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IPCC Report Highlights Dire Need For Climate Tech Innovation

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On August 9, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the first installment of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6). AR6 is the latest in a series of “Synthesis Reports” published by the organization—the latest since 2014.
According to this iteration, “[it is] unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land” and that “widespread and rapid changes [...] have occurred."
Although the report won’t be finalized until September 2022, today’s findings —specifically those concerning the physical science basis of climate change—paint a stark picture of the future and holds out the faintest of possibilities for a marginally less stark outcome if remarkable measures are taken to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. Crucially, this all-hands-on-deck approach directly calls for government-level interventions and innovation from the private sector.

Warming Is Baked In, But We Control The Heat

At just under 4000 pages [PDF], AR6 exhaustively describes the state of the environment while laying out several possible futures for our warming planet.  The policymaker-focused summary comes in at a more digestible 42 pages [PDF]—here’s a very brief summary of those findings.
We’re living in historically unprecedented times:
  • Report authors have high confidence that CO2 concentrations in 2019 were higher than “at any time in at least 2 million years.” Concentrations of CH4 and N2O were higher than any time in the past 800,000 years.
  • Global surface temperature has increased faster since 1970 than any other 50-year period in at least the last 2000 years. 
  • Between 2011 - 2020, annual average Arctic sea ice area reached its lowest level since at least 1850.
  • Report authors have high confidence that the global average sea level has risen faster since 1900 than any preceding century in at least 3000 years.
Here’s the current state of play:
  • It’s “virtually certain” that extreme heat events have become more frequent and more intense since the 1950s.
  • Researchers have high confidence that the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation events have increased since the 1950s, and that human-caused climate change is the likely driver.
  • It’s likely that the proportion of major (Category 3-5) tropical cyclone occurrences has increased over the past 40 years, and that the range of these storms has extended into more northerly latitudes.

A Warmer Earth, for Thousands of Years

The near future is highly likely to bring continued warming even if significant emission-cutting measures are implemented immediately. Report authors say that even under the most optimistic scenarios, global temperatures will increase to 1.5ºC above a pre-industrial baseline by the 2050s and might cool to 1.4ºC above baseline by the end of the 21st century. More likely scenarios estimate warming to at least 2 - 2.5º above baseline by 2100; researchers note with medium confidence that the last time the global surface temperature was sustained at or above 2.5ºC higher than baseline levels was over 3 million years ago. 
And under any scenario, the report indicates that some of the human-caused changes to the climate are permanent, at least on human timescales. Here are some of the findings regarding long-term changes:
  • The ocean will continue to warm throughout the rest of the 21st century. It’s likely that ocean warming will range between 2 and 8 times the rate of change recorded between 1971-2018, depending on future emissions. These changes are “irreversible on centennial to millennial time scales.”
  • Glaciers will continue melting for decades or centuries. Continued ice loss in the Greenland ice sheet is virtually certain, and ice loss on the Antarctic ice sheet is likely.
  • It’s virtually certain that global average sea level will continue to rise over the 21st century and are “committed to rise for centuries to millennia due to continuing deep ocean warming and ice sheet melt”

Carbon Rules Everything Around Sustainability Startups

SPEEDA Edge estimates that the market opportunity for the sustainable energy industry—which also includes companies working on carbon capture and sequestration—could reach USD 30.1 billion by 2025, led by growing consumer awareness of climate change and international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 
Other factors that could drive market growth in the sustainable energy market include:
  • Government policy and individual consumer preference are likely to shift the energy mix toward more renewables and zero-emissions sources like wind, solar, and nuclear. 
  • Similar shifts may drive increased adoption of diets and lifestyles with smaller carbon footprints. Such changes could also increase the adoption of electric vehicles.
  • Regulations imposing market-based solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (such as an incremental tax or carbon credit exchanges) could incentivize companies to manage their energy consumption and capture greenhouse gas emissions at the source.
One path to reducing carbon emissions is through carbon capture, utilization, and storage technology which, in certain implementations, can be used to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Here are seven companies working on these approaches.
The good news is that there are plenty of startups aiming to limit the worst outcomes of climate change by either removing or preventing carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. That there are now venture capital firms—such as Lowercarbon Capital and Climate Capital—with investment theses revolving around a lower carbon future is a good thing. More capital to back risky ventures with ambitious goals of quite literally saving the world is a net positive.
But even as these carbon-negative ventures slurp CO2 out of the atmosphere, their efforts can only go so far. A fair  (if pessimistic) take is that carbon removal, even at massive scale, is an endeavor which does too little and comes too late to materially change the trajectory of climate change. 
Although the IPCC report’s authors have high confidence that it’s possible to capture and store carbon in permanent reservoirs (something that’s already happening), and that removing atmospheric carbon will improve a number of environmental wellness indicators like ocean acidification on the time scale of decades, reversing other climate change trends is going to take much longer. For example, it will take centuries or millennia for ocean levels to return to pre-industrial levels.
All this points to the following conclusion: pursuit of an all-the-above strategy for addressing climate change is the least we can do. It will take shifting electricity generation away from fossil fuels and toward carbon-neutral sources of energy like solar, geothermal, and nuclear power. It’ll take a collective willingness to become less reliant on traditional animal agriculture as a primary source of protein; with plant-based meat alternatives and cultured meat improving in taste experience and coming down in price, that shift may be easier to make. It’s going to take a shift away from petroleum-derived plastics and industrial chemicals. It’s going to take a lot, all the above and more, to answer the question of what kind of world we want to live in 30 years from now. And if the window of opportunity to avoid the most dire consequences of climate change is, as report authors suggest, closing faster than previously thought, we’re going to have to come up with that answer fast.

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