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  • Alex Gawley

The hard science we need to unlock deep decarbonisation

Editor’s note: This the first article in a three-part series talking about the why, what and how of our investment thesis.

Climate change is caused by greenhouse gases (like carbon dioxide and methane) in the Earth’s atmosphere capturing the heat from the Sun and increasing average temperatures. These gases are emitted during most of the activities we use to sustain modern life, like energy generation, transportation, agriculture and industry.

Extract from a tree-map of GHG emissions we use internally to assess opportunities
Extract from a tree-map of GHG emissions we use internally to assess opportunities

In order to reduce and eventually reverse the effects of climate change we need new ways of doing these activities that deliver the same benefits but do not emit GHGs. The challenge in doing this is that years of innovation and technical investment mean that today’s solutions are amazing. They are modern miracles.

The Haber-Bosch process for developing ammonia (and then the manufacture of fertiliser from that) is responsible for most of us being alive today. Access to immediate, reliable electricity has enabled huge advances in productivity. Car and air travel have enabled mass economic migration while keeping us all connected to our friends and loved ones.

Finding modern, clean alternatives to these techno-economic engines is the Apollo Programme of our generation. A problem so hard, that it will take the application of everything we’ve learnt so far and the invention of myriad new technologies to solve it. This is the race for deep decarbonisation and it is not for the faint-hearted.

In some areas of this ‘race’ we’re making good progress. Wind and solar power have been through a rapid deployment and improvement curve leading to cheaper, cleaner energy forming an increasing percentage of our mix. Electric vehicles are following a similar path—rapidly climbing the performance and adoption ladder. These are the more mature technologies of the transition and whilst they need optimisation, like better batteries and an upgraded grid, we have a good roadmap for the next 10 years.

Unfortunately, even with full deployment and optimisation of existing technologies, we’re not on track to reach net zero in 2050. Areas like cement and steel manufacture, food production, industrial heat and cooling, and the full decarbonisation of electricity production are still largely unsolved. That’s why it’s clear to us that we will need scientists and entrepreneurs to discover, optimise and commercialise fundamentally new science to address this challenge.

The good news for us the scientific tools that we have at our disposal are more than up to the task.

  • Advances in synthetic biology allow us to identify clever, emissions-free (or negative) solutions from nature; then optimise and engineer them to solve human-scale problems like making the building materials we need for the next 100 years.

  • Low temperature electrochemical alternatives to current high heat processes promise to decarbonise really challenging areas like steel and ammonia manufacture.

  • Rapid gene sequencing and editing can help us improve plants to feed more people with less land or sequester carbon to the soil or oceans faster

  • Our deep understanding of materials means we can design the exact properties that we need from a catalyst or a sorbent

  • And recent step-changes in computing mean that we can execute these scientific searches and design solutions with ever-increasing efficiency and effectiveness.

There’s one thing that all of these areas have in common. They are all focussed on finding new ways to organise atoms, molecules, cells or equipment to re-engineer the processes that currently emit the most GHGs. They’re what we mean when we say ‘hard science’. Whilst we can and should do everything we can to optimise and improve the way we currently do things, innovations in these ‘hard sciences’ are absolutely necessary to unlock the door to a future of zero emissions. To succeed in the race to decarbonisation, we need literally to rebuild the physical world that we have made.

This change is a second industrial revolution. And as with the first industrial revolution, it will be driven by scientists.


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