This article first appeared on Caixin Global.
- Economies and societies need to transition to net zero emissions in order to limit global warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels.
- Innovations that are driven by 3D printing, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and gene editing will speed up the transition.
- But technology alone can’t solve the climate crisis – business and government also have a big role to play.
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 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) latest 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.
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The key to achieving climate goals
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 what will be key to meeting our climate goals:
1. 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.
Meanwhile, 3D printing is enabling manufacturers to produce lighter solar panels with greater surface areas, boosting the efficiency and lowering the cost of solar power. The technology will also allow manufacturers to create complex designs of next generation nuclear reactors that can be rapidly prototyped, tested and brought to market.
2. Developing new ways to make and store clean energy
Ramping up today’s climate solutions will only get us so far towards 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.
3. Reversing historical emissions to avert climate crisis
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 CO2 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.
Innovative ideas needed to tackle climate change
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.
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 startups, established businesses, governments and civil society.
What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.
The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.
The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.
Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.
Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.
Via its fast-growing network of national and sub-national centres, 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.