Human Ingenuity and Climate Change – Interdependencies?

As world leaders gather in Glasgow for the COP26 conference on how to offset the measurable warming of our planet, what might we think about the role of a moral capitalism in sustaining our earthly home and our civilization?

I have been thinking recently, in this connection, with the effects of human ingenuity and its empowerment of us to become “masters” of nature.  Such ingenuity has passed into our lives through technology – steam engines, paper money, steel, electricity, the telegraph, oil wells, automobiles, railroads, airplanes, cell phones, atomic bombs and nuclear power stations, to name a few of our inventions.

It seems certain that the human contribution to global warming has been 1) securing more and more energy by inventing and using technologies which release CO2 into the atmosphere and 2) using technologies to create a modern economy which, over the last 300 years, has raised our living standards to remarkable global levels of comfort and enjoyment compared to past millennia.

My question, then, is if our ingenuity and technological innovations have brought us to where we are today, then why can’t they get us out of our present predicament?

In my view, the incentive to conceive of, successfully develop and bring to scale the technologies supporting modern civilization was a product of capitalism and the financing of such inventions and their introduction and adoption on a global scale was also a product of that social/economic/cultural system.

We might pause to reflect on our current affliction from the SARS-CoV-2 virus on the point that our hopes for besting the virus lie most with vaccines developed by private companies, new technologies which could be taken up by government and widely distributed to peoples.

The material and technical side of communism and socialist governments were, with negligible exceptions, copied from capitalist economies.

Thus, the challenge of a moral capitalism is how best to encourage the conception, invention, development and production of those technologies which can establish a better balance between our civilization and its impacts on our environment, particularly our atmosphere.

We could, apparently, produce supercapacitors which can release large amounts of electric energy quickly, but can’t store as much as a battery.  A supercapacitor, coupled with a battery, could double the range of an electric car, allowing it to be driven some 500 miles on a single charge.  The new device could be recharged in five minutes to 80% of its capacity.

Some propose “dynamic charging” so that vehicle batteries can be recharged while the vehicles are in motion by wireless transmission from under the road pads to receivers on the bottom of the vehicles.  Roads, however, must be connected to the grid for this to happen.

Dr. Wang Zhong Lin at the Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy has proposed a device to ride on ocean waters and use the motion of waves to generate electric currents.  His device, a paddle, can generate electricity with large waves, but also from small waves which, in the aggregate, can generate considerable electricity.  He uses a novel technique – not passing a coil of wire through a magnetic field – but friction, like getting static electricity from rubbing a balloon.

Plants with the C4 gene for photosynthesis, mostly grasses, remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than other plants which don’t have that gene.  If human ingenuity could engineer the modification of other trees to include the C4 gene in their genome, forests could be grown in many countries to remove CO2 in large amounts from the atmosphere for sequestering in wood.

The use of hydrogen as a source of energy has its advocates, but as of now, is not practical. Hydrogen use is carbon free.  Hydrogen fuel cells produce as by-products only water vapor and warm air.  The challenge is how to acquire hydrogen in large amounts at a reasonable cost which is acceptable to consumers.

Nuclear power plants could be used to produce hydrogen by using steam and electricity to split water atoms and separate the hydrogen.

BP is experimenting with using wind power to produce hydrogen.  A 50-megawatt electrolyzer will split water into hydrogen and oxygen.  When excess electricity is generated by wind turbines, it can be used to make hydrogen, which can be stored for later use in producing useful energy.

A Canadian company, Planetary Hydrogen, proposes to take carbon out of the atmosphere and convert it into an antacid for mixing in ocean water acidified by absorption of too much CO2.

Airlines might use cooking oils, animal fats, agricultural crops and wood as biofuels for jet engines.  Today, biofuels cost up to 4 times more than conventional jet fuel.  Aviation drives 3.5% of human made greenhouse gas emissions.

Another possible jet fuel could be made from hydrogen combined with carbon monoxide.

Smithfield Foods is planning to sell methane to burn with shale gas, a byproduct of natural gas extraction, in home heaters.  Methane produces some 20% of greenhouse gas emissions and is 25% more potent than CO2 in trapping the earth’s heat.  Hog manure lagoons are being converted to capture methane emissions.  But such methane can’t compete on price with shale gas, so its production must be subsidized.  And manure lagoons need to be connected with gas pipelines, an expensive capital investment.

Sierra Energy has a prototype refinery in California which processes 10 tons of garbage a day into a ton of hydrogen.  The trash is blasted with 4,000-degree Fahrenheit steam and oxygen to break it down into hydrogen and carbon monoxide.  Garbage buried emits methane into the atmosphere.

Hydrogen could be used in the production of steel replacing coking coal.  Steel making accounts for about 8% of greenhouse gas emissions.  Hybritt, a Swedish industrial coalition, delivered the first ton of “green” steel last August.  Hydrogen can also replace the hydrocarbons of natural gas in other manufacturing processes, demanding high temperatures like chemical reactors, cement kilns and glassmaking.

Those who want to invest in the technology of using hydrogen for energy generation need to feel secure that others will produce enough hydrogen day-in and day-out at a predictable and acceptable cost.  Reciprocally, those who want to invest in the production of hydrogen need to feel secure that others will want to buy their production as a predictable price covering the costs of production, plus an acceptable profit.  The risky part of capitalism, moral or otherwise, is the alchemy of aligning a critical mass of consumers in timely fashion with a critical mass of producers.  Markets can do this, generally incrementally and not always easily or seamlessly.

Hydrogen is produced from electrolyzers.  Today, the world has about 3 gigawatts of electrolyzer capacity (a gigawatt is the capacity of a nuclear power plant).  Scaling up generating capacity would lower the cost of adding additional capacity.  On October 10, Andrew Forrest, Australia’s richest man and owner of Fortescue Metals Group, announced plans to build the world’s largest factory for making electrolyzer machines.

As a result of new generating capacity coming online, the cost of hydrogen made from renewable sources is dropping.  Chevron has made a big bet on producing hydrogen.  Some 350 large projects are globally underway to produce clean hydrogen, distribute hydrogen or to use hydrogen in industrial plants.

People, especially in urban centers, spend hours of the day in under-ventilated buildings.  Such conditions support headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, coughs, nausea, irritation of eyes, nose, throat and skin.  Covid has drawn attention to the quality of indoor air.  Technology is needed to improve indoor ventilation.

With respect to food production, kernza is a perennial wheat with deep roots that help protect ground water supplies from nitrate pollution, stores more carbon in the soil and reduces erosion.  General Mills is interested in making its Cascadian Farms cereal from kernza wheat.

Technology is needed to protect kelp beds from sea urchins.  Kelp beds sustain fish and absorb carbon.  But warming waters have promoted the growth of sea urchins which eat kelp.

Our demand for meat has given rise to widespread use of land for farms and pasture. Industrialized food production is also energy intensive and consumes great quantities of pesticides and fertilizer, with negative impacts on the environment.  Now, new technologies are being explored to change food chains.  Yeasts are being programmed to grow proteins which can make a soy-protein patty that looks and tastes like beef.  Cells taken from living animals can be used in bioreactors to grow meat.  A bacon substitute is being made from mycelium, a network of fungal fibers.  Inland saline aquaculture can bring seafood to people living miles away from oceans and forestall overfishing.  Vegetables are being grown in shipping containers in cities just blocks away from the consumers who will buy and eat them.  In San Francisco, there is a “vertical” farm with some 8,000 square meters in production.

The company, Beyond Meat, earned $406 million in net revenue in 2020.  Having gone public in 2019, it now has a market value of $7 billion.  In 2020, plant-based cow milk substitutes accounted for 15% of America’s milk market.

The Judeo-Christian Bible and the Qur’an tell us that we are made in God’s image or with his spirit.  We, therefore, have both the capacity to create worlds and the moral obligation to let creation flourish.