Prioritise Small-scale technology to deliver affordable net-zero transition, researchers claim
A new study has warned of focusing on "politically seductive" large-scale solutions such as nuclear and carbon capture and storage (CCS), noting that more granular solutions like energy storage, solar and heat pumps can be mass deployed at an affordable cost to enable a quicker net-zero transition.
Researchers from IIASA, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and the University Institute of Lisbon have found that smaller-scale technologies such as solar panels, electric vehicles, storage batteries, heat pumps, smart thermostats, electric bikes, and shared taxis can speed up the transition to net-zero emissions required to mitigate severe climate impacts.
The findings, which were published in the journal Science, found that smaller technologies are quicker to deploy at mass scale, have less investment risk and are more flexible due to shorter lifespans so improvements can be introduced. These types of technologies are also more widely accessible and can create more jobs, the researchers note.
In contrast, the research found that “politically seductive” and “lumpy” technologies like nuclear and CCS would take up far more public resources and restrict rapid decarbonisation to net-zero.
Lead researcher Charlie Wilson, who is jointly associated with the IIASA Transitions to New Technologies Program and UEA, said: “A rapid proliferation of low-carbon innovations distributed throughout our energy system, cities, and homes can help drive faster and fairer progress towards climate targets.
“We find that big new infrastructure costing billions is not the best way to accelerate decarbonisation. Governments, firms, investors, and citizens should instead prioritise smaller-scale solutions that deploy faster. This means directing funding, policies, incentives, and opportunities for experimentation away from the few big and towards the many small.”
No universal solutions
The study collected data on a variety of energy technologies and tested how well they performed against criteria including cost, accessibility and innovation.
The researchers do note that smaller-scale technologies won’t reach net-zero emissions by mid-Century in isolation. For industries like air travel and carbon-intensive manufacturing of steel, cement and iron, small scale technologies will have to be integrated into existing infrastructure or combined with larger-scale solutions.
The report echoes the findings from the first comprehensive update to Project Drawdown’s list of climate solutions that was released last month. The report found that humanity will be able to reach a net-zero world by 2050 – as recommended by the IPCC in its landmark report on climate change – using existing, established technologies and practices, a major new scientific study has concluded.
The report draws this conclusion from research around five key changes, all of which it states will need to be made “greatly and rapidly”.
Scaling up renewable energy generation and investing in energy efficiency (saving between 197.8 and 443.7 gigatons of GHG emissions between 2020 and 2050), transitioning to plant-based diets, minimising food waste across the value chain and championing regenerative agriculture (saving between 203.7 and 274.4 gigatons of GHG emissions between 2020 and 2050), improving refrigerant management and switching to low-emission alternatives (saving between 101.3 and 208.3 gigatons of GHG emissions between 2020 and 2050), dramatically improving energy performance in the built environment, with a particular focus on cities (saving between 73.7 and 141.3 gigatons of GHG emissions between 2020 and 2050) and shifting to “highly-efficient” low-carbon transport (saving between 51.2 and 104.2 gigatons of GHG emissions between 2020 and 2050) were all highlighted as feasible by the study.
Elsewhere, recent research by Bloomberg NEF found that by embedding sector coupling into net-zero transitions, Europe could reduce emissions from its transport, buildings and industrial sectors by more than 60% through to 2050.
“Large ‘silver bullet’ technologies like nuclear power or carbon and capture storage are politically seductive, but larger-scale technologies and infrastructures absorb large shares of available public resources without delivering the rapid decarbonization we need,” IIASA’s emeritus scholar and study co-author Arnulf Grubler added.