This year the world received a series of warning shots. July was the hottest month ever recorded and heat records were broken across the globe from Death Valley in America to Tunis in North Africa and Sanbao in China.
Between January and September, the global mean temperature was 1.40C higher than the pre-industrial average. Global temperatures are shaping up to be the hottest on record. Researchers now say there’s a 66 per cent chance we will pass the 1.5C global warming threshold by 2027.
The significance cannot be understated. The 1.5C rise, ratified in The Paris Agreement, is a legally binding international treaty adopted at the UN Climate Change Conference in December 2015. Its goal is to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Crossing that threshold risks unleashing more frequent and severe droughts, heatwaves and rainfall. To hit the target, greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2025 and decline 43 per cent by 2030.
According to the statistics, we are not doing well. This year in Europe, September was the warmest on record at 2.51°C higher than the 1991-2020 average, and 1.1°C higher than 2020, the previous warmest September. While in the UAE the hottest temperature was recorded in July this year when temperatures reached 50°C.
Thankfully, while manmade climate change is a significant factor in these figures, there are extenuating circumstances.
The El Nino weather event,which is occurring in the Pacific, is a key driver of this year’s heat spikes. For this reason, scientists have stressed that if the world passes the 1.5C limit, it will likely be temporary.
But complacency is not an option because, according to a new study, if we continue to use fossil fuels at the current rate, we will breach the limit sometime in early 2029.
Future Technologies Now
There’s no doubt that humans are in a race against time to mitigate the worst impacts of what’s coming but there are technologies being developed to help solve the climate crisis challenge, and stop these extreme weather events from happening. And there is some good news on the horizon.
Thankfully, the speed of decarbonisation is increasing. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that 2023 will see the largest addition of wind and solar energy to global energy generation, with 440 extra gigawatts added. This is ten times the total power generation capacity of the UAE.
Indeed, by 2026, global renewable electricity capacity is forecast to rise more than 60 per cent from 2020 levels to over 4,800 GW – equivalent to the current total global power capacity of fossil fuels and nuclear combined. Renewables are set to account for almost 95 per cent of the increase in global power capacity through 2026, with solar alone providing more than half.
The sale of electric vehicles is also turbo charged. They accounted for around a fifth of all new cars sold in 2023 and in China make up 60 per cent of the cars on the road. If the pattern continues some estimate that global fossil fuel emissions will peak in 2025.
This pace of change would not be possible without new and emerging technologies which have been shared between nations to meet the common goal of combating climate change. The importance of technological exchange was recognised as far back as 1992 when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established.
It included specific provisions for technologies in its original text. Subsequent agreements have continued to enshrine the importance of the transference of technology.
While the design and efficiency of common sustainable technologies such as wind turbines and photovoltaics (solar cells which convert sunlight to electricity) are improving all the time, more technology will be needed to keep to the 1.5C limit.
One of the most important technologies will be carbon capture and storage (CCS). Last year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC ) noted that even with significant emissions reductions we will still need to remove up to one trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over this century.
In power plants and industrial facilities CCS technologies can stop up to 90 percent of carbon emissions reaching the atmosphere. Currently there are only 30 commercial-scale carbon capture projects operating around the world with 11 more under construction. This isn’t enough, but as more targets are placed on industry, more units will be developed. Presently there are 153 in different stages of development. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, carbon capture could achieve 14 per cent of the global greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed by 2050.
Industry is not the only guilty party when it comes to carbon emissions. Modern agricultural practices are equally as damaging. Farmers are using a range of new technologies to lessen the impact. Vertical indoor farms minimise pollution with controlled growing environments which reduce the footprint of farms and so can prevent deforestation, soil erosion and resource depletion, while rainwater harvesting systems help optimise water supply.
Agriculture also accounts for roughly two-thirds of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas more harmful than CO2. Much of this is produced by cows as they digest food. Efforts are underway to find solutions to this problem. One project has discovered that adding red seaweed as a supplement to cattle feed reduces methane emissions by 80 per cent. Beef protein could also eventually be replaced entirely by protein-rich insects, such as mealworms, which can be farmed without the demands on land or water.
The humble battery can easily be overlooked when it comes to climate saviours. In addition to their vital role in electric vehicles, batteries also solve one of the fundamental inconveniences of renewable energy. Often wind and solar power are not needed at the time they are generated. Batteries allow that energy to be stored.
One of the challenges of making renewable electricity more efficient is storing it. Electric car company Tesla has already developed the Powerwall, a modular home rechargeable lithium-ion battery designed to store electricity from solar panels for when its needed. Lithium-ion batteries are not perfect, however. They contain a cocktail of polluting compounds and can overheat. Next-generation batteries including sodium ion, multivalent-ion, redox flow, solid-state, metal-sulphur and metal-air promise to be cheaper and have substantially higher energy densities.
Arguably the most divisive new technology since the internet, artificial intelligence will either save us all or destroy us, depending on who you follow on social media. Undeniably, in the right hands, it can be a force for good, helping us solve problems with deep learning algorithms.
It is already used in a range of climate projects. Climate TRACE, for example, is a Google-funded global non-profit coalition which identifies and maps greenhouse gas emissions using AI and machine learning which analyses data from over 300 satellites, more than 11,000 air, land and sea-based sensors. Google has also developed the Flood Hub alert system which uses machine learning technology to warn people in flood plains when there is a threat to life or property.
Possibly the most significant technology in the battle against global warming, nuclear fusion, if it can be commercially developed, promises limitless, safe, cheap, green energy. It is estimated that by 2050, fusion power plants could replace all the energy generated through fossil fuels.
Nuclear fusion occurs when lighter atoms collide and fuse together, releasing vast amounts of energy. It is the opposite of nuclear fission, which is generated when heavy atoms split into lighter ones. It creates tiny amounts of harmless waste and commercial fusion reactors run on tiny amounts of hydrogen. They can be switched off in an instant and are much safer than fission reactors. The only problem is, currently they are only theoretical. But the dream is getting closer to reality.
The international community is currently united in the development of this potentially world-saving technology with governments around the world investing billions in fusion technology, in part through a $20bn project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). This will be the world’s most expensive science experiment, and, it is hoped, the world’s first commercial scale fusion machine. It is based in Provence, France and scheduled for completion in 2025.
Widespread fusion power is still decades away and there are many hurdles to overcome and problems to solve, but the concerted effort to bring this wonderfuel tech online for the masses shows what can be achieved when the world shares resources and knowledge and unites behind a common cause.