How can technology help tackle climate change? It’s something we’ve been asking ourselves for a while now, and it came up again during strategic talks between the US and China earlier this month. In his opening remarks, US Secretary of State John Kerry summed up the issue: “How will we pioneer new energy technology that is in fact the solution to climate change?”
There is some cause for hope: advances in nanotechnology mean we can build faster, high-energy-density batteries and lighter, stronger materials for more energy-efficient transportation. From graphene-based solar cells to nanomaterials for hydrogen production, exciting new technologies are helping us to produce more and more clean energy. Thanks to these breakthroughs, we have reasons to be optimistic.
However, these technologies are still far from ready to be implemented on a large scale. Significant challenges remain, from prohibitive production costs to big scale-up challenges as well as difficulties in transporting and storing energy efficiently. In addition, the use of strategic minerals and other non-renewable materials will only move us from our current addiction to oil to a new dependence on other natural resources.
Even if all the technology problems were solved, we still face other major challenges. For new technologies to move from the laboratory to the marketplace, the right entrepreneurial conditions are needed. In many cases, the most fascinating discoveries in the clean energy space are taking place in academia, where there are limited opportunities for commercialization. Even if inventors would like to commercialize their technology, venture capitalists are not attracted to large-scale long-term investments that have a low probability of success, especially after some notorious recent failures in the clean energy sector. Constant changes in regulation and government incentives have not helped, causing many companies to fail and raising the entry barriers for new firms.
Global issues require international collaboration to move from rhetoric to impact. The looming trade war between China and Europe is a good example of how short-sighted policies are jeopardizing the future of clean energy. The EU accuses China of undercutting the market by selling billions of euros worth of solar panels below their production cost, and in return, Europe is blamed for unnecessary tariffs.
There are, however, some more encouraging signs. Last week, the US and China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, agreed to establish “Solar Decathlon China”, a collaboration between the US Department of Energy and the Chinese government aimed at fostering sustainable economic and social development. Just a month ago, during the visit of the Chinese president to the US, President Obama and President Xi agreed to phase down the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a potent greenhouse gas.
To make real progress, we have to start seeing more of these encouraging signs. Global cooperation and strong leadership are needed more than ever before. We need to support R&D for cleaner energy technologies, avoid shortcuts such as dumping or artificial barriers like tariffs and create the right conditions to allow new energy companies to be founded and grow. Doing so will provide creative and effective ways of limiting CO2 emissions.
Read the Top 10 emerging technologies for 2013 here.
Image: A prototype sun tracking solar panel collects energy from its location at University of California, San Diego REUTERS/Sam Mircovich