Can Technology Do What Climate Negotiations Can't?

Posted by Sarah Laskow

wind turbins
Negotiators finished up work in Durban, South Africa this weekend after the latest round of United Nations climate talks. They achieved more than most observers expected them to: The conference produced a platform that mapped out the next steps towards a global agreement to cut down greenhouse gas emissions.

But negotiators also gave the world some time to work on next steps. According to the platform, the new treaty doesn’t need to be completed until 2015 or take effect until 2020. That may be too late to prevent some nasty climate change impacts, and the Associated Press reported that “a bigger part of the solution may have to come from the rise of climate-friendly technologies being developed outside the U.N. process.”

On its face, that’s a simple idea, agreed on by most everyone who’s dedicated to mitigating climate change. But dig down, and the role of green technology starts looking a bit more complicated. What are “climate-friendly technologies,” exactly? The AP’s sources mention “solar light bulbs from reused plastic bottles,” “major water and energy conservation programs,” and “renewable energy sources like solar and wind power.” But a longer list could include less sunny solutions along with renewables and energy efficiency: biofuels, fuel-cell cars, natural gas, nuclear power, and carbon capture. A growing cadre of policy thinkers are also arguing that global governments should begin thinking about how they would deploy geoengineering technologies.

Although technologies like solar and wind have a role to play in decreasing carbon emissions, low-carbon energy sources won’t be able to reverse emissions trends on their own. Much of the carbon problem comes from the dirty energy sources the world currently depends on. Construction of new coal-fired power plants has slowed in the United States, but old plants are still chugging out carbon and countries like China and India are still building new coal-fired plants. Because of the resources invested in these facilities, they won’t stop operating for years after they’re built, and the world is nearing the point at which investors will have poured so much money into dirty energy that they’ll have locked in dangerously high emissions rates.

That means “climate-friendly technologies” will almost certainly include carbon-capture and sequestration, which can reduce the impacts of coal-fired plants. In Durban, negotiators decided that carbon-capture would qualify for funding under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism. Unlike renewables like wind and solar, carbon-capture technology isn’t ready to be deployed on a large scale. There are only a handful of carbon capture pilot projects around the world, and they’re not close to becoming economically viable.

Looking at the numbers involved in decreasing emissions enough to avoid catastrophic climate change—as Grist’s Dave Robert did recently—it's clear that no one solution can steer the world away from its current path. Green technologies, including those beyond solar and wind, will play a role. There will also be “climate-friendly technologies” that haven’t been invented yet. But technology won't be enough on its own; at some point, world leaders are going to have to step up too.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user http://www.uhi.ack.uk/ruralstudies