to the climate, is 14th on the list. Its overshoot day is March 26th (China overshoots June 7th). A discrepancy certainly exists between how Denmark appears and generally understands itself and the CO₂ consumption it is genuinely accountable for. Likewise, the country’s plans and targets set out per the Paris Agreement leaves a lot to be desired if you ask the Danish Society for Nature Conservation (9). The Danish Climate Program that sets out plans for a 70% reduction in CO₂ emissions by 2030 — or 20 million tons of CO₂ — only gives concrete solutions to a decrease of 6 million tons. The remaining 14 million tons rely exclusively on future technology, solutions yet to be found and invented.
We have focused on Denmark as an insightful example of how climate plans and CO₂ calculations and emissions might not tell the full and true story of a nation’s action on climate change. But this story is symptomatic of a worldwide approach to climate programs. We need to implement worldwide solutions to deal with the rise in emissions.
What, then, is a viable path — how can we make each country’s total emissions and consumption of CO₂ transparent: How can we make each nation fully accountable for its CO₂ quota?
Fixing the emissions accounting
We are facing two problems associated with the current CO₂ system. First, producers in countries that implement CO₂ tax schemes are becoming less competitive. The local producers have to pay CO₂ taxes and taxes related to the transport of goods. External suppliers, on the other hand, can avoid much of these expenses. The other problem, as we know, is that in our part of the world, we are responsible for some CO₂ production that we are not accountable for. As discussed, the goods that we consume do not appear in our CO₂ accounts. Therefore, it would make sense that the import of goods should also require CO₂ quotas to give a more accurate picture of a nation’s CO₂ consumption.
Whether we would want to buy CO₂ quotas when importing goods, or simply canceling CO₂ quotas on importing goods, is an inflamed political subject. If importers were to pay for CO₂ quotas, this would equate to a trade barrier or duty. Goods would be more expensive, but the effect on the reduction of CO₂ would be more significant and thus give a substantial positive impact on the climate. A one-sided cancellation of allowances is also possible but would make local production even less competitive.
Whatever path we follow, a unilateral effort gives very little meaning. CO₂ emissions and the consequences for our climate are a global challenge. To make the path we follow a viable one, we must work between trading partners, both for the sake of the competitiveness of companies — and for the sake of the climate.
In short, climate programs must be part of disrupting climate change. Now, what does this mean?
We know that we disrupted our climate, and we call this climate change. But part of the solution to this disruption is a rethinking of the systems currently in place.
To understand a nation’s impact on the climate, the actual carbon footprint — we’ll call this C — should be calculated on several parameters.
Currently, the KPIs — or key performance indicators — for CO₂ emissions are the direct emissions produced by a nation through its transport, heat generation, and industrial production — we’ll call this indicator D. However, several other indicators should come into account. These being;
I: Indirect emissions = emissions caused by importing certain goods and transporting these into a country or importing electricity.
L: LULUCF = “Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry”. Depending on the activities in agriculture and forestry, this parameter can be positive or negative. If we plant a forest and manage it well, the LULUCF parameter decreases the footprint. If deforestation is happening or we manage the forest poorly, the LULUCF parameter increases the carbon footprint
N: the natural or chemical processes that absorb emissions from the atmosphere — the so-called carbon sinks. N includes bodies of water with algae, for example.
In short, a formula for a rethinking of CO₂ systems could look as follows;
C = D + I ± L — N
Alongside such recalculations, we can also implement policies to help steer global CO₂ emissions — one example being border taxes. The E.U. recently proposed a system that exemplifies this — called the E.U. Carbon Tax. Briefly summarized, this is a CO₂ border tax adjustment placed onto goods to help steer carbon prices and net CO₂ emissions. Therefore, border taxes could be applied worldwide between nations to help reduce overall CO₂ emissions and global warming.
The E.U. also has the European Emissions Trading System, or E.T.S., that regulates climate gas emissions. The E.T.S., however, has some fundamental flaws:
- A share of emission allowances is free, and not all sectors are part of the E.T.S. scheme.
- Only 50% of the revenue is earmarked for climate and energy-related purposes.
- Countries outside of the E.T.S. scheme gain a competitive advantage. This advantage has resulted in an actual export of emissions by moving production to countries not part of the E.T.S.
Political decisions and implementation of policies are therefore crucial and require actions from our politicians to:
- Report a nation’s actual carbon footprint
- Implement a long-term plan for rules and regulations.
- Kick-start the disruption of climate change by investing 100% of the revenues into technology and businesses. In the long run, this will result in innovation, jobs, and increased wealth.
- Protect the local industry from competition in countries doing nothing (trade tariffs are most likely necessary).
- Construct the system in a way that makes it advantageous to join in the eyes of other countries.
Disrupting climate change
Let’s return to the phase-down of leaded fuel and how political legislation drove the process and created a long-term sustainable change in the market. This story tells us that, alongside the systems that calculate emissions, we should also consider other parameters: The leaded fuel phase-out story shows us that market forces can drive change and that conscious market decisions are imperative.
We must, therefore, also consider the following questions.
Is there a market for the solution?
Can the solution be implemented technologically?
Can money be made on the solution?
If the answers to these three questions is yes, then there is a possibility for the exponential growth of a solution, and to disrupt climate change, we need solutions with exponential growth. Climate change disruption shouldn’t be viewed as uncertain and frightening but as a change filled with possibilities. History shows us that when we force the economy to find new solutions, it will. With the right solutions in place, the sustainable industrial revolution will make jobs disappear. Still, it will create just as many new jobs — we have learned this from previous industrial revolutions (10).
And exactly how does disruption look? How does it make itself known in the market?
Let’s start by trying to understand what disruption is. Clayton Christensen’s 1995 article, “The Innovator’s Dilemma — When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail”, introduced the concept of “disruption” to the business world. Disruption has since become a big topic. Ironically, many have emphasized the technological aspect, as suggested by the article’s title and not the business case.
What is needed for disruption to occur is a mix of the market demand, the business model, and the technology.
Only when all three aspects are covered will a company create a disruption.
As an example, let’s look at how Apple disrupted Nokia. The initial version of the iPhone was a nice piece of hardware, yet Nokia had a similar offering and could undoubtedly compete in terms of hardware development capabilities. However, what Steve Jobs realized and what disrupted Nokia, was the insight that people have very different requirements concerning their phones and that even Apple was not big enough to fulfill them all.
To solve this challenge, Apple needed to engage the global software developer community and create a way to distribute and earn from the developed apps. The result, of course, was the App Store.
Today’s smartphones are as unique as a fingerprint, identifying the user by the installed apps. The installed apps represent each user’s phone’s configuration, which fulfills the specific user’s needs.
What Apple achieved was to create a win-win situation for the developers on the one side and the consumers on the other. Apple constructed the App Store business model so that both customers and developers perceived it fair for all.
Google was, of course, fast to realize the real intention of Apple and started building a similar offering. Nokia, and later Microsoft, only discovered the fundamental value proposition, many years too late. So, offering the right technology, manifested in a service or a product, the way a company sells this service or product, and the fact that it solves an actual need all need to come together to disrupt an existing market.
The smartphone with the App Store is an example of a disruption that is making itself known every hour of our everyday life — and we will come back to how we can apply the concept of disruption to climate change. But to get there, we first need to look at the business of sustainable energy.
How much electricity will we need?
Zooming in on sustainable solutions to our emissions — how are they making themselves known now, and how might they look in the future? Well, firstly, let’s understand exactly which areas emissions are going to and how much greenhouse gas is emitted by the things we do? The worldwide total for emissions of greenhouse gases account for the following areas and percentages.
- Manufacturing things (plastic, cement, steel) 31%
- Electricity using devices (machines, appliances, industrial machines) 27%
- Agriculture (plants, animals) 19%
- Transport (planes, trucks, cargo ships) 16%
- Indoor climate (heating, cooling, refrigeration) 7%
Let’s come back to the Paris Agreement of 2015 and the accompanying climate programs set out by the individual signatory nations. We can see that all renewable energy programs are electricity-focused, employing production through solar power, wind power, and thermal power.
Electricity currently accounts for 27%, just over a quarter of worldwide energy consumption. Since so much focus is on the electrification of all energy use, we need to shift from fossil fuel energy sources to electricity produced from renewable energy. If we focus solely on electricity, we must convert all sectors to electricity-based processes, manufacturing, agriculture, transport, and indoor climate.
By immediate calculations, we would nearly need to quadruple our electricity production from renewable energy to cover the areas accounting for the remaining 73% of worldwide energy consumption. However, in this increased production, we would need to consider certain losses — such as the unavoidable losses expected through conversion and transport — probably requiring us to increase electricity production five-fold.
Moreover, climate programs don’t take the continued worldwide population growth into account. The developing countries also increase the energy used per capita. As population increases as well as the energy used per capita, this results in consumption increase. As a result, we have to increase our electricity production probably as much as ten-fold to cover all future consumption needs and requirements through electricity. Currently, no nations are on target to even meet the fourfold increase of renewable energy, so we face climate programs that do not hit their targets nor take the required increase in production into account.
Supposing though, that we do meet these targets — and even manage to up electricity production ten-fold. How will that energy be carried into the consumption areas currently accounting for 73% of our emissions? How will we store the electricity produced by renewable energy sources to use in transport and production?
Most of us would come to the immediate answer being batteries — we already use these, for instance, in electric cars, right? We do, but we also need to charge these cars quite regularly, which points us to the challenge of batteries as a reliable source for energy storage.
Energy storage and densities
In energy storage, an essential factor is energy density — the amount of energy contained in a system regarding weight or volume — for instance, watt-hour per kilogram or W⋅h/kg.
If we look at the energy storage for the most commonly used lithium-ion batteries, the W⋅h/kg is 100–243.06. Compare this with the energy density for Diesel fuel which is 12,666.7 W⋅h/kg. We see why we need to recharge electric cars so often and why, for instance, battery-operated flights would not be an option. The weight and volume of the battery storing the required energy to power flight would be enormous and not be very practical. Likewise, production — such as cement — requires extremely high temperatures — up to 1,500 degrees Celsius (2.732 F) — energy unable to be sourced from batteries.
As a side note — but an important one — we must also understand and take into account the complete life cycle of a product, that we in the public imagination place as high hopes on as our alternative to fossil fuels. By 2030, the expected worldwide use of batteries is 2 million metric tons per year. However, looking at two of its current primary consumers — the European Union and the U.S. — the recycling rates for these batteries is less than 5% (11). Elsewhere in the world, such as Australia, the recycling rates are even lower, some 2–3%. The remaining 95–97% of the batteries are likely to end up in landfills, and of the small percentage recycled, these are transported offshore — by vessels operating on fossil fuel.
So, our reliance on fossil fuels is partly due to their high energy density. Let’s examine the energy solutions available to us. As previously introduced, batteries have a low density of 100–243.06 W⋅h/kg whereas Diesel is much higher at 12,666.7 W⋅h/kg. In comparison, another current energy solution of today is liquid Hydrogen, which at 39,405.6 W⋅h/kg, has a tremendous energy density, and therefore today’s space technology uses it.
However, due to the liquefication of Hydrogen, storage vessels require exceptionally sophisticated insulation techniques to reduce heat transfer leading to hydrogen loss via boil-off. Boil-off happens when the Hydrogen becomes too warm and as a consequence evaporate and produce boil-off gasses and as a result — high pressure in the tank.
This boil-off, the expensive nature of the insulating techniques required to keep sufficiently low temperatures, and the energy cost of creating liquid Hydrogen mean that hydrogen storage isn’t much of an option in hydrogen fuel-cell-powered vehicles and other daily uses.
But we won’t put Hydrogen in the corner just yet. Hydrogen may be the simplest member of the family of chemical elements — defined by a single H and existing as a colorless, odorless, tasteless, flammable gaseous substance — it remains a fascinating source of energy. If we examine all known energy densities — the highest being antimatter — the simple element of Hydrogen in a fusion process possesses the second-highest known energy density, at a staggering 177 billion W⋅h/kg (177,716,755,600).
This energy density points to a chemical element with extraordinary potential if only we had the technology to release it. We could create hydrogen fusion that could supply the world and its modern setup with almost infinite energy with the right technology. Imagine that!
Until that fine day, though, when technology is in its right (Hydrogen) element, we would need to rely on alternative inventions — such as biofuels and carbon capture — to keep our emissions in check.
Carbon capture is certainly no bad thing; it would mean that until we develop a more viable and sustainable solution, we can continue our use of fossil fuels without pushing CO₂ levels higher.
But like our use of batteries and renewable energy sources such as wind power or solar power, we need to consider the whole life cycle of a product or a solution. Wind turbines constructed of glass fibers have about 50 years of use, and the glass fiber parts are not easy to recycle. The same holds for non-recyclable solar panels that last only 20 years.
In other words, we must take the circular economy into account and not simply store captured carbon, as such a solution is just not economically viable. Carbon capture and storage brings us back to the question of how we can apply the concept of disruption to climate change.
Climate change is complex
The answer to this question is, we need technology to reduce or even remove climate gases from the atmosphere. But we also need viable business models. We must ensure that there is an interest to invest in CO₂ capture, for instance, because there is money to be earned. We need products that the market wants to buy — preferably even the broader population.
CO₂ capture will only be a viable solution if it creates the disruption required in the market. If we develop the technology to capture carbon, an essential parameter for this venture is giving it market value.
In other words, if we do go down the route of carbon capture, we must give it a place in the market by making it worthwhile. The value could be using the captured CO₂ in the production of algae, which (and we will return to this in a later chapter) may be a simple bacterium which contains an enormous transformative potential to disrupt areas such as climate, economy, and geopolitics.
So, we know that climate disruption is synonymous with great technology and outstanding innovation — but it can also be synonymous with market disruption and great financial possibility — the essential aspect required to make such innovations viable solutions.
But to maximize chances for success for such innovations, we, as examined, also need politicians to set a playing field that supports business initiatives. In other words, we need a stable political environment where investors know what future they are looking into and certainty that they will not be facing a constant change in policies.
And this disruption, this termination of our fossil fuel reliance, is imperative. We have thus far concerned ourselves with the release of CO₂ from our burning of fossil fuels — and it stands as the most significant driver of climate change and a severe threat to our physical and cognitive health. But we mustn’t discount that the burning of oil and gas also releases other gases. It seems that this burn-off may have a far more significant impact on the climate — when it comes to the release of other greenhouse gases — than scientists have previously suspected. Recordings show an enormous rise in methane concentrations over the last decades; in fact, methane contents in our atmosphere have doubled since pre-industrial times.
In an investigative piece from November 2019, The New York Times exposed significant methane leaks from oil wells and other energy facilities across the U.S. (12).
Researchers at Rochester’s Department of Earth and Environmental Studies published a report that compounds these findings and suspicion of fossil fuel burn-offs as the culprit behind the rise (13). The report concludes that methane emissions from natural phenomena were far smaller than estimates used to calculate global emissions. These natural phenomena include methane seeping from the ocean bed and methane released from land formations, the so-called mud volcanoes. In other words, the report concluded that fossil-fuel emissions from human activity, our production, and the burning of fossil fuels were underestimated by 25 to 40 percent.
With our burning of fossil fuels, we unleash toxic and potent greenhouse gases and uncover new information. We keep finding more and more data and evidence that points us towards how the burning of millions of years of CO₂ stored below ground is changing the air and the world around us. If you set the foundations below ground alight, your house is indeed on fire.
Our burning of the past is smoking out our future, and only disruption will change our course. We have discussed how we need politicians to set a playing field for the economy to embrace such disruption, but this should be no reason to delay action in private businesses even if politicians are slow to act. Viable solutions go hand in hand with financial incentives — all for the sake of a desirable future. We will, in forthcoming chapters, concern ourselves with how such a viable future may look — and how we may get there in terms of technology and economy.
For now, let us recognize that there is scope for business in climate — there is the possibility to become the Apple to disrupt climate change. Steve Jobs didn’t wait for the politicians. Greta Thunberg, the girl with the rainbow, certainly hasn’t either.
She has walked ahead of them, up to the vantage point from where a more extensive perspective is gained. She speaks boldly to the decision-makers about buildings emitting gases and smoke. And you know what they say — if there is smoke, there is fire.
This is the seventh chapter of my book “Atmosphere, CO₂ on my mind”. You can find more information and references on my website.
You can continue by reading the next chapter (Fusion — a Moonshot project) here.
- Herbert L. Needleman, “The Removal of Lead from Gasoline: Historical and Personal Reflections”
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