Climate change represents a genuine existential threat to our civilization that is rivaled in magnitude only by global pandemics, nuclear war, or an astronomical event like an asteroid strike. Nevertheless, the end is not nigh. Climate change is a problem we can solve. And contrary to whatever else you might have heard, we can do so without torpedoing the global economy and dialing the clock back on modern civilization to the 1800s. Indeed, the only way we can solve climate change is with prosperity.
In a recent TEDx Talk that I presented in Glasgow ahead of COP26, I shared a story about my 8-year-old daughter, Misora. She has learned about climate change in the environment and sustainability curriculum in her school, and she understands it is a crisis that humanity now faces. Not long ago, she asked me, “Daddy, why do we have climate change?”
She wasn’t asking why greenhouse gases change the radiation balance of the atmosphere, or why a rise in mean global temperature increases the incidence of severe weather events. What she was really asking was, “what did we do to deserve this terrible thing that is happening to us?”
I told her, “it’s because some of the tools we use to make life nice for people hurt the Earth.” She frowned and thought about this for a moment. And then she asked, “Daddy, why don’t we just use better tools?”
I have spent the last ten years trying to do what my daughter did effortlessly in ten seconds: cut through all the noise to the very heart of the climate change challenge. I am still reeling at how profound her insight was.
The solution to climate change is better tools.
Laying down our tools is not the answer
OK, so what are tools? They are simply the practical knowledge we use to achieve goals and solve problems. We see the world is one way, we wish it were another, and so we transform it using our know-how. We have used our knowledge to solve countless problems, great and small, throughout history. The most pressing problems of our ancestors – where to find shelter, food, water, warmth, light – are now trivial to us. And future generations will of course look back on our problems the same way.
The key to my daughter’s insight is the word better. The solution is not no tools, not less tools, not different tools. It is not a return to traditional tools, nor is it more judicious use of today’s imperfect tools. The solution is better tools.
In principle, it should come as no surprise that the solution to any problem is more and better knowledge, not ignorance. But in the case of climate change, a strange inversion of reason has gained sway, and many people have come to believe that the best way to reduce our emissions is to use tools less or stop using them altogether. Even worse, many have come to believe that tools themselves are inherently bad. At first, this might seem silly – who in their right mind would demonize knowledge and tools? Yet, swap the term tools for technology, and it becomes instantly clear that this is no exaggeration.
Part of the explanation for widespread antipathy towards technology is simply cynicism. Clean tech has long been promised, and its failure to emerge as quickly as one would hope has jaded many observers. Safe nuclear power never became “too cheap to meter”, and nuclear fusion has been “20 years away” for over 70 years. Even affordable solar panels have been a long time in coming.
Another is that new technologies can create new problems that we must tackle in turn. The Internet, for example, disrupted information and communication in countless ways, and transformed civilization and the global economy so drastically that it is now difficult to imagine a world without it. But alongside the astounding social and economic benefits the Internet has delivered, new problems have emerged as well – from cybercrime and misinformation campaigns to cyber-bullying and political polarization.
There is no going back
But perhaps the most pernicious source of antipathy towards technology is a misguided romanticism about the past and the primitive. It may come as a surprise, for example, that automobiles were originally celebrated as a solution to urban environmental problems – namely, that the streets of densely populated cities like New York and London were often covered in several feet of horse manure which posed a grave threat to public health and killed hundreds of thousands worldwide each year in the absence of modern sanitation technology. If we tried to use horses to move the quantity of people and goods we routinely transport with vehicles today, the entire surface of the Earth would look like the streets of New York in 1894 – a noxious hellscape of knee-deep manure and corpses.
Manure on the Streets of New York City. Image source unknown, circa 1894.
Life wasn’t nearly so rosy in the past as nostalgia might tempt us to believe. Before the chlorination of water supplies, for example, waterborne diseases from natural sources of freshwater such as wells and rivers killed countless millions – mostly infants and children under 5 – and even today still cause over 2 million deaths each year. And before gas and electric stoves, the smoke from perfectly natural wood and biomass-fueled cookfires inside homes caused more disease and death than all other sources of air pollution combined – an environmental problem that still kills over 4 million people per year.
In a similar vein, it is all too easy to romanticize the traditional practices of indigenous cultures. There are certainly examples of such practices that are more sustainable than their modern counterparts, but the problem of selective memory applies here too because traditional practices were not always benign. Burning and clear-cutting forests is not a modern invention, nor is hunting species to extinction or allowing livestock to overgraze the landscape resulting in soil erosion and desertification, to take just a few examples.
Ultimately, we do both ourselves and the environment a disservice by indulging the illusion that there is a trouble-free Edenic past to which we might return if only we were willing to make the necessary sacrifices. There is no viable path to sustainability that involves using less knowledge or more primitive technology instead of more knowledge and better technology.
Just consuming less will not solve climate change
Alongside the notion that the past and the primitive are viable guides to sustainability, there is the even more misguided belief that humanity can solve climate change simply by reducing consumption. Now, of course, it goes without saying that we should be less wasteful. But thinking we can solve climate change by “cutting back” or otherwise embracing frugality and austerity is like thinking we can save a burning building by putting out some of the fire. It just won’t work.
Even if we were to extinguish the flames completely by magically cutting consumption to zero, that still wouldn’t solve the problem. You aren’t done saving a burning building when the fire is out, you’re only done once the building is fully repaired. For climate change, that means we must not only reach net-zero emissions, but we must go far below zero and actively withdraw carbon to restore the atmosphere and oceans to their healthy pre-industrial condition as well. Since no amount of belt-tightening will pull even a single gram of carbon out of the atmosphere or oceans, austerity is no real solution at all.
We already have the tools we need
Almost 90% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from just three things: energy, transportation, and food. So, the solution to climate change cannot be less energy, transportation, and food. It can only be clean energy, transportation, and food.
Thankfully, the news here is nothing short of spectacular. Our research at RethinkX has shown that all three of these foundational sectors of the global economy are poised for disruption by eight key technologies.
In energy, the disruptive clean technologies are solar power, wind power, and batteries (SWB). They have passed the tipping point and are now cheaper than fossil fuels in many instances. A decade from now, they will be overwhelmingly competitive almost everywhere – especially throughout much of the global south where solar resources are abundant year-round. Today, SWB is growing exponentially worldwide, following the same s-curve pattern of disruption that technologies of all kinds have followed throughout history. For the incumbents, the end is nigh. The weakest link in the incumbent energy technology chain – namely, coal in the advanced industrial economies – has now snapped, and the rest of the conventional energy sector worldwide will follow suit over the next 15 years.
In transportation, the technologies are electric vehicles, autonomous driving, and ridesharing. These are rapidly becoming cheaper, more capable, and are now on the exponential portion of the disruption s-curve as well. Like the disruption of horses by cars a century ago, combustion engine vehicles that cannot drive themselves will be wiped out by autonomous electric vehicles (AEVs) over the course of just 15 years or so.
In food, the technologies are precision fermentation and cellular agriculture. These methods of making animal products without killing animals are vastly more efficient than conventional farming and fisheries. The first commercial products have just reached the market. Despite predictable skepticism, early products such as the Impossible Burger have proven hugely popular. Following the same pattern of disruption, these technologies are growing exponentially on their s-curve and will wipe out traditional animal products from livestock and seafood products over the next two decades.
Our research at RethinkX has analyzed each of these three sector disruptions in detail, as well as their combined implications for climate change. What we have found is that, together, these disruptions have the potential to reduce net emissions 90% by 2035, on target to going below zero before 2040 – if we make sensible decisions and choose to embrace and accelerate the adoption of these new technologies, rather than resist them to prop up the incumbent industries they threaten to wipe out.
All eight of the disruptive technologies we analyze exist today and are already being deployed to market. They are science fact, not science fiction. Contrary to what is widely believed, we don’t need billions of dollars and decades of additional R&D. We don’t need nuclear fusion or warp drive or other science fiction technologies to get out of this mess. We can slash ongoing emissions with these eight clean technologies, and then go a step further by using the cheap, clean, superabundant energy and machines they provide to withdraw carbon from the atmosphere and oceans affordably. These disruptions, therefore, open the door to a truly complete solution to climate change – they will let us go beyond just mitigation, to repair the damage our past emissions as well.
Moreover, these technologies will not be expensive. Disruptions happen because the new technologies are so much cheaper, and their overwhelming economic competitiveness drives their adoption as well as the abandonment of the older, more expensive (and in this case dirtier) technologies that can no longer compete. Indeed, once these technologies pass the tipping point of cost parity, we will save money by adopting them.
What we don’t need: ineffective and unaffordable tools
These same dynamics of disruption imply that technologies like nuclear power, hydropower, geothermal power, tidal power, and hydrogen energy storage will not play a significant role in decarbonizing the energy sector. They are simply too expensive and lack a realistic pathway to ever become cheap enough to compete with solar, wind, and batteries. If policymakers don’t get technologically literate, they could end up sinking trillions of dollars into inferior tools that simply aren’t effective, and don’t provide real solutions.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and hybrid vehicles, for instance, lack a realistic pathway to becoming economically competitive against battery electric vehicles. They will not play a significant role in decarbonizing the transportation sector. Likewise, for the food sector, Band-Aid solutions like feeding cows seaweed and teaching them to use lavatories to reduce methane emissions will simply be too expensive to compete with precision fermentation and cellular agriculture products that use 10 times less water, 10 times less material inputs, up to 100 times less land, and that can be produced 20 times faster.
Across all three sectors we now see the familiar historical pattern of incumbent industries scrambling to promote compromises and half-measures that would allow them to repurpose some of their assets and expertise, and avoid complete destruction. It is important that societies don’t fall for the often very slick and well-funded propaganda advocating for these alternative “solutions”.
Focus, deploy, and scale
We already have the better tools we need to solve climate change. Our task now is to focus on deploying and scaling these eight key technologies as rapidly as possible to accelerate the disruption of energy, transportation, and food. This is a responsibility we all share – as individuals, as industries, as entire nations. We can end the zero-sum tradeoff between humanity and nature and build a brighter future where both people and planet prosper, but there is no time to lose. We must start building it today, and we must build it together.