Despite the IPCC’s most recent (and so far most grave) warning, a new analysis by the independent think tank RethinkX suggests that if we act now, reaching net-zero by as early as 2040 is doable.
Are current climate predictions flawed?
The authors of the RethinkX report begin by recognizing the phenomenon of ‘technology disruption’ – an occurrence they argue isn’t accurately accounted for in conventional analyses. Briefly explained, a technological disruption is a sudden emergence throwing longer periods of technological stability into disorder. Such disruptions – which according to RethinkX have been observed a multitude of times throughout history and across industries – can for example cause market shares to shoot up from 10% to 90% within as little as a decade. This, in turn, often triggers quick and wide-scale economic and social change, essentially transforming entire systems. The RethinkX team, using the Seba Technology Disruption Framework, has accurately predicted the market growth of various technologies in the energy, transportation, and food sectors within the past decade.
The authors argue that these disruptive patterns still aren’t accurately represented in many forecasts. This inattention could bear serious consequences, as it for instance might guide authorities to focus on treating solely the symptoms, rather than the actual disease brewing beneath the surface.
The takeaway: disruptions are immensely powerful and can turn entire structures on their heads. It’s important that we recognize and enable them, as working within the frames of our current system simply won’t cut it if we are to reach international climate commitments.
Net-zero by 2040 is achievable
The report suggests that the solution to the climate crisis lies within three major industries of energy, transportation, and food. By overhauling these sectors, we could reduce up to 90% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius as underlined in the Paris Agreement.
Currently, the energy sector accounts for 57% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, while the transportation sector makes up for 16%, and the food sector for 18%. RethinkX’s analysis states that we can drastically reduce emissions by recognizing and embracing the inevitable technological disruptions expected to be happening within these industries (– more about these in the next section). In practice, this would for instance mean that policymakers need to ensure that barriers halting the evolution and scaling of promising technologies are removed, that harmful subsidies are phased out, and that market design is streamlined.
The right technology already exists
Interestingly, RethinkX suggest that we’ve already developed technologies powerful enough to make reaching the net-zero target by 2040 a reality – but we’d need to shift the market forces to align in these technologies’ favor. As summed up by the authors of the report, “moonshot breakthrough technologies are not required”. Instead, we should work with what we already have.
Let’s take a closer look at these technologies to better understand the disruptions that we, as claimed by the report, can expect to happen in the energy, transportation, and food industries.
In the energy sector, the authors anticipate alternative sources such as solar photovoltaics, onshore wind power, and lithium-ion batteries to substitute fossil fuels as well as nuclear energy already during the 2020 decade, arguing that both the price and potential of these technologies have been consistently improving for several decades, and that they are expected to be continuing to improve throughout the coming years.
We will also see big changes in the field of transportation over the next ten years, as the RethinkX team forecasts not only electric vehicles but also the concept of transportation-as-a-service (for instance Uber) to replace its current alternatives, making private vehicle ownership a thing of the past.
As for the food industry, the disruption will largely be triggered by the growing technologies of precision fermentation and cellular agriculture – also known under the term lab-grown food – providing significantly more cost-efficient alternatives to the agricultural models we know today.
Drawing on examples from other historical disruptions such as the transition from film to digital cameras, natural to synthetic fabric dyes, and non-GMO to GMO corn, the report suggests that changes like these tend to happen much faster than we expect them to. Hence, why the report boldly foresees a multitude of the aforementioned disruptions of energy, transportation, and food to be accelerating already during the late 2020’s.
Embracing and leading disruptions can be lucrative
Contrary to the common belief that green technologies are and will be economically costly, RethinkX claims the opposite to be true. As renewable energy, ride-sharing alternatives, and new methods of growing food are becoming increasingly competitive on the market while decreasing in price, investing in older and soon-to-be outdated technologies makes little sense, according to the authors. In fact, their research demonstrates that around USD 2 trillion worth of investments made over the past decade in non-renewable resources such as coal and natural gas will be stranded by the takeover of solar, wind, and batteries.
Regions, nations, communities, cities, businesses, and investors choosing to embrace and lead the disruptions rather than resist them will reap enormous economic and social rewards as well as environmental benefits. – RethinkX
Want to know more?
If you fancy a more in-depth read, we encourage you to deep dive into the full report.