This piece originally appeared in The Impact, 4th May, 2021
How to value a climate-normalizing technology, or enterprise?
This is an vast and complex subject. One important approach is this: let’s think about how to value climate-normalizing solutions on the basis of whether they’re deployable rapidly, creating climate benefits in years, not decades. These would be particularly critical if earth is nearing a set of tipping points — points where small increments cause substantial and irreversible alteration to the climate.
Each climate tech solution aims to tackle some niche of the global climate crisis. We value these technologies as substitutes — where we may pay a small price premium for the betterment of society, but little more. Then, there is no way to see one niche, one narrow technology, as more or less vital than the next.
We need to change the calculation for climate tech solutions. The focus needs to be on the impact these solutions have toward reversing us away from tipping points on the scale towards full global meltdown. Thus, we need to rethink how society, governments and groups can view the value of climate technologies, and create prioritized solutions to prioritized problems.
Breaking down climate tipping points
We are moving, seemingly inexorably, toward multiple tipping points, each of which creates a change from which it is hard to come back. There are some well-known examples: Amazon forest dieback is accelerated by deforestation. Methane release from Siberian permafrost is accelerated by increasing temperatures. Disruption of monsoons or of the Atlantic circulation (the warming stream that keeps Europe’s temperatures moderate), among others.
Clearly the probable existence of irreversible points-of-no-return in climate damage would put a tremendous premium on solutions — behavioral, carbon sequestration, and other solutions — to be put in place before the entire climate collapses. Reading the scientific literature on this is breathtaking: sober discussions and thoughtful, quantitative analyses where the unspoken “if we get this wrong” consequences may include the obliteration of humanity.
Reforestation as a means to avoid the Amazonian deforestation tipping point
Understanding the nature of such tipping points, at a quantitative level, is key to assessing how fast we must act and extending on this, to be blunt, how much we should spend. Some of the climate-disrupting actions — combatting Amazon forest dieback on the ground in Brazil and Peru — may be more tractable economically and logistically in relatively short timescales than others — large-scale active carbon sequestration, perhaps.
A short-term, large-scale investment directed at reversing or preventing the fast-onset tipping points might have greater beneficial outcomes than a broader approach. Sounds reasonable? Where to start? Given the current, retrograde stance of Brazil, it might be easier to start elsewhere in the region, aiming to simultaneously get the science and the economics right, and to start building the ability to reverse out of tipping points.
So, it’s interesting to see analyses that start to distinguish between fast-onset tipping mechanisms and slower-acting ones.
A paper in Nature this month moves this forward, with some key conclusions:
- Many tipping points don’t immediately get to an irreversible stage. For many, it will be possible to reverse back out before the climate system is irretrievably in a different state.
- How far away the point-of-no-return is depends on the inherent timescale of the system, and the rate of change of Earth’s surface temperature — thus, how soon we can bring global warming under control.
- The analyses, admitted by the authors as relatively simple, suggest that tipping points can be reversed out of … generally in about the same time scale as it took to trigger one. Some tippings occur in decades, others in centuries and still others in millenia.
How we can value climate normalizing technologies
So, while carbon sequestration (for example) is imperative in steering the climate toward a tolerable future, reversing tippings is also key. And some tipping events can be more easily and more rapidly reversed than others.
And this provides a new way to think about the challenges, particularly the costs, of re-balancing, renormalizing our climate. For each tipping point, we can imagine a complete cost.
The consequences may be different, even wildly different, from a complete cost based only on gross carbon sequestration — for example, a cost to capture carbon dioxide or methane from the atmosphere to bring levels to appropriate levels. But the carbon capture estimates do not take into account the multiple looming tipping points, and the direction described here does.