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Clean Tech Progresses

Ben Geman and Andrew Freedman Axios

A lot of mature technology already in use can reduce the impact of climate change — but to really hold global warming in check, experts say we need breakthroughs too.

Why it matters: The world is nowhere close to achieving — or even starting — the emissions cuts needed to keep the Paris Agreement's temperature targets within reach.

To get there, today's technologies, such as renewable energy sources and electric vehicles, will have to be deployed faster. But it will also take investment in tech that's close to being deployed at scale in some cases, but nowhere near it in others.

In other words, the glass on climate-saving tech looks half full if you squint right — but half full isn't enough.

The big picture: The technologies that cut carbon emissions from electricity, transportation, heavy industry and farming can be viewed on a spectrum.

On one end are established and increasingly mainstream systems like solar, wind, heat pumps and electric cars that are gaining market share.

The good news is that renewables are economically competitive now. Right now, EVs are typically more expensive than gas-powered cars. But battery costs are on a downward march, and many EVs are already cheaper than internal-combustion models on a lifetime fuel cost basis.

Then, in the middle, there's a wide swath of technologies that are well known but require varying degrees of advances on cost and scale, such as carbon capture, "green" hydrogen, long-duration battery storage and cleaner aviation fuels.

And on the other end are new, unproven systems that, if deployed at scale, could make a major dent in greenhouse gas emissions or be used to bring countries closer to their net zero goals.

Think, for instance, of "direct air capture" and other methods of hastening removal of CO2 that's already in the atmosphere — as opposed to carbon capture, which blocks the CO2 from entering the atmosphere in the first place.

By the numbers: According to an International Energy Agency analysis of what's needed to reach net zero emissions by 2050:

Roughly 80% of the emissions cuts needed through 2030 would come from technologies already on the market, but stronger policies and investment are needed to speed up adoption, the analysis finds.

But nearly half (46%) of the cuts that would be needed in 2050 are from technologies that are at the demonstration or prototype phase.

"In heavy industry and long distance transport, the share of emissions reductions from technologies that are still under development today is even higher," the IEA notes.

Between the lines: Expert groups have sketched out various scenarios for which technologies will be most important to achieve the 2050 goal.

For example, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) foresees a greater role for carbon dioxide removal methods.

The common thread, however, is that technologies under development today could soon become a linchpin of our strategy to hold global warming below potentially catastrophic levels.

Also, no single technological breakthrough will save us from global warming's effects.

What they're saying: Stanford energy expert Arun Majumdar tells Axios he's an optimist on the progression of climate tech that's not yet at commercial scale, though he also offered some caveats.

He said the progress on solar, wind and batteries has been "fantastic," but "that took 30 years. The only thing is that we cannot wait for 30 more years. And so the question is, can we accelerate some of the innovations going on?"

Majumdar listed some of the many outstanding needs, such as decarbonizing heavy industries like cement and steel. Others include greatly cutting costs for long-duration energy storage on power grids, as well as coming up with ways to tackle atmospheric methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

"We need to figure out a way to remove methane from the atmosphere. That's an R&D problem that I think we should pay attention to," said Majumdar.

What we're watching: the progression of policies and investment worldwide.

The U.S. has a basket of policies to accelerate the use of existing tech, bring less mature systems to scale, and boost R&D and demonstration of systems that are still in early development.

The new climate law provides an unprecedented level of new or expanded tax incentives for renewables, EVs, carbon capture, energy efficiency upgrades, energy storage, "clean" hydrogen and more.

$270 billion of the law's $369 billion in climate spending comes via tax incentives, per the Treasury Department.

Elsewhere, the bipartisan infrastructure law steers over $21 billion into demonstration projects for advanced nuclear, long-duration storage, industrial decarbonization and more.

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