The climate tech solutions we can deploy now

By Rebekah Mays

“Now is more important than new, and time is way more important than tech.” This is the message that Dr. Jonathan Foley, executive director of Project Drawdown, has been promoting since the release of the Drawdown Roadmap in early 2023.

The Roadmap provides a prioritized framework of actions we should take to achieve Net Zero. Actions like stopping methane leaks and deforestation are “emergency brakes” that can’t wait, according to the Roadmap. Time-intensive and riskier solutions like carbon dioxide removal (CDR), on the other hand, are not the Roadmap’s first priority.

For the record, I think the Roadmap is a fantastic initiative and deserves more attention. In a time when we have so many ways we can potentially fight climate change, the Roadmap provides the kind of direction and data-based clarity we need. 

But I do have two small issues with how it talks about climate technology:

  1. “Climate technology” is so much more than carbon dioxide removal. 
  2. CDR is a large, diverse space: some CDR methods are risky and not fully proven, while others like biochar are well established — even if not yet reducing emissions at scale.

The way I see it, climate tech is a broad network of technology solutions that can complement nature-based approaches. When we pit technology against nature in our hunt for the ideal climate solutions, we drastically limit the solutions that are available to us.

Despite this language, Dr Foley is not actually anti-technology or against investing in climate technology. Many of the solutions that Project Drawdown promotes are, in fact, technology-based — from heat pump installation to electrifying most of our infrastructure.

Dr Foley spoke to this point recently on Climate Tech 360. Climate investor Samia Qader interviewed Dr Foley about his framework for thinking about climate technology — and he revealed the technologies he believes are most promising in our race to Net Zero.

The time value of carbon

Before we look at specific technologies, a crucial concept to understand within the Drawdown Roadmap is the “time value” of carbon. Both reducing emissions and failing to reduce them have a compounding effect — much like financial investments do. 

“If you want to cut emissions in half in a decade and keep cutting and keep cutting towards Net Zero by 2050-2060,” Dr Foley says on the podcast, “you lose about 7% a year for every year you wait in terms of its ultimate impact on climate change. That’s crazy!” 

This effect is compounding, he explains. If you wait ten years, you lose half of the overall effectiveness of the action. “So that’s why we should act now with the tools we have today, because they can start having impact now and every single year out into the future.”

The “time value of carbon” concept is why the Drawdown Roadmap prioritizes solutions we can implement immediately. This is why he argues we can de-prioritize lengthy, riskier projects like carbon capture and nuclear energy — which have been in the works for decades without significant results to show for it.

Project Drawdown roadmap

“Early action is key to addressing climate change”: the time value of carbon. Image Credit: Project Drawdown 

The top technologies

So what makes for a good climate technology, according to this framework? Winning climate technology includes solutions that are:

  • Ready now: they’re already proven to work at scale and are being (or could be) deployed now
  • Modular & easy to scale: they can ideally be easily broken down into smaller units and don’t require massive factories or complex transportation
  • Cheap and getting cheaper: they’re already cost-effective, like solar or wind


With a little imagination, we can see there are many different technology solutions that fit the bill. To provide further illustration, here are the examples Dr. Foley mentions in the podcast episode.

Electricity

  • Solar: both distributed and utility-scale solar photovoltaics
  • Wind: micro, onshore, and offshore wind turbines
  • Battery storage: While battery storage still needs to scale up to reach Net Zero goals, grid-scale storage has seen major progress over the past several years
  • Geothermal: Geothermal power may not be as straightforward as other renewables on this list, but geothermal power plants have been around for more than 100 years and are poised for further growth.
IEA Grid-scale storage graphic

Annual grid-scale storage solution additions around the world, 2017-2022. Credit: IEA analysis based on Clean Horizon, BloombergNEF, China Energy Storage Alliance and Energy Storage Association.

Transportation

Buildings and Industry

  • Heat pumps: saving energy and lowering costs in buildings
  • Waste management: improving the way we handle waste, especially reducing food waste
  • Steel & Cement: Industry is currently responsible for 21% of emissions — innovations to reduce emissions across steel and cement manufacturing are exciting
  • Refrigerants: we can already make big improvements through refrigerant management, and climate-friendly refrigerants are on the rise

Food & Ag

  • Sensors and tracking to reduce food waste / improve supply chain accountability

Other

  • Satellites to track methane leaks and deforestation
  • Technology & AI to improve supply chain logistics accountability: In this category, we can also think of the many types of software companies that track and report on emissions

“Everyone in and outside of the climate tech world should be considering their role in this urgent mission — and doing what they can to support and invest in the right projects.

What about CDR?

I’ll leave it to the experts to evaluate whether CDR is or is not a key part of solving climate change.

Still, I would urge CDR opponents to be careful not to paint all carbon dioxide removal technologies with a single brush. 

First of all, biochar is a form of carbon dioxide removal that involves engineered removal mechanisms. Biochar production is actually one of the solutions that Project Drawdown promotes.

Secondly, there are a number of companies in the CDR space that operate in the modular way Dr Foley seems to favor. Skytree, a Amsterdam-based startup that supplies repurposed CO2 to various industries, sells modular units that can be scaled up to a “hub” to remove carbon at much larger capacities.

Finally, we should also take note that the CDR space is now evolving quickly. While it’s still a long, long way off from the 10 gigaton goal by 2050 that the IPCC report calls for, there’s been a lot of movement in the past year. 

In their white paper on tech-based CDR, Sylvera points out that 2023 brought with it an exponential increase in the amount of metric tons of CO2 purchased. While purchasers had only bought 750k metric tons of CO2 as of January 2023, this had increased to nearly 5.5 million metric tons of CO2 by January 2024.

Jonte Boysen and Torben Schreiter have also recently discussed “the rise of DAC 3.0” in a piece on Medium. They make the case that captured carbon will soon become a dirt-cheap commodity thanks to innovations in the Direct Air Capture space.

Commoditization of captured CO2: Extant graphic

“Few Commodities Get Close to $100/t With Only Gravel and Sand Below It”: Extantia graphic


Despite the complexities and debates within the climate tech space, one thing is clear. We shouldn’t “kick the can down the road,” as Dr. Foley likes to say, and we certainly shouldn’t let big oil companies use CDR as an excuse to keep producing oil. We can make massive progress on right now, using many of the technologies we have right now.

This means that everyone in and outside of the climate tech world should be considering their role in this urgent mission — and doing what they can to support and invest in the right projects. 

But the way I see it, climate activists don’t need to disparage technology (or tech-lovers) when talking about climate solutions. 

There are plenty of tech solutions available right now — solutions we can deploy to achieve our goals. Many of them are well on their way to helping us solve the crisis. Others are ready and waiting to be put to use. 

To me, identifying and promoting these technologies definitely seems like a worthy goal — which is why I hope the climate tech world will take the Drawdown Roadmap and Dr. Foley’s work seriously. 

About the author

Rebekah Mays is a B2B writer and content strategist for climate tech brands. For seven years, she’s been partnering with clients to create strategic content marketing pieces that build awareness and generate qualified leads. Her business One Generation aims to help the world’s climate tech heroes get measurable marketing results so they can help businesses decarbonize.

Keep exploring