The Future of Climate Technology

Anna Tamara
April 4, 2023
07 min
Advancements in climate technology
Emerging Climate Technology.

Can this tech power a quantum leap into climate action?

The UN just called for climate solutions to be ‘everything, everywhere, all at once’. 

This follows more climate doom in the flagship report, predicting we will hit a critical threshold for global warming by the early 2030s. Still, we’re left with some hope. The 1.5C limit is achievable, says UN secretary general António Guterres, if we take “a quantum leap in climate action.”  

‘Quantum leap’ speaks to both the urgency around curbing carbon emissions and global leaders’ sluggish walk toward the demands of the Paris climate agreement. And onward to the “net zero” emissions goal (the US and EU by 2050, China by 2060 and India by 2070). Against this backdrop, climate tech will define this century, as we rush to solve the climate crisis through innovation.

Already, existing clean energy has been advancing quicker than expected. 

Thanks to the rapid growth and lowered costs of technologies like solar panels and lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, at least 18 countries have reduced their emissions over the past decade, Climate Action Tracker finds. Solar, wind, hydro- and geothermal renewables are now working on a large scale, and could still shape the coming decades. 

On the International Energy Agency’s roadmap to reduce carbon, near future goals include electric vehicle sales dominating the market by 2030. By 2035 wealthy countries need to move away from fossil fuel power plants and rely on clean energy from wind, solar and nuclear. And by 2040 carbon capture must rise to adequately meet industry emissions.

In fact, some argue we have the solutions we need today to reach net-zero. It’s at the heart of a debate in climate tech: is the crowded innovation space distracting from these existing clean energy sources? Can new tech even be implemented in time?

Or do we simply not have time to choose? Because when it comes to slowing climate change, there’s no catch-all fix: “We need a lot of 10- and 20- percent solutions,” Dr. Herzog of MIT’s Energy Initiative has said. New technologies are needed to clean up ‘everything, everywhere’.

Enter the boom in next generation climate tech. 

Climate tech start-ups are a rare bright spot in today’s economy. Even after the recent collapse, The Silicon Valley bank, which worked with more than 1,550 climate tech firms, looked to threaten the industry. As no business can escape the impact of climate change, that’s also the opportunity. Investments in climate technology start-ups spiked to more than $28 billion in 2020, with over 83 climate-focused companies worth more than $1 billion. At the same time, industry layoffs and ‘the great resignation’ sees tech workers flocking to start-ups building things that matter. 

This emerging scene includes technologies such as cultivated meat, carbon capture, cleaner fuels for planes, and new forms of power like green hydrogen, now being used to produce materials like cement. Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy, one of the most influential backers of climate tech, is funding across each of these advancements, hoping to reshape the future of agriculture, energy, mobility, and manufacturing. 

Voyager, a venture capital firm with investments in climate tech companies, funds just some of the next innovations in mobility (Powerline’s software transforms an electric vehicle fleet into a dispatchable mobile power source), energy (ultra-efficient battery tech from Anthro and Ento Labs’ AI-assisted solutions) and carbon removal (Remora’s carbon capture device fits onto trucks). 

Carbon capture has been slow to launch so far, but a wave of start-ups aim to scale its impact.

With the need to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, carbon capture has been criticised for requiring high energy to implement and reducing just a drop in the vast carbon emission ocean. But at scale, it could make a difference. And allow us to make essential products from air.

In direct air capture, Swiss start-up Climeworks has developed a technology that can filter CO2 and turn it into fertiliser or renewable fuels. Then there’s post-combustion capture, with start-ups like Canada’s CarbonCure Technologies transforming industry emissions into strengthened concrete, and US’s Opus 12 into chemicals like methanol.

While in the biomimicry space, which looks to nature for inspiration, Us start-up Calera have developed CO2-capturing cement based on the way that coral reefs form. (Other novel applications of biomimicry include AquaFresco’s systems for water reuse in buildings, based on how mangrove trees filter and purify saltwater.)

Taking baby steps back to nature is an encouraging idea. But climate tech’s big ideas sound increasingly sci-fi. 

Like ‘miracle technology’ nuclear fusion, which doesn’t exist yet – but some say could solve the crisis. Nuclear fusion plants would generate energy using the process that powers the sun, with only helium as the by-product. Fusion experts believe we might have a prototype plant out of the lab and into reality by 2040, though it could take until 2050 to power the grid with significant amounts of energy. And there’s much talk of our coming technological revolution: there is a world where AI helps us manage our crops, optimises the grid and eliminates energy waste in buildings, and develops clean new technologies. 

Can all this climate tech save the planet? In the drive toward clean energy, there’s still a long way to go – and a lot of big questions. How can the industry work together to drive innovation, step away from the mindsets that got us here, and safely scale our leap into a greener future? With the opportunity to reexamine our current systems as we look towards new ones, addressing these challenges will be a constant reminder that we survive not through combat, but through collaboration.