Exploring the world of climate tech

Tackling the climate crisis will require political will, social changes, and advancements in technology.

Exploring the world of climate tech

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We humans have had to navigate many layers of terrible sh*t this past year. We've become all too familiar with safety precautions and restricted to our own local map. Fortunate remote workers have had ample time to reflect on personal goals, the state of the world, and their place in it.

For me, it's presented an opportunity to revisit my longtime interest in sustainability. To date, my personal climate journey has been rife with guilt and anxiety. Now, I'm taking a more proactive approach and finally have a few skills I hope might help in a meaningful way.

"Humans are terrible for the environment!" - Recyclops

I've spent a few hours a week educating myself about the climate crisis and the path to a better world. I often write to distill my thoughts, and figured I'd share what I've learned so far.

The status quo

First off, a quick summary of where we stand (brace yourself):

  • The years of 2015-2021 have been the 6 hottest on record. We've seen more extreme weather, natural disasters, and habitat loss amid increasing emissions.
  • Despite the celebrated return of the US to the Paris Agreement, its goals remain woefully inadequate. The authors knew this crisis required far more ambitious action, but took a bold first step in 2015.
  • The climate crisis is inherently unjust for developing nations and low-income BIPOC communities. It's also inter-generational – every delay will rob disenfranchised youth of clean air, potable water and stable livelihoods. By the 2100, the climate crisis could cause as many deaths every year as we've seen from Covid-19 – that's 2.5 million. Yeah, it could be that bad.
Source: https://techcrunch.com/2019/02/15/how-to-decarbonize-america-and-the-world/
  • Climate tipping points are near – from dried up rainforests to melting permafrost. The most probable accelerants are thought to be in our oceans.
  • While there are multiple warmer world scenarios, expert climate predictions are dire. Global temperatures could increase by 3°C, leading to uninhabitable regions and a sixth mass extinction.
  • Yes, the pandemic has had a silver lining for the climate: a temporary 7% emissions reduction in 2020. But here's the kicker: we need to reduce them by another 7.6% every year this decade to get on a path to net zero emissions by 2050.

Not all is lost! There are reasons to be hopeful, and optimism is the only path forward. This is the way.

The goal

There's still hope to turn the planet around if we can take drastic, ambitious actions this decade:

  • To avoid the worst case scenario, humanity needs to the limit global temperature increase to 1.5°C.
  • To do this, we need to both slash emissions and remove carbon that's already in the atmosphere. I found this mental model from Stripe quite helpful.
The path to net zero emissions and a healthy planet (Source: stripe.com/climate).
  • The primary imperative is to divest from fossil fuels. We need action from everyday people, lawmakers, companies, banks and investors. The fossil fuel industry stands firm in politics and received huge Covid-19 bailouts. Big oil is resilient, making policy a massive battleground in the climate fight.

The climate crisis is a collective action problem. We'll need leadership at all levels and an accurate social cost of carbon to drive progress.

The role of innovation

The climate crisis requires political will, social changes, and advancements in technology. Given my interest in tech, I've drilled in on the last part. Here's what I've learned:

  • Much of the technology we need to decarbonize energy generation already exists. Solar is now more cost effective than coal, and wind can be a strong complement with a resilient grid. We need the right incentives to reduce costs, encourage investment, and scale deployment.
Solar has turned a corner, transforming the landscape of energy generation.
  • Energy storage will be an essential part of the shift to renewables. We need more storage in more places to overcome intermittency. Advanced batteries and ventures like Antora Energy and Terrament are exploring novel formats.
  • Transportation is another crucial front. We need to shift to electric systems, improve mass transit, and create livable cities.
  • Food, agriculture and land use need drastic change – we must protect habitats and do a lot more with a lot less land. We've degraded most arable land, and soil health is crucial. Consumer behavior can help, but real impact will only come at an agro-industrial scale.
  • Carbon removal will need to be part of the solution. Offsets are growing popular, but controversial due to issues in verifiability, accuracy and on-the-ground reality. Other strategies include nature-based (forests, kelp) and industrial (air mining, cement) solutions that sequester greenhouse gases.
Source: https://globalecoguy.org/we-need-to-see-the-whole-board-to-stop-climate-change-98be66412281
Climate startups face many challenges. Source: RMI
  • Investors can spur growth with faster due diligence methods and extended time horizons on their ROI. There are many lessons learned from Cleantech 1.0. The VC community may be best suited to take risks on moonshot projects in areas like nuclear, hydrogen, and geo-engineering (see the Diamond List and Climatescape for great lists).
  • Enterprise businesses are part of the equation, but commitments must be earnest. Greenwashing is rampant, as "sustainable" and "carbon neutral" can actually mask high footprints. Organizations should aim for "net zero" with a long, hard look at their emissions, product lifecycles, and supply chains (see Watershed and Patch). Big companies can even become early adopters of new tech (see Stripe Climate).

There are many fronts to this battle, and we need to "see the whole chess board." For example:

  • Creating accessible healthcare and education for young women – an important goal in its own right – could have a huge impact on climate.
  • Elevating Black and brown voices could drive a just transition and protect livelihoods in vulnerable communities (see Intersectional Environmentalist).
  • Advocating for Indigenous people could finally address centuries of harm and protect land that is home to 80% of the planet's biodiversity.

Technology based on science and dedicated to sincere inclusion can aid these efforts.

We need to explore many solutions and create incentives that help them scale. And of course, talented people need to join the fight (see Terra.do, Climate Corps, OnDeck Climate). There are many courses, fellowships and programs working to build this workforce – I'm starting one myself next week.

To go far, we must go together. I have much to change in my personal life and far more to learn. Everyone has a role to play. If you are on your own climate journey, I'd love to chat.