The climate crisis is a big, scary challenge. But people are working hard to deploy technologies and policies to pull carbon emissions out of our lives and curb the warming. At last week’s GeekWire Summit, we assembled a panel of experts to share their thoughts on how to tackle what has been called an “existential threat” to humanity.
The conversation explored the changes seen in the climate tech sector over the past decade, areas of promising innovation, and whether folks were feeling hopeful about our ability to forestall the worst of what climate change has to offer (spoiler: all three guests were optimistic).
Here are three takeaways from the panel, which included Brandon Middaugh, director of Microsoft’s $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund; Kevin Klustner, executive director of the University of Washington’s Center for Advanced Materials and Clean Energy Technologies, or CAMCET; and Emeka Anyanwu, energy innovation and resources officer for Seattle City Light.
Climate efforts center on equity
A hotter world with more extreme weather events is already causing more misery for Americans who are poorer and racial and ethnic minorities, than for those who are white and wealthier. Given that unequal impact, many efforts to confront climate change are making equity a key factor when looking at solutions.
At the UW, Klustner said that includes programs to attract a diverse student body into STEM courses and research opportunities in climate tech.
When Microsoft’s climate investment fund was established last year, Middaugh said, they set climate equity as one of four key considerations when evaluating where to spend their money.
At Seattle City Light, “one of the things we’ve really been focused on as we’ve talked about the future of energy, the future of utilities, has been trying to draw the benefits of the clean energy transition to communities that historically have been underserved,” Anyanwu said. So when it is developing clean transit improvements, for example, the utility is looking to more diverse neighborhoods for projects.
Microsoft’s defense of its carbon removal investments
Among the handful of early beneficiaries of Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund is the direct air capture startup Climeworks. This pioneering Swiss company pulls carbon from the air and will store it in a mineral form at its first commercial-scale plant in Iceland.
Erasing past emissions sounds terrific. Heat-trapping carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, making it difficult to reach the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But carbon capture has its critics. Some advocates for action worry that carbon-removal tech will give fossil fuel companies license to keep churning out CO2 rather than cutting new emissions.
Middaugh’s message was, in effect, let’s get real.
“We’ve recognized, the science has recognized, every credible economic model on how to reach a 1.5 degrees scenario has recognized that we need both,” Middaugh said. “We’re going to need to change the carbon reduction trajectory on some highly accelerated timelines. But then we’re also going to need to invest in a technological insurance policy as well.”
Another concern about carbon capture is the high price of each ton that’s removed. Middaugh said those economics are all the more reason for Microsoft to invest in innovations to lower the costs.
What can we learn from that other global crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic created a global crisis that required worldwide solutions. There are clear parallels with the climate crisis. So what did we learn from COVID that could be applied to climate?
Klustner zeroed in on vaccine development for his lessons learned. That experience, he said, demonstrated the urgent need to minimize political polarization around the issue as much as possible; the huge benefits of expediting the approval of successful new technologies; and the need to do better in addressing inequities, as the vaccines are still not widely available in many developing countries.
Middaugh said COVID revealed that it is possible to reduce carbon emissions, which occurred organically as the global economy slowed. With the help of tech innovations, we need to curb those emissions again, and much, much more. (A new report from the International Energy Agency concluded that the planet needs to triple its annual investment in clean energy projects and infrastructure to nearly $4 trillion by 2030, as reported by Axios).
“What [COVID] has really shown us is we can do hard things,” she said. “And that there’s nothing inevitable about a certain set of fossil [fuel] or incumbent technologies.”
Anyanwu also gleaned a message of hope.
“It is possible,” he said, “to imagine really a different future than the past.”