December 22, 2020
Published on Forbes.com
When I wrote about the new Roaring 20s last December, the world was largely unaware of COVID-19. Although the pandemic has caused indescribable tragedy and hardship, it has also shown that with proper motivation and financing, humanity can do the impossible. That scientists developed safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines in less than a year is evidence of our untapped potential to solve global problems.
The lesson for climate change is that if we act with equal vigor, we can solve this crisis. But we need an Operation Warp Speed for the Climate. Thanks to the European and South Korean Green Deals and President-elect Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan, the world is positioned to do it. Just as the original Operation Warp Speed met the need for timely new treatments and vaccines, this operation would deliver game-changing innovations for our climate crisis.
Time is short, however. To contain global warming to 1.5° C or at least to 2° C, the world must become carbon neutral by 2050. That means that by 2030, we need a clear line of sight to that goal.
Efficiency and energy saving technologies, together with wind, solar, batteries and biomass are instrumental to eliminating the first half of our fossil fuel usage. Increasingly, though, it seems unlikely that these technologies can address the second half of the energy transition: how to power cement, steel, chemicals, and the other heavy industries that account for at least 40% of worldwide emissions.
Many decision makers in heavy industry are scratching their heads about what to do when they must retire their coal-fired powerplants in the early 2030s, as per their Paris Agreement commitments. Let that sink in. They do not yet know how to produce these essential products without using fossil fuels, and the limited window to invest in replacements has already started. They need new technologies, and they need them quickly.
Meanwhile, climate change is striking the world on an exponential curve with floods, storms, summertime heat waves and forest fires becoming fiercer, and temperatures near the poles increasing by 5° C or more. The melting of carbon-rich permafrost is a ticking methane release timebomb. Yet, if we decide to fight climate change at Warp Speed instead of at our current saunter, we might hold warming to 2° C.
As we start 2021, what should be the focus of our Operation Warp Speed for the Climate? I’ll highlight three action areas: lifestyle changes, financing for breakthrough technologies and geoengineering. With private-public coordination, these actions could produce vaccine candidates for our climate crisis.
When COVID-19 lockdowns began in spring, people adjusted their behavior, and daily CO2 emissions worldwide decreased by an average of 17%. BP and other energy companies expect COVID-19 to permanently dent demand for fossil fuels.
We have discovered that worldwide lifestyle changes are possible and have a massive impact on emissions. A recent survey commissioned by JLL, a commercial real estate company, found that 72% of office workers want a hybrid model in which they continue work at home several days per week after the crisis ends. A quarter want to continue working remotely full time. Let’s lock those changes in to reduce commuter pollution. Meanwhile, we need a way to get people safely back onto public transport (its usage is down). And for cases where transportation is unavoidable or has even increased, like with online shopping and freight shipping, it’s time to scale electric trucks and hydrogen-powered cargo ships.
While we’re at it, let’s ensure that business travel never returns to its former excesses. Most of the time, there’s no reason to take one-day trips across the globe. Regular business meetings can be done more efficiently virtually, complemented by in-person contact only once in a while.
Governments could cement these lifestyle changes with tax deductions and by finally ending fossil fuels subsidies, as I wrote last year. In response, people would reduce their fossil fuel usage, and innovators would develop carbon-free alternatives sooner than they would otherwise. If a deadly virus changed our lifestyle at Warp Speed, why can’t a deadly climate crisis do the same?
Even today, clean energy startups have trouble raising enough capital to succeed. They have long depended on government grants and legacy industrial companies for financing and exit opportunities. As investor Rob Day argues, these incumbents are “highly unmotivated buyers.” They’d rather protect short-term profits than invest in the future. We need a paradigm shift in financing to scale the three most promising climate technologies: nuclear fusion, green hydrogen and carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS).
Now there is hope on the horizon: special purpose acquisition corporations (“SPACs”) may be changing the balance of power between startups and industrial titans. They could put the financing outlook and return and exit prospects for cleantech companies on par with generic tech opportunities from Silicon Valley.
A SPAC is a company that has no commercial operations but raises capital through an initial public offering (IPO) to acquire existing companies with promising upside. Recently, SPACs have financed exciting cleantech newcomers, including Lidar innovators (e.g., Velodyne), battery makers (e.g., QuantumScape), and numerous electric mobility startups.
Cleantech entrepreneurs, take note. Future platform technologies like fusion energy, hydrogen, CCUS, and others still suffer from a lack of financing because they do not deliver the quick, sugary returns Silicon Valley investors crave. But if more startups in these areas could raise funds through SPACs, they could scale up and commercialize without having to depend on slow, small-drip financing and cumbersome testing by legacy industrial companies.
I cannot overstate the importance of reducing dependence on industrial incumbents that often use cleantech investments as green-washing stage props. Over the past decade, some incumbents in the energy industry have regularly invested in attractive cleantech companies and then dried them out and bought them up at cents to the dollar. Limited by the apathy, arrogance or incompetence of the acquirer, these promising companies subsequently underperformed. What missed opportunities! Game-changing technologies that could have changed our old, polluting businesses into the clean energy leaders of the future never reached their full potential.
Enter SPACs, ready to capture the enormous market opportunity of eliminating all emissions by 2050. SPAC involvement may very well change the playing field in the energy industry and position well capitalized outsiders to win with fusion energy, hydrogen, CCUS and other new technologies. Let’s not forget: the disruptors usually come from outside an industry, and if they move at Warp Speed, it will be hard for the incumbents to beat them. Only the most forward-looking incumbents realize that acquiring promising cleantech companies now, before they flirt with a SPAC, is the last chance to secure an industry leadership position in the future. All others will go the way of the dodo. Oil and gas companies better fasten their seatbelts.
I had hoped never to reach this conclusion, but it’s possible that no amount of lifestyle changes and well financed technologies will be able to address climate change in time. Although I hope countries at least meet their 2° C Paris Agreement targets, the history of climate change politics (many conferences and commitments, lots of talk, but little progress) means we may already be too late. While solving climate change should remain a priority, we need an insurance policy. It’s probably time to look at options for geoengineering projects. These would change Earth’s ecology, geology and energy balance to mitigate emissions, reduce warming and help us adapt to a dramatically changed climate.
Geoengineering is often portrayed as “playing god” and resisted on grounds that geoengineering will encourage heavy emitters to carry on as usual. Make no mistake: geoengineering may buy us some time for the energy transition but does not absolve us from eliminating greenhouse gas emissions altogether.
Techniques like cloud seeding, which creates artificially brightened clouds to reflect sunlight and stimulate rain, are promising. Reversing the flow of rivers that pour fresh water into the oceans may be prudent as well. These options are preferable to ocean fertilization, which would involve cultivating massive, CO2-eating phytoplankton blooms in surface waters at the expense of ocean ecosystems.
Rather than dismiss geoengineering, as some groups have, we should move at Warp Speed with feasibility and safety studies. We need more options, and we need to understand which ones are realistic. We also need to determine how, if necessary, we will coordinate geoengineering amongst 195 countries that share one atmosphere. Hopefully, we never need to strongarm our environment with geoengineering, but the clock is ticking.
Same speed or Warp Speed?
While lifestyle changes, SPACs and geoengineering give me hope, we need more people and especially governments to endorse an Operation Warp Speed.
If each nation continues to put itself first, we will be doomed. But if through international collaboration we can accelerate progress and provide enough funding, commercial fusion energy could become available in eight years instead of 20. The necessary process of removing emissions from the atmosphere could happen at scale within two years instead of five. We could test our geoengineering insurance policy soon, before we’re forced to rush it and risk the consequences.
But we need to get moving. We can either kick our climate actions into Warp Speed or spend the rest of the century adapting to a hostile planet. The cost of adaptation would be immensely higher than the cost of Operation Warp Speed for the Climate. Frankly, if we are not fast enough, we might end up exchanging our COVID masks for gas masks.
I still believe in a new Roaring 20s. COVID-19, although tragic, revealed how small the world actually is and how capable we are of solving global problems when we care to do so and all work together. Social distancing has reminded us of how much we need each other. If we want to, we together can make the world a better and safer place to live. Let’s ensure that in 2030, when we look back on this decade, we will be proud of what has been achieved and amazed at how slowly things still moved in 2020. Speed up, stay safe and make the 20s roar again (take two)!