Your guide to talking about climate tech over the holidays

Your guide to talking about climate tech over the holidays

This piece originates from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly digest on climatic matters. To have it delivered straight to your inbox every Wednesday, subscribe here.

The festive period: a time for delectable eats, heartfelt interactions with kinfolk, and probing inquiries about climate phenomena… or does that latter scenario apply solely to me?

My role as an environmental correspondent often makes me the target of inquisitions about my profession, and more expansively, regarding climatic shifts and environmental technologies at social gatherings. These interrogations occasionally incite fervent debates, and I must confess, my tendency is to shift the discourse or abscond in pursuit of a baked treat. Yet, these dialogues have enlightened me to the fact that several individuals are befuddled by the mixed messages received from televised media, the digital sphere, or their acquaintance in the literary group, and they’re keen on garnering clarity.

With Thanksgiving and other major celebrations on the horizon, it’s plausible you could encounter a comparable scenario. Hence, seize a portion of green bean casserole (with can-prepped beans, naturally) and let us delve into a handful of probable climate technology inquiries that may arise.

Contentious Climate Issue #1: Electric vehicles (EVs), I’m informed, are more detrimental to the environment compared to standard automobiles—the electricity must be generated somehow, indeed.

In a vast majority of contemporary scenarios, vehicles powered by batteries emit less pollution than those running on combustion engines. The magnitude of these disparities is contingent on your global position, the source fueling your electricity network, and the nature of the automobile you’re operating. 

Divergence on a regional scale can be pronounced, as chronicled in a 2021 research conducted by the International Council on Clean Transportation. In territories like the US and Europe, driving an electric car can slash emissions by 60% to 70% in comparison to a petrol-fueled counterpart. Conversely, in regions such as China and India, where the electrical grid is substantially powered by carbon-intensive fuels like coal, the emissions reductions are less significant—approximately 20% to 35% in India and 35% to 45% in China. 

Size of the vehicle has its role to play as well. If one were to compare extremes, it’s conceivable that certain electrically powered models could inflict more environmental harm than some fossil fuel-based vehicles. For instance, the Hummer EV, an enormous unit responsible for 341 grams of carbon dioxide per mile. This figure surpasses a Toyota Corolla operating on petrol, which emits 269 grams, as per a 2022 assessment by Quartz.

An essential point to recollect is that the trajectory for EVs to continue ameliorating is clear. Battery technology is advancing in efficiency. Endeavors in recycling are in motion (more of this later). And power grids globally are transitioning to include more low-carbon sources such as wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear. This culminates in progressively cleaner EVs as time advances. 

Contentious Climate Issue #2: What of the rampant excavation for materials essential for sustainable tech? Will this not ravage the planet?

This topic is intricate, and a myriad of complexities exist in relation to the ‘stuff’ (yes, that’s the industry terminology) indispensable for tackling climate alteration. Mining, in all its forms, presents significant environmental and human rights concerns. 

An immense amount of mining will be requisite for assembling the technology needed to combat climate shifts: an estimated 43 million metric tonnes of minerals by the year 2040 to adhere to net-zero objectives, suggests the International Energy Agency.

The magnitude of mining soars even higher when acknowledging the low prevalence of certain minerals. Copper is one such material—utilized in a diverse range of applications from transmission lines to EV batteries. The procurement of a single tonne of copper might necessitate excavating in excess of 500 tonnes of earth, given today’s mining locales possess copper proportions below 1%. 

Yet, when considering the entirety of the excess earth, the progression towards renewable energy may involve less excavation than the current fossil-fuel based economy does. The granular details hinge on the potential for recycling, and how technologies evolve. Should you be interested in further information, this thorough breakdown by Hannah Ritchie is highly recommended.

All forms of mining can potentially induce harm to the environment and those residing in the vicinity of mining sites. Thus, it’s crucial to closely monitor these enterprises’ progress and contemplate how we can mitigate the impact of emerging technologies. Nevertheless, the advent of climate technology doesn’t equate to unprecedented levels of mining. 

Contentious Climate Issue # 3: I’ve heard that piles of wind turbine blades, solar panels, and EV batteries are being amassed in landfills. Won’t the refuse from these ‘clean’ technologies become a significant issue?

Manufacturers are hastening the production and deployment of renewable energy devices, which intimates that in several decades, many will have surpassed their service period, prompting us to resolve their disposal.

Concerning solar panels as an instance, come 2050, a projected 160 million metric tonnes of accumulated rubbish from solar panels could emerge. That seems monumental—and indeed it is—but an even graver issue looms. By that horizon, approximately 1.8 billion metric tonnes of e-waste will have been generated, with plastic debris expected to exceed 12 billion metric tonnes. (For additional context, consider this story from Inside Climate News, alongside the source document in Nature Physics containing these figures.)

In the grand scheme, waste originating from climate tech is poised to be a component of a far more daunting predicament. Nevertheless, there exist substantial justifications to avoid discarding aged tech into waste grounds. Numerous materials vital for these technologies are costly and could be harvested anew to curtail the demand for further mining. 

Fortuitously, extensive initiatives to recycle solar arrays, lithium-ion accumulators, and even wind turbine propellers are already in progress. So whilst a predicament with waste is foreseeable, ample prospects exist to preemptively manage it now and into the future. 

In conclusion, as you navigate the topic of climate technology during your festive banquet, bear in mind that a segment of the audience might prefer confrontation over dialogue, and it’s perfectly acceptable to occasionally veer off to another subject! If in search of alternative discussion points, consider mentioning that crabs have evolved independently numerous times to the point where the phenomenon has its own designation. (It’s calledcarcinization.)

Savor discussions centered around crabs or eco-friendly technologies, and do savor some creamy puréed potatoes on my behalf!

Suggested Literature

To expand your comprehension of electric vehicles, especially on the matter of hybrids, peruse this narrative from the previous year. Moreover, for my ambiguous support of massive EVs, take a moment to read through this.

Regarding the extraction of minerals, I suggest you delve into this conversation that my companion James Temple engaged in with an agent from the Department of Energy, discussing the pivotal role of vital minerals for sustainable energy. You should also glance over this bulletin I crafted earlier in the year, which dispels three misconceptions about mineral extraction for renewable energy. 

Furthermore, should you have an eagerness to explore recycling, here are some recent compositions I have penned on the recycling of wind turbine vanes, solar modules, and accumulator units

Another Consideration

The complexity of the power grid is escalating, yet artificial intelligence might offer a helping hand. AI has the potential to reinforce and expedite the grid in numerous manners, ranging from empowering operators to execute more swift verdicts to integrating EVs as part of the grid’s resolution. Investigate the latest from my associate June Kim for further insights!

Climate Chronicles

The state of New York has committed to buying 30,000 heat pumps for public housing units. These devices may contribute to energy conservation, lowering living costs, and combating climate change, and examining these and other similar experiments will be crucial in ascertaining systems that are practical for tenants, which remains a persistent impediment for this technology. (The Verge)

In corresponding developments, the US Department of Energy recently proclaimed the awarding of $169 million in federal support for the domestic production of heat pumps. (Wired)

→ The functionality of heat pumps is elucidated here. (MIT Technology Review)

An antiquated pledge of $100 billion from approximately 15 years prior still influences climate dialogues, inclusive of the imminent UN climate discussions. (Grist)

To encourage a shift towards EVs, some are advocating financial incentives for trading in old fuel-inefficient automobiles. Initiatives in states like Colorado, Vermont, and California are exploring this method. (Bloomberg)

Transporting water up and down elevations is an economical and dependable method for storing energy. Yet, concerns are escalating about the source of water for new storage endeavors. (Inside Climate News)

Alterations in global electricity supplies are underway, and these visual representations show the transition. I was captivated by the world atlas indicating the regions where reliance on fossil fuels is waning (across the US, the vast majority of Europe, Japan) and those where it remains on the rise. (New York Times)

→ A rundown of the nations most liable for climate change. (MIT Technology Review)

Eat Just, a business that crafts plant-based eggs and cultured meats, finds itself in a challenging fiscal state. The enterprise has grappled with legal actions and has struggled with remitting payments to its suppliers promptly, as reported in a recent exposé. (Wired

Portugal generated an excess of renewable electricity to supply all its consumers for a consecutive six days this past autumn. (Canary Media)

Written by

Hey there, I'm Logan Mitchell, and I'm all about life hacks, clever solutions, and smart strategies. My passion is to share practical insights to make your daily life easier and more enjoyable. When I'm not writing, I'm constantly exploring new tips and techniques to streamline and enhance our everyday routines. Join me on this journey, and together, we can unlock the secrets to a more efficient and fulfilling life.

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