Do you want to save the earth? We need a lot more Elon Musks
By Thomas L. Friedman,
If I am brutally honest, there is only one motto I would give to the movement to stem climate change after the summit in Glasgow, Scotland: “Everyone wants to go to Heaven but no one wants to die.
On the one hand, liberal greens will tell you that the world ends – but that nuclear power, an abundant source of clean energy, should not be used to avoid it. On the other hand, conservative greens will tell you that the world ends, but that we cannot impose a carbon tax or a gasoline tax on people to slow global warming.
On the third hand, suburban greens will tell you the world is ending, but they don’t want wind turbines, solar farms, or high-speed rail lines in their backyards.
Fourth, most leaders today will tell you that the world ends, so in Glasgow, they all decided to take risks and hire the successor of their successors to deliver emission-free electricity by 2030, 2040 or 2050 – a date that does not require them to ask their citizens to do something painful today.
Also read: Lack of understanding of climate justice was the problem in Glasgow, according to Sunita Narain
That’s okay – not when you talk about reversing all the ways we’ve destabilized Earth systems, from ice caps and ocean currents to coral reefs and rainforests to the density of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s pretend.
The way we reacted to Covid-19 was serious, when we really felt like the global economy was coming to an end: we fought back with the only tools we have that are as big and powerful as Mother Nature – Father Profit and New Tech.
We’ve combined innovative biotech companies – like Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and a few small startups – with today’s massive computing power and a giant market demand signal, and what did we get? A little over a year after being first locked in by the virus, I had an effective mRNA vaccine against Covid-19 in my body – followed by a booster!
It was an incredible feat of biotechnology and computerized logistics to develop and deliver vaccines. And I hope the scientists, employees, and shareholders of these vaccine innovators make a lot of money – because it inspires others to apply a similar formula to stem climate change.
I have nothing against Glasgow. I admire these leaders who try to inspire the world to reduce CO2 emissions, preserve biodiversity and hold each other accountable. But we will not decarbonize the global economy with a plan of action with the lowest common denominator of 195 countries. Not possible.
We will only get there when Father Profit and the risk-taking entrepreneurs produce transformative technologies that will allow ordinary people to have extraordinary impacts on our climate without sacrificing too much – by simply being good consumers of these new technologies.
In short: we still need some Greta Thunbergs and a lot more Elon Musk. In other words, more risk-taking innovators converting basic science into tools yet to be imagined to protect the planet for an unborn generation.
The good news is, it happens. Two examples:
The first is Planet.com, which I briefly alluded to in last week’s Glasgow column. Founded in 2010 by three former San Francisco-based NASA scientists, Planet has some 200 orbiting earth imaging satellites, most the size of a loaf of bread, to observe the entire world land mass. every 24 hours in high resolution – to make the changes taking place on the ground “visible, accessible and actionable”. No government in the world has that capacity.
With these new tools of deep transparency, we can begin to reshape capitalism. For years, the rules and incentives of capitalism have allowed oil and coal companies to extract fossil fuels – and industries to use them – without paying the true cost of the damage they cause. It was easy to do because nature was difficult to assess; destruction was often difficult to see in real time; and consumers had no tools to react. They had to wait for the courts.
“Capitalism has produced enormous wealth, but in part because it has been able to treat nature as regenerating, hyper-abundant and free,” said Andrew Zolli, responsible for the impact of Planet.
It won’t be so easy anymore. Satellites “now allow us to put natural capital on the balance sheet of every business and every country”, so that they will not only take into account the profits and losses of your business, “but also all of your impacts” on the environment, Will Marshall, one of Planet’s three co-founders and its CEO, told me.
Read also: COP26: India proposes a strategy of “gradual reduction” of the use of coal
Planet’s satellites and AI, Marshall explained, can track a country’s trees, farmland, coral reefs, coastal mangroves and chimney emissions with incredible accuracy – down to 3 meters – and provide transparency to show which trees are illegally felled by whom and which factories are violating their carbon dioxide emission promises.
This data can then be used – in theory – to trigger consumer boycotts, disseminated via social media, against the government or the food or mining company doing the damage, or it can stimulate foreign aid or investment. in the country or community protecting its natural resources. .
For example, Planet, along with a group of scientific and philanthropic partners, helped create a detailed map – the Allen Coral Atlas – of all remaining coral reefs in the world. The Philippines is using data from the Seagrass Atlas to plan nine new marine protected areas across the country. At the same time, as part of a partnership paid for by Norway, Planet is monitoring deforestation in 64 tropical rainforest countries, including Brazil. Using Planet’s extreme precision, the Brazilian government has dramatically increased the number of cease and desist citations against illegal loggers, according to Planet’s Brazilian partner, MapBiomas.
More importantly, Marshall said, is how Planet’s business operations also help, for example, enable farmers to practice precision farming by giving them fine-grained images of their crops so they know exactly where to add. water and fertilizer or when to harvest. “It could have the biggest impact on the ecosystem of all,” he said. More efficient crop yields that use less water and less fertilizer end up “reducing the need to plow more rainforests and improve the environment in general”.
The other company I’m looking at is Helion Energy, based in Redmond, Washington, which is working on “the world’s first fusion power plant”. Fusion energy has long been the holy grail of clean energy production – and it still looks 20 years from now. As the International Atomic Energy Agency notes on its website: “The sun, like all other stars, is powered by a reaction called nuclear fusion. If nuclear fusion can be replicated on earth, it could provide virtually unlimited clean, safe and affordable energy. “
Last June, as the New Atlas website reported, Helion released results confirming that its latest system had successfully heated fusion plasma to a temperature above 100 million degrees Celsius, “which is significant, because this is roughly the point at which there is sufficient thermal energy. to create large amounts of fusion.
On November 5, in the heart of Glasgow, Helion, across the Atlantic in Redmond, announced that it had raised $ 500 million in new funding during a roundtable led by Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI and former president of Y Combinator, alongside a Who’s Who of technological entrepreneurs.
The current generation of the Helion system, Techcrunch.com reported, “wouldn’t be able to replace your Tesla Powerwall and solar panels – the size of a generator is roughly the size of a shipping container. But at 50 megawatts, the generators could power about 40,000 homes. As New Atlas pointed out, “Helion predicts that it will produce power at rock-bottom prices of around $ 10 per MWh … less than a third of the price of coal-fired electricity or facilities. solar photovoltaic systems today ”.
Is Helion THE Holy Grail? I do not know. There are other companies with promising approaches – like Commonwealth Fusion Systems – all working towards the same goal. I just know this: We got into this hole thanks to the worst of capitalism – letting corporations privatize their gains by robbing the environment and warming the climate – while socializing the losses among all of us.
We can get out, in part, by accelerating the best of American capitalism. We need to re-energize our innovation ecosystem where government funds basic research that pushes the boundaries of physics, chemistry and biology, and then combines that innovation with immigration policies that amass the best talent pools in engineering to the world, then unleash that talent – powered by risk takers – to invent new clean technologies to slow global warming at the speed and scale we need.