Will Technology Solve Climate Change?

The following is Richard Heinberg’s contribution to a two-way discussion with Adam Dorr, an environmental social scientist at the nonprofit think tank Rethinkx. The exchange was hosted by Pairagrapha platform for written dialogue between pairs of notable individuals. For the entire exchange, click here.

When humanity started using fossil fuels, it gained access to tens of millions of years’ worth of stored sunlight. The result was a Great Acceleration of everything we had been doing—including growing food and harvesting renewable and nonrenewable resources from the natural world and turning them into technology, products, and waste. Our population grew eight-fold (from one billion to nearly eight billion) in a mere two centuries.

But then the consequences appeared: climate change, resource depletion, soil erosion and salinization, species extinctions, plastic pollution, and more. It’s tempting to think of these as mere technical glitches that we can solve with more technology. After all, we’re accustomed to using energy and technology to solve every imaginable problem, and many people have grown rich in the process. But it’s hard to escape the perception that a massive energy boost has enabled our species to proliferate too quickly, and to use too much of nature, to its own long-term detriment.

Zeroing in on climate policy, essentially the same message shouts through the data. Yes, we can substitute low-carbon energy sources for fossil fuels, but each alternative has a drawback. Solar and wind are intermittent sources, requiring energy storage and redundant generation capacity to balance out daily and seasonal peaks and troughs. Nuclear is expensive and produces radioactive waste.

Then there’s the 20 percent challenge: only a fifth of final energy used globally is in the form of electricity. That means we will have to change how we use energy—replacing an enormous amount of infrastructure for transportation, building HVAC, manufacturing, and agriculture in order to electrify these activities. And we will have to create infrastructure to make low-carbon fuels for technologies that will be especially hard to electrify. Altogether, it’s by far the biggest manufacturing and construction project in human history.

The trouble is, that project will require an enormous amount of energy and materials, entailing mining, smelting, other high-heat processes, transport, and waste. And, at least in the early stages, roughly 85 percent of the transition energy will come from fossil fuels. With low-carbon technologies like solar panels and e-cars, emissions are front-weighted, occurring mostly during manufacturing. So, a big pulse of emissions will result from the transition itself. We could fix that with technology by building machines to extract CO2 from the atmosphere, but, once again, in the manufacturing stage these will simply add to the emissions. And it’s unclear who would pay for them.

When energy analyst David Fridley and I did a months-long deep dive into the opportunities and costs of the energy transition, we concluded that scale was the biggest challenge. If we assume that energy usage will continue its growth trajectory in nations like the US, then there’s no realistic way through. It’s only if we assume a substantial reduction in energy usage that the project becomes feasible. But that requires us to question human behavior and expectations about economic growth.

Low-carbon technology is good. But by itself it will not resolve humanity’s ecological dilemma.

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Our environmental crisis is often framed just in terms of climate change. But resource depletion, destruction of wild habitat, and pollution also lead to collapse—just by other means. All result from economic over-expansion.

A useful metaphor for what we must do is, “take our foot off the accelerator.” If you’re headed toward the wrong destination, it doesn’t help to get there faster; instead, slow down and change direction.

In recent decades, there have been only two significant periods when greenhouse gas emissions declined: the global financial crisis of 2008-9 and the economic shutdown associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. During both periods, energy usage fell. In other years, despite record levels of solar and wind installations, emissions grew anyway, because economic growth stoked increased energy usage, and most of that increase came from fossil fuels. Yes, both of these periods entailed pain and suffering that no right-minded person would wish to repeat. But neither event was planned for the purpose of reducing energy usage while improving human lives.

Ecological economists understand that aiming for perpetual growth on a finite planet is a ticket to tragedy. They’ve spent years designing strategies to make life more enjoyable and secure while minimizing consumption. These strategies include sidelining GDP in favor of economic indicators that emphasize quality of life, and focusing on policies to create jobs rather than hoping profit-seeking corporations will prioritize job creation. What if we actually planned to reduce energy usage significantly while revamping the economy to promote happiness and well-being? Then it would be far easier to replace our remaining energy usage with renewable sources.

Taking our foot off the accelerator won’t do anything to repair damage already done; it just keeps us from doing more damage in the meantime. So, what to do about all the carbon we’ve already shot into the atmosphere, that will keep the climate destabilized for centuries or millennia?

Building machines to suck CO2 out of the air is a reflex response for people hooked on technofixes, but there’s almost no market for carbon dioxide; the effort would have to be subsidized and it serves no other useful purpose.

However, there are ways of capturing and sequestering CO2 that would help solve many ecological problems at once. Reforestation would provide habitat for species we’re currently driving toward extinction. Carbon farming (i.e., farming in ways that sequester carbon in soil) would increase soil fertility, improve water retention, and reduce chemical pollution. And anything we do to protect and restore ecosystems—including the oceans—will help nature take care of the increased load of carbon dioxide that we have imposed upon her.

These solutions could sequester gigatons of carbon each year. And they move us toward a destination, in terms of health and security, worth inhabiting.

Teaser photo credit: Offshore wind turbines at Barrow Offshire by Andy Dingley via Wikimedia. Creative Commons license.