Machines to magic carbon out of the air, artificial intelligence, indoor vertical farms to grow food for our escape to Mars, and even solar-powered “responsible” yachts: the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai has been festooned with the promise of technological fixes for worsening global heating and ecological breakdown.
The UN climate talks have drawn a record number of delegates to a sprawling, freshly built metropolis, which has as its centrepiece an enormous dome that emits sounds and lights up in different colours at night. The two-week programme is laden with talks, events and demonstrations of the need for humanity to innovate its way out of the climate crisis.
Given the ponderous action by governments to cut planet-heating emissions – the world is still hurtling towards disastrous climate breakdown – the tech focus is helpful, said Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire Microsoft co-founder, as he ventured into the Dubai sunshine.
“I’m most optimistic about the incredible innovation,” he said. “People’s willingness to pay for climate is limited … We need to really innovate. You have to create the new before you shut down the old.”
AI has been touted at Cop28 as a way to track emissions and has been used by young climate activists to send “compelling messages from the future” by artificially ageing them to represent themselves in the year 2050. An exhibition has featured people pitching climate innovations via hologram, while a company has promoted the idea of making aviation fuel out of the fruit of macaúba palm trees in Brazil.
Some of the innovations feel particularly apt for the United Arab Emirates, a petrostate and coastal playground of the super-rich, such as an event to promote “responsible yachting”, held on Tuesday. The enormous emissions from yachts are “scary”, a spokesman for Sunreef Yachts, which positions itself as an eco-yacht company, conceded. But they added: “The yachting environment is very diverse. We are here to discuss the alternatives.”
But this fixation has alarmed some scientists and climate activists, who warn that technologies are being used to distract from the primary task of stopping fossil fuels being burned. Cop28’s president, Sultan Al Jaber, also the head of the UAE’s national oil company, has questioned the feasibility of a fossil fuel phase-out.
A record number of fossil fuel lobbyists are at this Cop, including Darren Woods, chief executive of Exxon, who has said he wants an “emphasis put on a problem statement of eliminating emissions, versus a problem statement focused on the oil and gas industry per se.”
“It’s frightening because they see this as a new business opportunity, a new way to make money and continue as before,” said Pierre Friedlingstein, a climate researcher at the University of Exeter, of the hopes being ladled upon carbon removal technologies.
Total current technology-based CO2 removal, excluding nature-based means such as planting new forests, removes just 0.01m tonnes of CO2, according to recent research led by Friedlingstein, which is more than a million times smaller than current fossil fuel CO2 emissions.
Despite its small scale, voluminous carbon removal techniques are relied upon in many climate models and plans by countries and companies to avoid breaching a 1.5C rise in global temperatures since pre-industrial times and unleashing catastrophic heatwaves, droughts, floods and other impacts.
“They will scale this up, and if they do it by a factor of 100 in the next 10 to 20 years, that would be amazing, but they won’t scale up by a factor of 1 million,” said Friedlingstein. “There is no alternative to reducing emissions massively. These technologies are a distraction, a way to pretend we are dealing with the issue, but we aren’t.
“We have housing insulation, we have electric vehicles, we have renewables, we have batteries. Scaling them up is not trivial, but we don’t need a magical new technology for the first 90% of this problem.”
Greater efforts will be needed on “carbon management” – which includes directly removing carbon as well as capturing emissions at their source from industrial facilities and somehow storing them – if climate goals are to be met, negotiators from countries including the US, UK, Brazil and Kenya agreed at Cop28 on Wednesday.
Keeping to 1.5C is “simply not possible” without the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS), said John Kerry, the US climate envoy, at the meeting. “This is not a US position, it’s a matter of science,” he said. “If we don’t have carbon capture, we can’t get to net zero.” Kerry acknowledged the yawning gap to the amount of emission reduction needed, but added: “We’ve got to try.”
Capturing carbon is no substitute for cutting emissions and ramping up clean energy, agreed Majid Al Suwaidi, the UAE’s lead climate negotiator, but “the reality is, we need to deal with the energy systems we have while we build the energy systems we want”.
Global emissions must be cut nearly in half this decade and then to net zero by 2050, and about 10% of this will probably have to come from carbon management techniques, said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency. Birol said that the sweeping expectations placed upon such technologies have largely fallen flat so far: “When I look at the last 15 years or so, the story of CCS is, to say the least, a disappointing one.”
Countries are negotiating whether to include a phase-out of fossil fuels in the Cop28 agreement and a final deal may include language around “unabated” emissions. This would place fresh onus upon carbon removal and CCS – but also come at a cost.
An extra 86bn tonnes of greenhouse gases could be released by 2050 if CCS is relied upon but underperforms, a new report by Climate Analytics has warned, while a major buildout and use of this technology will cost the world an extra $1tn a year, a separate study by Oxford University has found.
But the lack of urgency in cutting emissions – 2023 is about to set new records in both heat and carbon pollution – means that no options should be discounted, according to Steve Smith, executive director of Oxford Net Zero.
“You can’t take anything off the table if you want to meet our climate goals,” he said. “There’s not much scope for either/or. It’s both/and. This technology isn’t a false solution – there’s no one solution.”
For countries in the teeth of the climate crisis, though, nothing but the end of the fossil fuel era will be enough. Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands, which is at severe risk from rising sea levels and other hazards stemming from global heating, said she welcomed a commitment to ramp up renewable energy and other technologies, but said coal, oil and gas still needed to abandoned.
“We can’t afford to not address the root cause of this problem,” she said. “We also cannot afford to pretend there are other pathways to retrieving 1.5C when so many lives are at stake.”