Newsletter: Banking on technologies that we don’t yet have”

Something to keep in mind while processing the comments from Climate Envoy John Kerry that kicked up a ruckus over the weekend.
By Julian Spector

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(World Economic Forum/CC)

People knew about climate change in the 80s, but it took another few decades for the global community to get serious about eliminating carbon emissions.

One major change in the intervening period was the arrival of extremely cheap wind, solar and battery technologies. Critics still claim that a shift to clean energy will drive up prices, but across the U.S. at least, it’s now almost always cheaper to build new renewables than to keep existing coal plants running.

That’s something to keep in mind while processing the comments from Climate Envoy John Kerry that kicked up a ruckus over the weekend. 

In an interview with the BBC, Kerry suggested that in order to reach net-zero carbon emissions by midcentury, 50 percent of those [carbon] reductions are going to come from technologies that we don’t yet have.”

Here’s the clip from The Andrew Marr Show. Journalist Emily Atkin also has a transcription of the full interview in Monday’s Heated newsletter.

Kerry’s phrasing suggests a considerable reliance on things that aren’t currently available to keep global warming in relatively livable territory. The Guardian then paraphrased the quote as referring to technologies that have not yet been invented.”

Activist Greta Thunberg, and others, hammered that line of thinking:

Climate activists have good reason to worry about government officials delaying action pending a breakthrough technological fix. Given how carbon accumulates in the atmosphere, waiting to cut emissions locks in more warming. This tension manifests in occasional wonky debates about deployment” versus innovation,” and whether to put money into the imperfect but tangible tools we have now or invest in R&D for next-generation advances.

But Kerry was not arguing for delay until new technologies materialize. A moment after the technologies we don’t yet have” line, he makes this explicit:

We’re going to put every effort we have into making this transition happen as fast as possible. And I’m not going to join the pessimists who think we are sitting around waiting for some new technology.

We have a lot of technologies to deploy right now. But all of them can be improved upon, to make better versions that don’t yet exist.

By the 1980s, solar panels had been around for years, but solar panels that generated cheaper power than existing coal plants would have counted as technologies we don’t yet have.”

If you saw Canary Media’s video about the solar- and hydrogen-powered ship circumnavigating the world, it’s clear that carbon-free shipping technology exists today. But cost-effective, clean propulsion for commercial shipping is something we don’t yet have.

It’s also the case that plenty of people don’t recognize just how competitive clean energy technologies are today. That’s why Canary Media’s latest reporting covers things like:

But we also carve out room in the coverage for up-and-coming things, like direct air carbon capture and sequestration, which Jeff St. John profiled Monday.

Scientists know of various technically feasible ways to do this, but, as one expert told Jeff, It’s expensive and…very energy-intensive, and some of the product processes are very water-intensive.” Mitsubishi is looking to aggregate investors for up to $800 million worth of carbon removal credits via a portfolio of techniques, to fund their commercialization.

Kerry may have learned a lesson about choosing words carefully and citing more specific sources than the generic scientists.” But his comments won’t slow the pace of installation for the technologies that compete today, even as others polish tools they’ve invented to get ready for mass adoption later.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.