Films from the 80s, such as Bladerunner, predicted that we’d have flying cars and infinite, sky-high architectural structures. Our supposed, imminent reality is also shown in Avatar, an imaginative film that showed thriving life only outside of Earth. The reason movies are thought-provoking is that they imprint your memory with possible futures. It can be hard to envision a world without thriving plants, animals, or clean air to breathe, especially when we already have the technologies that can change many of the ways we do things.
The United Nations reports that we already have technological solutions for roughly 70% of current greenhouse gas emissions. Implementation of these solutions depends on governmental policies, funding and its appropriate distribution, and companies that are willing to invest in innovative technologies.
Today, we already have flying cars. A company in Slovakia has had success with their prototype, and another Chinese electric vehicle maker has plans to roll out their flying cars in 2024. Other inventions that seemed unattainable once upon a time have successfully materialized, so it isn’t unrealistic to dream big about green, renewable and sustainable technologies that will change the way we fight against climate change. Though flying cars aren’t the future we need right now to accomplish this, the minds behind the big ideas are fundamental, and they need backup. The time for future-altering technology that reverses human-inflicted damage is now.
Growth in Innovative Technology
It’s important to acknowledge the leaps of progress we’ve made, while understanding that the ongoing climate crises are complex and, quite frankly, expensive. The upfront costs for the installment of renewable, sustainable technologies may be costly, but the price we pay for inaction is one we could never afford. In order to convey the complexity of executing new technologies on a large scale, we can focus on the top sectors in the U.S. that are contributing the most to greenhouse gas emissions.
Currently, transportation is the leading source of carbon emissions in the U.S. at 29%, with electricity and industrial sectors not too far behind. It might seem like an easy problem to solve by having everyone switch to electric vehicles, but that inaccurately assumes that they’re affordable and accessible, even with tax incentives. It’s not only economy vehicles, either. Airplanes and public transportation, like railway systems and bus transits, are also included in this calculation.
Transit technology companies, like Remix, are helping cities better support and plan their transportation systems by using accurate software and visualization tools. Inefficiency, inequality, and immobility are contributing factors to greenhouse gases (GHG) from the transportation sector. Given that 50% of the world population live in cities, and that these cities produce 70% of GHGs, there is much room for improvement. Tiffany Chu, co-founder and CEO of Remix, wrote for Bloomberg explaining what needs to happen:
“It is time to move past our excessive focus on large highway capital projects and remove limitations that constrain how cities and rural communities deploy public transportation.” According to Chu, even tracking bus routes more efficiently, instead of spending money on new, fancy buses, can help allocate funds toward technology that supports the people who rely on public transit systems. Greater efficiency means less wastefulness, and ideally, less pollution.
Another ambitious company making waves is Airbus, whose goals for combating climate change involve designing and manufacturing products in the aerospace industry. According to the Environment and Energy Study Institute, air pollution was responsible for 2.4% of global carbon emissions in 2018. Airbus has developed electric airplanes and have announced their ambitions to develop “the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.”
The EPA reports that greenhouse gas emissions from transportation are continuing to increase, because there is simply an increase of demand for travel. Knowing this, it’s crucial to improve our current modes of travel to ensure efficiency and sustainability.
The second greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is the electricity sector, which the EPA describes as “the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity” – and only 12% of our energy consumption comes from renewables.
However, renewable energy has become increasingly affordable. For almost a decade, the cost of large-scale solar projects, also known as photovoltaic (PV), decreased by 82%. Although solar panels and wind turbines are dependent on the weather and may have limitations in some areas of the world, they’re still a sustainable source, emitting zero carbon emissions. According to one study, working with other countries on an electric grid infrastructure and energy storage solutions could be a thing of the future as well.
Other technologies, like those developed by NASA, have been applied in industrial settings and homes. Designs that were invented for space travel are useful here as well, with the purpose of conserving energy and reducing heat waste. An example of this is the voltage controller, invented in the 1970s by a NASA engineer, that improves efficiency by running at lower speeds when full power is unnecessary – such as escalators that are inactive when not in use.
This is an area where big, innovative ideas are being encouraged for companies to develop, which would help us achieve net-zero GHG emissions globally.
Into the future
Every new technology will have its pros and cons, with varying effectiveness depending on where it will be utilized. New, innovative technology also needs support via funding in order to serve communities effectively. Governments need to incentivize innovation, allowing companies to compete and expand the market, which may help in making these ideas more accessible.
Ganesh Kaveeshwar, a writer for the Indian non-profit Social Alpha, wrote: “Deep-tech products in the energy and climate space typically have a long gestation period and often take efforts spanning several decades.” Ultimately, innovative technology takes time. But as world leaders meet at the Conference of the Parties (COP26), it is crucial to work together and share ideas, because we may not have another several decades before the damage is irreversible.
United Nations. (2021, October 27). The Climate Crisis – A Race We Can Win. https://www.un.org/en/un75/climate-crisis-race-we-can-win
Brito, Christopher. (2021, July 2). Flying care completes first-ever test flight between airports in 35 minutes. CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/flying-car-test-flight-35-minutes/
Kharpal, Arjun. (2021, October 24). Chinese EV maker Xpeng touts flying car that can also operate on roads; plans for 2024 rollout. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/10/24/xpeng-launches-flying-car-that-can-also-operate-on-roads.html
United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, October 27). Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions
Frontiers. (2021, July 12). Just 25 mega-cities produce 52% of the world’s urban greenhouse gas emissions. Phys. https://phys.org/news/2021-07-mega-cities-world-urban-greenhouse-gas.html
Chu, Tiffany and Ramot, Daniel. (2021, May 17). Fixing Transit Is More Than Just Infrastructure. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-05-17/stop-funding-transportation-like-it-s-the-1980s
Airbus. (2021, October 29). COP26 and the aerospace industry, explained. https://www.airbus.com/newsroom/news/en/2021/10/COP26-and-the-aerospace-industry-explained.html
Kretchmer, Harry. (2020, June 23). The cost of renewable energy is increasingly undercutting fossils. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/cost-renewable-energy-cheaper-coal/
U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2021, October 30). U.S. energy facts explained. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/us-energy-facts/
Wood, Johnny. (2020, February 28). Renewable energy could power the world by 2050. Here’s what that future might look like. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/02/renewable-energy-future-carbon-emissions
Chandaria, Kanika et al. (2021, March 22). The Next Generation of Climate Innovation. Boston Consulting Group. https://www.bcg.com/publications/2021/next-generation-climate-innovation
Kaveeshwar, Ganesh. (2021, July 29). 5 breakthrough technologies in the fight against climate change. Social Alpha. https://www.socialalpha.org/5-breakthrough-technologies-in-the-fight-against-climate-change/