Radical breakthroughs for climate change? First we must deploy existing technologies
Carbon capture and geoengineering won’t save us
In a recent opinion piece in The Tech, MIT alumni Tom Hafer ’70 and Henry Miller ’69 argued that MIT should focus on direct air capture and geoengineering to combat climate change, asserting that renewable energy and vehicle electrification are “well-intentioned but ineffective” ways to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. To bolster their argument, the authors cited En-ROADS, the climate solutions simulator co-developed by our team at the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative and Climate Interactive. We’re always thrilled when people use science-based tools like En-ROADS; however, En-ROADS does not support the claims Mr. Hafer and Mr. Miller make.
The authors simulated policies to encourage renewable energy and transport electrification alone, ignoring the many other actions we can take now with existing technologies. As MIT’s Fast Forward climate plan states, “we must go as far as we can, as fast as we can, with the tools and methods we have now.” These include renewables and electric vehicles, but also electrifying buildings and industries, increasing end-use efficiency throughout the economy, phasing out coal, reducing deforestation, pricing carbon pollution, and cutting emissions of methane, fluorocarbons, and nitrous oxide — all powerful GHGs.
Instead of hoping for a silver bullet like carbon dioxide removal, limiting global warming requires what Bill McKibben calls “silver buckshot.” En-ROADS enables users to build many such scenarios, including plenty that don’t rely on speculative technologies requiring breakthroughs that cannot be counted on to occur in time, if ever.
One example scenario built in En-ROADS promotes renewables and electrification, but also energy efficiency, phasing out new investment in fossil fuels, reducing deforestation and promoting afforestation, and reductions in other GHGs — not unlike the approach in the Inflation Reduction Act and the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which the U.S. recently ratified.
Another takes a more market-based approach including some of the actions above and an $80/ton price on carbon emissions. Carbon pricing — a policy supported by the late George Schultz (MIT PhD ’49 and Secretary of State under President Reagan) and many others — already exists in 68 countries and subnational jurisdictions around the world. Broader participation and higher prices, with the revenue returned to the people as a carbon dividend, would create powerful incentives for decarbonization and efficiency, while protecting the poor and boosting equity. Instead of picking winners and losers, carbon pricing gives all zero- and low-carbon technologies a chance to prove themselves, including those championed by Mr. Hafer and Mr. Miller.
These are just two of many successful scenarios you can build in En-ROADS that don’t require radical technological breakthroughs. Don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself at en-roads.climateinteractive.org.
Big breakthroughs might help in the long run. But even if joyful shouts of “Eureka” came from our labs tomorrow, it would take a decade or more to commercialize and begin to scale them. That’s time we don’t have. Consider an En-ROADS scenario with significant breakthroughs right now in direct air capture, other carbon dioxide removal technologies, carbon capture and sequestration, and cheap fusion power. Warming by 2100? Far beyond the 1.5-2°C above preindustrial temperatures scientists and nations around the world agree we must not exceed.
To build a prosperous, healthy, safe, and equitable society we must cut emissions nearly in half by 2030 and reach net zero by mid-century. To do so we must deploy the fruits of all the breakthroughs we’ve already made. Everyone at MIT — faculty, students, staff, and alumni, from every discipline and department — is needed in this urgent and exciting work.
John Sterman is the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School and faculty director of Sloan’s Climate Pathways Project.