Do We Need a “Holy Grail” Technology to Combat Climate Change?

Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) took a look at their earlier predictions on global warming, and guess what? They significantly underestimated the rate of increase in global emissions, particularly between 2000 and 2008. This was mainly due to the unforeseen (and rapid) increase in coal-burning by developing countries like China. But even still, it’s quite scary that we surpassed the worst-case-scenario predictions for 2000-2008. So, will we need some type of “Holy Grail” technology to stop global warming? Is the combination of renewable energy and possibly carbon capture and sequestration really enough?

Climatologists like Christopher Field, the founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, recently stated that “we are basically looking now at a future that’s beyond anything we’ve considered seriously in climate model simulation.” And what the future may in fact need is innovative and resourceful technology. So what are we doing to address R&D and take the next step in developing greenhouse gas reduction technology?
The U.S. government has promised an increase in funding, but some suggest the government will still need to spend a lot more on basic energy research. Obama’s new stimulus package contains $400 million for advanced research for the Department of Energy, which will ultimately be designated for alternative and energy efficiency projects. But what about carbon capture and so called “energy discovery-innovation institutes?” Time is of the essence, and the slow process of scientific discovery may well need a boost in the form of cold hard cash to kick it into high gear.
That’s why a new Brookings report entitled “Energy Discovery Innovation Institutes: A Step towards America’s Energy Sustainability” calls for a total federal R&D goal of $20 to $30 billion a year. This is a seemingly enormous sum of money, but it is what Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, says we will need “to push closer to commercialization, fast.”
Although there is currently no “Holy Grail” technology to combat climate change, and there will never be just one solution, it’s always important to have additional weapons to add to one’s arsenal. We can’t rely too heavily on solar and wind, simply because of their energy storage issues. Energy storage problems are a major concern because renewables are often intermittent, producing energy only when the sun shines or wind blows. This means that large amounts of energy need to be stored (in batteries or otherwise) for access. That’s why we simply can’t be satisfied with our current technologies and must march forward. There have been obvious improvements in the efficiency of solar panels, biofuels, wind turbines, and carbon capture and sequestration technologies, but we simply need more solutions faster than ever before.
So what do we need to do then? Perhaps we need to lobby for less cumbersome commercialization regulations and of course, more funding. If a new clean technology is not dangerous, why hold back on testing it out? There should be adequate funding so that hundreds (if not thousands) of different technologies can be tried and tested in the market. This trial and error method may be our best chance at finally discovering something that is easily adopted, economically feasible, and highly efficient. This may merely seem like throwing money at the problem, but at this stage our options are limited. A cap-and-trade system is still an important part of the solution, but it can’t stop our thirst for energy.
Who knows, maybe we’ll finally figure out nuclear fusion and be on our way.
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One response

  1. First, thans for a stimulating article, and some great links like the Brooking Institute one.
    I used to have a friend that said it is hard to think clearly about draining the swamp when you are wrestling with the alligators. Here are our current greenhouse gas alligators—buildings and transport (and the baby alligators are industry and agriculture). We can reduce housing energy USE easily 80%: the problem is embedded energy and we need to get much more serious on both new and recycled building materials, and items like building orientation, but this is possible right now–it is not buildings that are expensive but the land they are built on.
    The problem with transport is mixing big vehicles and small vehicles at speed–the good guys lose. We need DUPLICATE roads for the use of small vehicles (preferably COVERED), and that is a win-win for both the small and the large since congestion on our roads has a unbelievably large productivity cost as well as the GHG emissions. Small motorbikes are extreme but they do 100 mpg right now, and we can do that in a small car with a internal combustion engine–electric might be better eventually but they will still need the duplicate covered roads so why don’t we get on with them?.
    To go with the duplicate roads we need strategically placed parking to free up City streets and make walking enjoyable not a horror.
    Most of this doesn’t take a Holy Grail. It does take a vision of Cities no longer grid locked anytime, and with a VILLAGE feel because of no cars on the streets during the main part of the day: and suburban living with very low speed limits, properly positioned deciduous trees, and hopefully far more “kitchen gardens”–the first step in “fixing” agriculture.
    If we do act on these alligators, it means that we could spend a lot more on energy per. unit and still be spending less overall, so it is not an economic necessity to find a Holy Grail.
    So, what will draining the swamp consist of, once we have done the obvious (but not easy)? Basically it is reducing world wide population, and the only hope for that is educating women (and men) in great professions like engineering and applied science. Unless we reduce population, all the rest would be a waste of time, but fixing housing and roads is something we can do quickly—just think how quickly we built US highways when we thought that Cities would have to be evacuated quickly because of The Bomb.
    I am not against Holy Grails, but as the Frenchman said in “the quest for the Holy Grail”, why would we seek another when we have already got one?

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