Closing the loop on climate innovation

Dec. 2, 2021
Feedback mechanisms will play a central role in optimizing our investments.

Smart Industry's Keith Larson

By Keith Larson, Smart Industry editor at large

Even as society struggles to combat COVID-19, policymakers, together with a growing number of companies, non-profits and philanthropists, are turning their attention—and their pocketbooks—to an even greater existential threat: man-made climate change. Increasingly, across the globe, the ambitious goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 has become a rallying cry.

But getting there so quickly will require significant progress in bringing the next generation of carbon neutral—or negative—technologies to market. Current technologies such as solar, wind and lithium-ion batteries took decades to become economically competitive with fossil-fuel alternatives, so there’s a clear need today to guide our collective investments more quickly toward those solutions that promise the biggest bang for the buck.

In this optimization problem, cash is the input to be spread across multiple investment alternatives, and net carbon is the objective function to be minimized.

One of the organizations aiming to help close this optimization loop is Breakthrough Energy, established in 2015 by Bill Gates and a coalition of private investors concerned about the impacts of accelerating climate change. The group’s stated mission is to “encourage development of new net-zero energy technologies, champion policies that speed innovation from lab to market, and bring together governments, research institutions, private companies and investors to expand and enhance clean-energy investment.”

Among other initiatives, the group has launched Catalyst, a program that will make targeted investments in clean technology projects to significantly decrease the price of new clean products, increase their availability in the market, and demonstrate how to finance the infrastructure of decarbonization at scale. Their first efforts will focus on four particularly promising technologies in need of significant investment and development: direct air capture (of carbon from air), green hydrogen, long-duration energy storage and sustainable aviation fuel.

In addition to guiding the large capital investments needed to bring down the costs of these emerging technologies, they’ll also help equalize demand for clean products by buying down the “green premium” incurred by products en route to commercial viability.

In keeping with the control analogy, they’ve also worked with CDP (a not-for-profit charity that runs a global disclosure system to measure and manage environmental impacts on behalf of other organizations) to create the Catalyzed Emissions Reduction Framework (CERF). This tool supplies a certified measure of the carbon-reduction effect of investments to individuals, companies, cities, states and regions, so they have immediate, quantified feedback on the positive effects of their investments that can then be communicated to interested stakeholders.

“It will help quantify how a company’s investments contribute to overall emission-reduction needs, and help leaders explain to their investors and customers what they’re doing to decarbonize their business models,” according to the CDP website.

The four emerging technologies targeted by Breakthrough Energy, as well as the main sources of today’s global greenhouse gas emissions—manufacturing, agriculture, transportation and buildings—are all under the influence of Smart Industry’s readership, the industrial digerati who understand both how the real world works and how to make it work better.

May we all use that knowledge wisely and responsibly to address the challenges ahead.