At the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting six years ago, Nobel Laureate Brian P. Schmidt became spokesman of what was to become the Mainau Declaration on Climate Change. The declaration was initially signed by 36 Nobel Laureates attending the meeting, with 40 more Laureates becoming signatories in following years. Fittingly, this year Schmidt attended a panel on energy and climate – one of several events dedicated to climate questions at #LINO70.
The panel, which also featured Nobel Laureates Steven Chu, Robert B. Laughlin, and Hartmut Michel, as well as climate scientist Nadine Mengis and geologic climatologist Gerald Haug, stressed just how big of a challenge tackling climate change really is. Even the ongoing pandemic, affecting so many all around the world, was said to fade in comparison.
“The climate problem is harder. That’s my one-sentence assessment of the problem,” Laughlin says. The big problem, Laughlin continues, is that for all its recent growth, renewable energy still only accounts for a tiny sliver of the world’s total energy production. The vast majority is still provided by fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, which are responsible for climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.
These emissions have also been analysed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A key finding of the IPCC analyses is that if we want to avoid many of the catastrophic effects of climate change, we’d best keep warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels – or 2 degrees at most. But Laughlin doesn’t see it happening.
“My bet is that the IPCC CO2 limits are not going to be met and the world is going to blow past that number. That’s pretty dark,” he comments. Gerald Haug is also not very optimistic about our odds. “I’m not an economist, but if we don’t put a price on carbon, I don’t think we’ll meet any target.”
Steven Chu, who also served as the 12th United States Secretary of Energy, knows a thing or two about how hard it is to address climate change. He also stresses that climate is a strikingly complex matter, and there’s no single silver bullet against it — we need action on multiple fronts if we want to make a difference.
“It’s not just about carbon-free electricity and transportation, it’s also about the chemicals in the construction materials we use, our agricultural activity, and so on. […] We essentially need a 4th agricultural revolution.” Chu also stresses that the growth in renewable energy that we’re seeing now is the easy part of our battle. Getting the first 50 percent is easy, he says. Getting the last 50 percent is much harder: “That’s when it gets tricky.”
Technology and Economy
Chu also believes that some of the technology required to transition to a net-zero carbon future hasn’t been developed yet, but is coming soon. The panel, though, seems to agree that we need to make the most of what we have now, we simply can’t afford to wait for a magic technology to save us.
“I don’t think the weak link is discovery in the laboratory. The weak link is a chain of links on integrating the economy. We have to work as citizens to try to point it in the right direction given the circumstance that we have,” Laughlin adds.
Indeed, while much of the climate solutions are systemic and complex, others are very simple, and they can start with what we have on our plates. For instance, meat has been repeatedly shown to be a significant contributor to our individual carbon footprint, and that’s some action we can all take. “We have to make sure that people don’t eat steaks all the time,” Michel points out. Mengis also points out that we need to get to a point where it becomes easier for people to make sustainable decisions.
“There is a difference between individual change and systemic change. We need to get to a point [in] the system where every individual can lead a carbon-free lifestyle.”
But while we shouldn’t rely on new technologies to save us, it’s good to know that progress is being made. Someone who knows a lot about this progress is M. Stanley Whittingham, one of the key figures behind the development of lithium-ion batteries, which now are used in everything from smartphones and laptops to electric vehicles. In his #LINO70 lecture he gave an insight in his work.
You can’t really have a carbon-neutral future without batteries to store renewable power. Thanks to the work of people like Whittingham, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2019, batteries have come a long way (which is why electric autonomy is increasing year after year, for instance) but there is still a long way to go.
In addition to increasing the capacity and durability of batteries, research is also being done on reducing the societal impact of batteries.
Part of the problem, Whittingham says, has to do with materials like cobalt, which are not only expensive but also have a negative environmental and humanitarian impact (according to UNICEF, 40,000 children work in extremely dangerous conditions in cobalt mines). But another part has to do less with the batteries themselves, and more with the economics around them.
“Batteries are almost sustainable now. If we can take nickel or cobalt as an example, we can mine it in the US. It then goes to Canada for processing, then to Scandinavia for more processing, then shipped to China to be turned into a battery — it’s crazy. Governments have to invest and have a supply chain on their own continent. It can become sustainable, especially when we consider recycling. The batteries in your laptops and phones must be recycled.”
Sometimes, our quest for energy improvements also takes us to unexpected places. For his work on the invention of efficient blue light-emitting diodes, Hiroshi Amano was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics. In a separate agora talk, Amano explained that it’s not just the energy consumption that’s attractive about this type of LEDs, but also that they can be used to deactivate viruses and other pathogens. “By irradiating water for 6-7 seconds, we can deactivate 99.9% of viruses”, he mentions.
Peter Agre‘s work also came somewhat unexpectedly. In the same agora talk, Agre explained how an accident (and a lot of curiosity) set him on a path that would lead to a Nobel Prize. Agre’s was recognized for discovering aquaporins — proteins used for water transport in many organisms, including the human kidneys. Now, aquaporins are researched as water filtration mechanisms and could be soon deployed in parts of the developing world where access to clean water is still a challenge.
Chemists Robert Grubbs and Richard Schrock also shared a few of their insights into how developments in one field can sometimes be applied in another. “When you develop new technologies, you never know where the people are going to find it useful,” Grubbs notes in an Agora talk. It’s also important that sustainable solutions are not just developed, but also brought to a cost-effective level, which is where the work of Grubbs and Schrock truly shines, as metathesis has enabled the development of catalysts widely used in everything from renewable energy to vaccines.
Climate change is a gargantuan threat, a hydra with many heads. But hearing laureates at #LINO70 discuss all these aspects of it, as well as solutions developed to tackle them, gives you a feeling that maybe, just maybe, we can solve it in time. At the very least, some of the world’s greatest minds are working on it.