In the much-ballyhooed (yet toothless and hollow) climate agreement signed in Paris over the weekend, delegates affirmed the need to pursue “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C” as compared to pre-industrial levels, without including any specific targets or policy recommendations for individual nations to help the world get there. This was a last-second moving of the goal posts, as the temperature target most often discussed in the run-up to Paris was 2 degrees Celsius—a target that was all but abandoned before the conference even began. Few expected mention of a 1.5 degrees Celsius target in the Paris treaty, and it’s not surprising that it wasn’t backed up by any details. With temperatures today already 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, there simply aren’t enough tools in the policy toolbox to pull this off.
But as the FT reports, all hope is not lost, as technological breakthroughs could be the solution the world is looking for:
The scientific and technical challenge is to continue to drive down the cost of alternative sources, particularly solar and wind power but also nuclear, while improving the technology for distributing and storing energy.
Perhaps the greatest need is for better batteries that store electricity with much higher density and charge up much more quickly than those available today. They would not only solve the “intermittency problem” of solar and wind power but also enable electric vehicles to surpass the range and performance of petrol and diesel engines. […]
On nuclear power, many scientists part company with the green campaigners with whom they have made common cause on other issues during the UN climate negotiations. They see a new generation of smaller and less expensive nuclear power stations — downsized from today’s multibillion-dollar monsters — as a valuable contribution to non-carbon electricity generation. In the long run there could be a role for nuclear fusion reactors.
Predicting the future based on the technologies of the present is a recipe for failure. Moreover, doing so will necessarily exclude some of the most exciting and positive possibilities ahead for our species. Malthusian greens are more atavistic than futuristic, and parts of the environmental movement seem to have an impulse to idealize our agrarian past while demonizing modernity. But this worldview not only ignores how much better life is for the vast majority of people today than it was before the industrial era, but also how much better life can be in the (very near) future.
A breakthrough in energy storage would alone play a big role in solving intermittency issues with wind and solar power, which are one of the biggest obstacles to more widespread deployment of renewable energy. That said, more money needs to be poured into the research and development of more efficient solar panels and wind turbines (diverted away from the subsidization of the current generation), so that the eco-friendly energy sources might be able to compete with fossil fuels on their own merit. Then, too, there are a whole host of new nuclear technologies that seem tantalizingly close to producing a wave of zero-carbon baseload power. Carbon capture and storage technologies could even pull greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere and store it underground.
The threat of climate change looms large, but all hope is not lost—and it’s technological progress, not toothless treaty-making, that’s going to make the biggest difference.