COVID lessons for climate change


By Luke Lythgoe, GCPPP staff, July 9th 2021

The development in less than a year of several highly effective vaccines against COVID-19 was hailed as a “miracle” by some. The reality is more mundane. It was a real-world example of what can be achieved when politicians, policymakers, the private sector and scientists focus on mobilising the funds, resources and talents necessary to tackle a specific, highly motivating problem. Why then, should the human race not be trying to replicate the vaccine breakthrough to tackle the even greater threat of climate change? This analysis looks at how and where the winning vaccine formula might be deployed in the race to stop our planet overheating.

The vaccine precedent

The key to the success of vaccine development programmes like the Trump administration’s ‘Operation Warp Speed’ (OWS) was not merely throwing money at a problem, but how that money was used. The sums involved were large but not unprecedented: the $12 billion of OWS can be compared with America’s 2019 Social Security costs of $1.1 trillion or the $144 billion spent on the Iraq War in 2008 alone, or the $8.5 billion construction cost of Britain’s new aircraft-carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The success was grounded in how that money was used, not to conjure up some new “miracle” technology, but to build on years of promising research. The bet was also spread several ways, with OWS initially backing a number of different technologies, both breakthrough and well-established. Of the six OWS-backed vaccines approved or approaching approval, there are two of the much-talked-about mRNA vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna), two non-replicating adenovirus vectored vaccines (Oxford-AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson), and two protein vaccines (Novavax and Sanofi-GlaxoSmithKline).

Nor was the money focused purely on creating these vaccines. Roughly as much funding was spent boosting manufacturing as it was on R&D. And finally, critically, this public funding allowed private pharmaceutical companies to take more risks and thereby speed up development. Different stages of clinical trials could be done in parallel because the financial risk of one of those trials failing and making the others redundant was ameliorated by government support.

How might these successful precedents be reapplied to combat climate change? Below we look at six emissions-busting technologies, some already on the market and others still only seen in sci-fi movies.

Electric vehicle charging grids

Electric vehicles (EVs) are already a reality on our roads. But car manufacturers cannot provide the infrastructure needed to convince “range anxious” drivers that electric alternatives will be as reliable as their fossil fuel precursors. Having announced a ban on sales of internal combustion engine cars by 2035, the UK government is facing a particular crunch with an estimated £16.7 billion required to be spent on installing sufficient EV charging infrastructure to meet the target.

Public-private investment schemes have kicked into action, with the government’s Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund on track to raise £400 million. Meanwhile, energy regulator Ofgem has greenlit a £300 million proposal for energy networks to help triple the number of ultra-rapid car charge points in several urban centres, likely to be financed by a levy on household energy bills of 65p per month over two years.

One specific publicly funded project which the government hopes can solve an EV issue is a £20 million competition to develop ‘Vehicle to Grid’ (V2G) technology. This concept involves idle EVs connected to the grid releasing power back to the grid when supply is low and demand is high. In this way, utility operators could avoid a huge power drain, for example just after rush hour. Car users could potentially register their vehicles for times they need them, but such a system has yet to be devised.

Clean hydrogen

Alongside smaller electric vehicles, an alternative clean technology suitable for heavier machines is needed, for ships, aeroplanes and big trucks which are big contributors to greenhouse-gas emissions. Hydrogen, and ammonia made from it, is tipped as the likeliest solution, with the EU announcing its intention to take the lead in a strategy published last summer. The environmental snag with hydrogen is that 95% of its production currently relies on separating it from natural gas, a fossil fuel. A greener alternative is to use renewable energy-powered electrolysers to separate hydrogen from water. The European Commission estimates it will cost between €180 billion and €470 billion to scale up this technology, with an aim for six GW of renewable energy-powered electrolysers installed by 2024, and 40GW by 2030. This is expected to strain EU budgets, including the Horizon science programme and structural funds. The European Clean Hydrogen Alliance has also been established to build a “robust pipeline of investments” from private investors.

The hydrogen drive in the EU also provides an example of how opinions can quickly diverge on how financing is spent. Some in the European Parliament have urged investment in the dirtier “grey hydrogen” as a bridging technology, while others insist green hydrogen is the only sustainable option and all funds should support that. Without an OWS-type accelerated approach, it may take a long time to resolve this argument.

Off-grid renewable energy

Those living in certain rich nations could be forgiven for assuming renewable energy was in an unstoppable ascendency, and that private firms probably don’t need much incentive to invest. Indeed, private investment accounted for 86% of renewables financing between 2013 and 2018, compared to 14% from public sources. Nevertheless, that figure needs to almost triple to $800 billion by 2050 to meet the Paris climate targets — and while 2019 saw modest growth, the COVID effect saw renewable investment in 2020 drop by a third. Public financing can be used strategically to crowd in additional private capital, via building market capacity, supporting pilot projects and introducing innovative financing instruments to mitigate risk.

While this public role is relevant globally, it is particularly critical in regions where renewable technology struggles to establish itself. So-called off-grid renewables, stand-alone energy sources or mini-grids, largely serving communities in developing countries with unreliable power sources, attracted financing worth only $460 million in 2019 — just 1% of overall energy access finance. These are relatively new technologies in locations which pose specific risks for private investors, such as remote rural areas where customers tend to be low-income households or businesses with no credit history. Public investment has a specific role seeding renewable energy markets in these regions, which in poor countries often also have fast-growing populations. In addition it would have the added humanitarian incentive of providing reliable energy access to those communities for the first time.

Vertical farming

Environmentally damaging land use, particularly the clearing of forest for agriculture, is a huge driver of the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is set to increase sharply as demand for land-intensive livestock farming rises with global population and prosperity. Vertical farming is one of many new agricultural technologies aimed at tackling this problem. Not only do these farms-in-towers mean more food can be grown on a certain space, but their highly managed environments eliminate concerns about pests or weather conditions. Being able to grow towers of produce right next to cities also reduces transportation distances.

Venture capital helped start up early vertical farms, and there have been several success stories. In Japan there are over 200 vertical farms currently operating, with industry leader Spread Co. Ltd. producing 30,000 heads of lettuce every day. Californian start-up Plenty raised $ 200 million in 2017 in a funding round led by SoftBank Vision Fund, along with backers including Jeff Bezos and Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt. But the industry is also littered with bankruptcies. One of the issues vertical farmers face is having to decide whether to sink huge upfront costs in automation or to rely on high labour costs, either of which can make business models unviable. While private investors have taken vertical farming this far, that interest could quickly wane. Public financing for new farms could be ramped up, as could investment in R&D to bring down the costs of automation systems and lighting.

Carbon capture and storage

One of the more futuristic technologies, carbon capture and storage (CCS) seeks to suck carbon dioxide out of the air. There are currently 19 large-scale CCS facilities in operation around the world. “Perceived and actual risk are currently undermining and limiting capital flows into CCS deployment,” says the Global CCS Institute. In 2019 it recommended addressing market risk through government policy. Through the COVID vaccine success, we have seen how this might be done.

However, this technology remains almost unfeasibly expensive. For example, Elon Musk has pledged a $100 million prize to teams who invent a method for directly removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or oceans. But that sum represents only an infinitesimal share of the annual investment needed to make this technology a reality, a study by University of California San Diego found. What’s more, even a “wartime-like crash deployment” of this negative emission technology (NET) would only “substantially hasten the onset of net-zero carbon dioxide emissions” but still require “concurrent deep mitigation of emissions” by other means.

The public sector also faces a large end-cost with this technology, because there simply isn’t a big enough market for the solid carbon that would be produced by the process. Governments will likely have to pay companies to sequester it deep underground, rather as happens with spent nuclear fuel but in much larger quantities. The technology could prove a critical piece of the climate puzzle, but will governments see it as value for money?

Solar geoengineering

Finally, we reach the most science-fiction of all the climate solutions, more associated with Gerard Butler films than real life. Solar geoengineering describes technologies that could, in theory, counteract rising temperatures by reflecting the sun’s rays from Earth. Proposals include giant mirrors in space, spraying aerosols in the stratosphere, “brightening” clouds above the ocean by spraying saltwater into them, painting the roofs of thousands of buildings white, or churning up ocean spray to reflect the sun. Each has its own technical, financial, political and ethical challenges.

The hope is that other technology can cap global warming before such drastic action becomes even remotely necessary. But it may be prudent for governments to get the ball rolling by financing R&D for these far-away technologies now, or for others that may now merely be ideas in scientists’ minds. After all, the only reason we had mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 when they were needed was because scientists had been researching the concept since the 1980s, with strong recent research in areas such as cancer. Should the feedback loops of climate chaos suddenly lurch out of control, we may be thankful for having a last-resort technology in our back pocket.

Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

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