Q&A  | 

We can reduce the carbon footprint of the net, by Benjamin Tincq

"We know how to decarbonise the power grid with nuclear energy and renewables"

Tags: 'reducción de emisiones'

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Benjamin Tincq is co-founder and CEO of Good Tech Lab, a climate innovation firm specializing in technologies for decarbonisation, carbon removal and climate resilience. Benjamin is building a Climate Tech innovation platform with startups, corporates and academic partners working towards achieving net zero emissions in the energy industry. He has participated as an expert to the latest Digital Future Society report titled "Risks and opportunities of emerging tech in the climate decade".

Is the environmental challenge the biggest the future of technology is facing?

The climate and ecological crises are probably the biggest challenges humanity as a whole has been facing during this century.

Amidst the current emissions scenario, a recent study from the Universities of Berkeley and Chicago, estimates that higher temperatures will kill more people than all infectious diseases combined by the end of this century. This is without taking into account conflicts over resources, mass migration, or the collapse of ecosystems like coral reefs, which support a quarter of marine life, in the next 20 years.

Is technology the most powerful tool to combat climate change?

To prevent the worst from climate change, we need to do two things. First, achieve net-zero emissions at planetary scale as quickly as possible, ideally by 2050, which means cutting emissions by at least half every decade, while massively expanding the capacity of carbon sinks. Second, we need to adapt human societies to the impact of global warming which is already in the pipeline. For these two parts, we will need three things: a lot of technology innovation and deployment, courageous policy, and large-scale behaviour change towards sustainable lifestyles. We will need to take action within these three buckets, and to do a lot of them. We are way past the situation where we can afford to choose the solution we feel more comfortable with: we really need to compromise and do everything!

That being said, my work focuses on the technological solutions, which is one of the most complex and least understood parts. We have a lot of tools at our disposal, but not all of them.

The IEA (International Energy Agency) estimates that 25% of the decarbonisation technologies we need are mature, the rest ranges from R&D to demonstration to some early adoption. We know how to decarbonise the power grid with nuclear energy and renewables, but we need to do it at scale, in a way that balances intermittent and dispatchable power sources according to geography, land use, material throughput, etc.

In the longer-term, we need breakthroughs in long-duration storage for a higher renewable penetration, as well as next-generation nuclear, and geothermal, and maybe fusion.

How can tech help reduce carbon emissions?

With a clean power grid, electric vehicles will truly decarbonise urban mobility, in combination with mass transit and bike infrastructure. We need a way to produce and recycle batteries in a more sustainable manner, but some new processes are emerging. However, we need a lot of innovation to tackle long-haul and heavy transport: trucking, shipping and aviation, as well as industries like cement, steel and chemicals production. Hydrogen, synthetic fuels, process innovation and carbon capture will play a big role. Speaking of which: whether carbon is captured from the air, or at the point of emission, we need to scale permanent CO2 sequestration by geological storage and mineralisation or durable products like concrete.

Natural solutions like reforestation are super important, but they are threatened by reversals, as we see carbon offsets burning in Californian wildfires.

Meanwhile, digital technologies like AI and sensors can really help push energy efficiency and optimisation in buildings, industrial processes, or agriculture. Advanced computational tools can also speed up new discoveries in sustainable biotechnologies, of materials science, such as certain nano porous materials which can increase the efficiency of carbon capture processes. Data analytics can also help scale down climate models at the hyperlocal model, to predict the impacts of climate change on infrastructure, water stress and crop yields.

What is the environmental cost of digital transformation?

Digital does not mean immaterial, so as digital technologies penetrate and transform every sector, their environmental impact logically soars. Devices need to be manufactured, which requires energy but also metallic resources like cobalt, which is mined in socially disastrous conditions in DRC, as well as rare-earth elements which are extracted with highly polluting methods in China.  Those devices include smartphones, laptops, tablets, but also network equipment, satellites, and more.

Networks and data centers consume a lot of energy. Overall, the IT sector is responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions today, and that share could rise to 6% by 2025.

Is it possible to find a balance between technological progress and emission reduction?

This is something that is not very well understood today, because we need two things at the same time which can seem contradictory. On one side, we need a large-scale behaviour shift toward as much sobriety as possible, at the minimum to “buy us time” on the climate clock. For instance, not owning too many devices, using them as long as possible before replacing them (changing your phone every 5, 6 o 7 years instead of 2 or 3), but also flying way less (or stop entirely if you can), using smaller and electric cars, and stop eating red meat (or not more than two times a month).

On the other side, we need a lot, and I really mean A LOT of technological progress to limit global warming to 2 degrees, let alone 1.5C.

Even planetary-scale sobriety and current technologies will not get us there, and this is something few people understand.

We need better, cheap, dispatchable low-carbon electricity (energy storage, next-gen nuclear and geothermal, etc) low-cost methods for producing low-carbon hydrogen to fuel heavy transportation and industrial processes, technologies to pull 10 to 20 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year, ways to produce 70% more food on smaller land areas so we can restore nature at the same time, and many more.

Would that entail individual and collective reflection to not exceed the limits of the planet?

More than reflection: planetary-scale action I hope!

Is the private sector predisposed to develop carbon neutral or negative ICT infrastructures?

It is ideally positioned to deploy them at a large scale. But development will come both from private R&D and public research, coming from university labs.

There are a lot of interesting efforts on optical connectivity, or next-generation cooling like Submer in Barcelona.

 

Are environmental policies necessary?

Absolutely. We need a real price of carbon, not 20€ like currently. 50 would be the bare minimum, and even 100-150 if we really hope to incentivise behaviors and innovation. Countries and the EU can also issue policy to increase device warranty and fight planned obsolescence, curb the consumption of red meat while supporting farmers in their transition to sustainable protein cultivation, or to incentivise investment in carbon removal and sequestration technologies.