SSCP DTP student Oliver Schmidt argues that technological innovation is key to empowering individuals to act on climate change.
Some people argue that we already have all the technologies we need to ‘solve’ climate change, but the technological innovation driven by new funding initiatives still has a vital role to play. And what use is new technology without the ultimate motive for personal action – a product or service you absolutely must have.
One of many positive outcomes from the Paris Climate Summit last December was the launch of Mission Innovation, a commitment by 20 countries to invest in future energy solutions. Hot on their heels, 28 of the world’s wealthiest private investors announced their own initiative, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, channelling private investment into low-carbon technologies.
The combination of the right technologies and the right incentives can empower us to take individual action whilst ensuring that switching to low-carbon energy is simply a matter of common sense.
Imposing lifestyle changes is not the solution
Our current lifestyle is highly carbon-intensive, with each UK citizen responsible for 7.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year (according to worldbank data). The largest share comes from the supply of energy, followed by emissions from transportation, then businesses’ and residential heating. Agriculture also contributes a sizeable amount.
One intuitive approach to reducing these emissions is to appeal to individuals to make changes to their energy use and their dietary choices, such as cutting out meat or opting for locally produced food. In my opinion however, this approach will have limited success. It does not empower us to take positive action, instead dictating our contributions by restricting the range of individual choice. My concern is that the majority of people don’t consider ‘protecting our climate’ a suitable payoff in exchange for make these personal compromises.
Cheaper living through clean technology
A more powerful approach is to develop new low-carbon alternatives to conventional technologies that are cheaper to buy, more efficient to run and more ‘sexy’ than what you already have. This will open new pathways enabling us to take individual action against climate change by directly linking it to something we already desire. Examples include electric cars that are clean, fun to drive and could come in any size, or better home insulation, and low-carbon power, which would enable you to save money whilst reducing your carbon footprint. You can’t help but want them!
The power of simplicity
On a larger scale, technology is turning the tide against fossil fuels. The installed capacity of renewables in the UK has doubled in the last three years, because we realise that these clean technologies potentially produce energy much more cheaply than conventional plants. By focussing on power generation technologies, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs have created not only clean, but inherently simple technologies. Without the need to mine, transport and burn resources, but simply move a turbine through the power of the wind or create an electric current through the sun directly, renewable energy technologies are destined to be cheaper.
How storage can link up existing energy networks
In fact, the deployment of renewables is so rapid that the changes challenge our existing energy infrastructure. Consequently, the next logical step is to guide our innovative thinking towards upgrading our energy system, with technologies that make it possible to reach 100% renewable power generation. This should be a major focus for Mission Innovation and The Breakthrough Coalition.
These technologies include highly efficient interconnection, demand response and energy storage. The first two technologies optimise operation at the power system level, and energy storage is essential to evenly distribute the variable outputs from some renewable energy technologies. But an energy storage system can have an even wider impact: It is key to decarbonising our whole energy industry by linking the power, gas and heat network and enabling us to meet our energy and transport needs more efficiently (see our recent energy storage infographic outlining the key storage technologies).
Energy storage could even open new ways for individuals to take action against climate change. For example, renewable energy stored in gaseous form can be used for transportation in fuel-cell and CNG cars, as well as in boiler-heating and stove-cooking and industrial processes. Additional pathways exist for energy stored as heat. By developing our future energy storage technologies as part of an interconnected energy system, we can not only enable 100% renewable power generation, but also improve the integration of our energy system and enable significant synergy effects.
By boosting investment, initiatives like Mission Innovation and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition will invigorate research and accelerate the deployment of clean technologies. When the right combination of innovations prove successful, and desirable, we will all be racing to reduce our carbon emissions as individuals and as a society.
If this vision comes true, then COP21 will have not only been a success on the international level, but also had a direct impact in enabling each of us to take individual action against climate change.