Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Despite increasing global consensus about the urgency of reducing emissions since the 1980s, they continue to rise relentlessly. We look to technology to deliver us from climate change, preferably without sacrificing economic growth. Our optimistic--some would say techno-utopian--visions of the future involve vast arrays of solar panels, machines that suck carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere, and replacing fossil fuels for transport and heating with electricity generated by renewable means. This is nothing less than rebuilding our civilization on stable, sustainable foundations.
Our planet is a mess. The past four years have been the four hottest on record, and July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded. Greenland is expected to lose 440 billion tons of ice this year, a rate that was the "worst-case scenario" for 2070. The West is on fire, the middle of the country is flooded, and the Atlantic is seeing hurricanes of increasing frequency and intensity. In Alaska, salmon are dying because of the heat. All the while, the top 5 US oil and gas companies posted revenues over $760 billion (1), and the federal government subsidized the industry to the tune of $26 billion annually (2). Climate change is an existential threat, and we need to recognize that we're already living through the negative effects. The increase in natural disasters is costing us hundreds of billions of dollars, and the total cost of climate change will run into the trillions while taking an untold number of lives. And the people who are most affected by these impacts of climate change are the least able to deal with it – economically disadvantaged and minority communities face a disproportionate burden. The right time to deal with this crisis was decades ago. We've waited too long, so we need to act fast and recognize that all options need to be on the table in order to adapt to the changed world we live in while mitigating behaviors that make it worse and reversing the damage we've already done. We can't dismiss any ideas – especially not those that have support from the scientific community – or rule anything out because it doesn't fit our ideological framework. Why have we so far barely made a dent in what we need to do in order to combat this crisis? When 78% of our fellow Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, it's hard to mobilize people to care about the massive problem of climate change. Many think, "I can't pay my bills. The penguins will have to wait." It's impossible to think about the future if you can't feed your kids today. We need to get the economic boot off of the throats of our fellow Americans so everyone can get their heads up and start facing this threat head-on. We need to bring the full force of America to bear on this problem, or we will fail, and the world will suffer.
"I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act on changing the climate"– Greta Thunberg Greta Thunberg is a 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, who is famously called as a climate change warrior. She has started an international youth movement against climate change and has been nominated as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize 2019 for climate activism. According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel (IPCC), climate change is seen as the top global threat by many countries.
Plants that grow in the ground make all their carbon-based infrastructure from carbon dioxide (CO2). By contrast, plants built by chemists use petroleum and natural gas as their carbon feedstock. In a review, De Luna et al. explore the prospective challenges and opportunities for manufacturing commodity chemicals such as ethylene and alcohols by direct electrochemical reduction of CO2. They estimate that production costs would be competitive with fossil technologies if renewable electricity costs drop below 4 cents per kilowatt-hour and electrical-to-chemical conversion efficiencies reach 60%. As the world continues to transition toward carbon emissions–free energy technologies, there remains a need to also reduce the carbon emissions of the chemical production industry. Today many of the world's chemicals are produced from fossil fuel–derived feedstocks. Electrochemical conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) into chemical feedstocks offers a way to turn waste emissions into valuable products, closing the carbon loop. When coupled to renewable sources of electricity, these products can be made with a net negative carbon emissions footprint, helping to sequester CO2 into usable goods. Research and development into electrocatalytic materials for CO2 reduction has intensified in recent years, with advances in selectivity, efficiency, and reaction rate progressing toward practical implementation. A variety of chemical products can be made from CO2, such as alcohols, oxygenates, synthesis gas (syngas), and olefins--staples in the global chemical industry. Because these products are produced at substantial scale, a switch to renewably powered production could result in a substantial carbon emissions reduction impact. The advancement of electrochemical technology to convert electrons generated from renewable power into stable chemical form also represents one avenue to long-term (e.g., seasonal) storage of energy. The science of electrocatalytic CO2 reduction continues to progress, with priority given to the need to pinpoint more accurately the targets for practical application, the economics of chemical products, and barriers to market entry.
In a 2017 article for Foreign Affairs, Kassia Yanosek and I advanced the hypothesis that the biggest impacts of the information technology (IT) revolution may be felt far outside IT--in the traditional industries of oil, gas, and electricity.1 That's because IT was transforming how those industries function. That logic of transformation may be especially profound when looking at a subset of the IT revolution: artificial intelligence (AI). Other essays in this series explain what's happening with AI and why it is such an important technical revolution.2 In this essay, I'll look at how AI might be affecting the supply and demand for energy and the implications of AI for how modern society uses energy: climate change. In a nutshell, the message is that AI helps make markets more efficient and easier for analysts and market participants to understand highly complex phenomena--from the behavior of electrical power grids to climate change.