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Leveraging technology at a wartime pace without incurring wartime casualties

Technology is a necessary lever to achieve net-zero goals by mid-century, but it is not a sufficient lever on its own. Olle Olsson from SEI Headquarters examines this issue as part of Currents 2022, a series of SEI perspectives highlighting trends of 2022 and beyond.

Olle Olsson / Published on 20 December 2021

In climate change discussions, people often make comparisons to efforts made in World War II, when rapid economic change was required, for example, repurposing the whole US economy for the war effort. Humanity’s set deadline – reaching a net-zero target by mid-century – is very tight. This means we must essentially reconfigure the global energy system in a time period that is very short.

This wartime analogy has merit. Comparisons to a war fought worldwide acknowledges the seriousness and scope of the climate change mission. They analogy underscores the point that a “war” waged to stop climate change depends on all-out mobilization effort: one that harnesses government funding, spurs innovation, capitalizes on the power of the private sector and incentivizes ordinary people to do their part. (Climate change victory gardens?)

At the same time, it is also important to think about what wartime conditions and thinking mean. We must ask ourselves whether we can achieve a wartime tempo without wartime casualties.

In order to test the world’s first atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer and others with the Manhattan Project worked in secret, selecting a remote site in the New Mexico desert completely at their own discretion. The ramifications of this private decision continue to linger. People who lived downwind of the Trinity nuclear test site were exposed to radioactivity that day. The resulting legal wrangling over compensation for illnesses and trauma that ensued are ongoing more than 75 years later.

Contemporary times are characterized by other decision-making means. We have permitting processes, environmental impact assessments and stakeholder consultations. These are important. They are highly valuable components of investments into climate change-related industries and infrastructure. They make sure that we can build technologies and tools that provide some forms of societal value without walking roughshod over societal values, communities and individuals. However, these processes can also be very demanding in terms of time and resources and it is not always a given that it is possible to find a solution that meets the wishes of all involved.

In other words, the wartime analogy has limits.

The key challenge is to carry out the change that technology affords at a wartime pace while still adhering to democratic principles.

Olle Olsson, Senior Research Fellow

The key challenge we now face is to carry out the change that technology affords at a wartime pace while still adhering to the democratic principles of legal certainty, civil liberties and human rights. This may very well be possible. Going forward means acknowledging as soon as possible that the challenge is great and that societal institutions must be prepared to take it on quickly.

We must recognize that we have the technology within our grasp. The goal of achieving the net-zero benchmark for climate change mitigation ambitions by the middle of the century is a tight timeline, but technological advances mean it is not an impossible one.

For many years, researchers, policymakers and businesses have discussed how to whether it is possible to change “hard-to-abate” sectors, such as steel production, long-haul trucking and aviation.

It seems that technology itself is now increasingly rendering this label obsolete. The growing perception is that they are not-so-hard to abate after all. In fact, the technological solutions within our grasp can enable the elimination of emissions at costs that seem to be fairly reasonable. In certain cases, the shift can come with reduced operational costs, even without putting a price on CO2 emissions.

As a result, the technological discussion has moved on from “if” it is possible to do abate the emissions from these sectors to “how” to do it.

However, technologically feasible does not mean practically feasible. Technological innovation is a necessary condition to achieve the world’s aims to stop emitting carbon. At the same time, this is not a sufficient condition.

New solutions may require systems change to flourish. The ways our technological systems are set up are very much a function of the properties of the technologies themselves. This particularly pertains to energy systems, such as electricity generation, transportation and industry, which are dominated by fossil fuels. In many cases non-fossil-fuel solutions have technological properties that are quite different than the incumbent fossil-fuel ones. This means trying to create a non-emitting, like-for-like solution into a system designed for fossil fuels does not always work. If you start thinking about how to change the system itself, things start to look different.

This is the case for battery-powered heavy trucks that transport goods. These were long derided as unfeasible because the batteries would be too large and heavy to allow trucks to carry much of a load. Batteries are now lighter, longer lasting and quicker charging. When you think about designing a trucking system around the properties of these battery-electric trucks, you realize things become possible. Using the same type of fast-charging already used for personal vehicles, heavy trucks can be charged in the 45-minute rest time that drivers in the EU are required to take after operating trucks for 4.5 hours. In this scenario, with charging stations available, battery trucks could actually be cheaper to operate than diesel trucks.

As this example illustrates, effective change leverages technological advances. These advances now need public policymakers and private sector to move technologies from innovation labs onto the roads.

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