The year ahead: Can it be tech to the rescue?

Updated on Dec 31, 2022 06:01 PM IST

Breakthroughs in nuclear fusion and CO2 conversion could revolutionise the power sector, but this could take a few decades. New approaches to food production are welcome. As the climate crisis intensifies, now amid the Russian war in Ukraine, this will be a crucial year for talks

The year 2022 was a period of record-breaking heat, precipitation and forest fires around the world (Getty Images/Representative use)
The year 2022 was a period of record-breaking heat, precipitation and forest fires around the world (Getty Images/Representative use)

What does a climate reality check look like?

Does it look the like floods that drowned nearly a third of Pakistan, leaving 1,700 dead?

Or like the waves and waves of heat that brought record-breaking temperatures across the usually insulated Global North?

Perhaps it looks like the uncovered dinosaur tracks in a dried-up Texas river.

It almost certainly looks like the 8,000-word Nature study that details how an Antarctic glacier -- Thwaites – is melting much faster than thought. Called the Doomsday Glacier, Thwaites is roughly the size of Great Britain and if it collapsed, it could lead to sea-level rise of 3 ft to 10 ft.

The year 2022 was a period of record-breaking heat, precipitation and forest fires around the world, delivering the strongest of reality checks on the climate crisis for any single year.

But perhaps what was the most worrying of all was the evidence of how fragile the world’s resolve is to take collective action. Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine in February set off a chain of events that, by September, directly led to many coal-fired power plants coming back online.

Two months later, at the annual UN Climate Change Conference, unprecedented rifts between rich and poor nations came to light. As poorer countries pressed for the financing that rich countries had promised, the latter hit back, holding up negotiations with the insistence that all countries do more to limit global warning. The stance essentially went against the principle of equity: it is far more expensive for poorer nations to take the steps that would lead to the same reductions in greenhouse gases as their wealthier counterparts, who have caused the bulk of the damage so far.

The plenary eventually ended with an in-principle decision to create a new Loss and Damage Fund to compensate poor countries for the climate harms they suffer. But conspicuous by its absence was any agreement on “implementation” – how previous agreements to limit average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels will be met. (Incidentally, average temperatures in 2023 are expected to be 1.2 degrees higher than the benchmark 1850 levels.)

It’s a key year for talks…

This will be the Global North’s first full winter after Russia began its war in Ukraine. With natural gas pipelines from Moscow closed off, energy prices have skyrocketed and the damage to state and household finances, particularly in Europe, will likely alter political landscapes and determine how these countries’ representatives negotiate over climate action in 2023.

Significant to watch will be the high-profile Loss and Damage Fund discussions. Negotiators from the Global North have indicated that they expect countries such as China and India to contribute significantly to this pool of money. Both countries are expected to resist since they are both still developing economies.

… energy

According to estimates, 80% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy and food sectors, with energy accounting for most of it. Clean, renewable energy still has a far lower share than conventional sources based on fossil fuels.

The year 2022 offered a faint, but important, glimmer of hope. American scientists said in December that they were able to generate more energy from a nuclear fusion reaction than was put into it. Nuclear fusion is the phenomenon that releases energy from the sun and the stars. It produces no greenhouse gases or radioactive byproduct. Scientists estimate that 1 gm of fusion fuel could produce as much energy as a tonne of coal, and the raw materials for this kind of energy (heavy isotopes of hydrogen) are abundant.

But there is an important caveat. The entire setup consumed many times more energy than the fusion reaction produced. Most of this energy was used to power the lasers that triggered the reaction.

It will likely be decades before fusion reactors are powering neighbourhoods, but this could be the moment that changes the power industry, in much the same way that travel was altered forever when the Wright Brothers first flew, for 12 seconds, in 1903.

… emissions

Even with clean energy, the world would need to find ways to recapture greenhouse gases that have already been spewed into the atmosphere. Here too, a major breakthrough has been made. In September, scientists from University of Illinois Chicago published research in the journal Cell showing how they turned carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouses gases, into ethylene, which is used to make plastic products and chemicals. The process converted 6 metric tonnes of CO2 into 1 metric tonne of ethylene. This is the first time that 100% of the carbon dioxide derived for use has been captured and converted into another form.

…and food

Agriculture and forestry, including the farming of vegetables and livestock, accounts for close to 16% of all greenhouse gases. This has sparked a race, in recent years, to find more sustainable foods. Two alternatives working their way into the mainstream are vegan / plant-based / alt meats and faux meats grown in a lab.

Other approaches are also being tried. British environmental activist George Monbiot, for instance, writes in his 2022 book Regenesis about a farm-free food production vision that would rely on bacteria to produce carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins. The technology Monbiot speaks of is being explored by Finland-based Solar Foods, which soon plans to seek approval for its first product made by bacteria, a powder called Solein.

These ideas are not without their weaknesses. For one thing, the nutritional and human health implications of eating laboratory-derived foods are not yet clear. One thing that is clear: the sector is ripe for innovation at scale.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Binayak reports on information security, privacy and scientific research in health and environment with explanatory pieces. He also edits the news sections of the newspaper.

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