On paper, we can see how we might eliminate or offset essentially all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to avoid the more extreme consequences from climate change. But there is no playbook for what’s really needed to achieve net zero emissions: a scale and pace of change across economic sectors that we’ve never accomplished before. We’ve made some important progress at the early stages of technology development and commercialization, with ARPA-E, Activate, and climate tech venture capitalists emerging over the last decade. If we are to meet the climate challenge, we now need to add a different kind of experimentation and learning: solutions R&D focused on faster full-scale deployment.
What does full scale mean in the realm of climate technologies? Over the past decade or so, wind and solar electricity have scaled faster than most people predicted; they’re currently mitigating about 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and continuing to grow rapidly. But here’s the problem: getting to this point took many decades from the first lab results, the first products, and the first companies. This is a sobering reminder that we don’t yet know how to implement deep infrastructural change on a massive scale in just a very few decades. Here, the stumbling blocks involve ramping up manufacturing and supply chains, the new skills needed and the old jobs lost, finding sites for new installations, and the high cost of capital for a first-of-a-kind system.
We see untapped opportunities to experiment among these kinds of factors. We can learn from ongoing activities, understanding how to speed and expand them with the tools of applied economics, behavioral science, and policy research. How do testbeds and demonstrations help reduce risks and ease the transition to real-world operations? When a particular new financing mechanism draws substantial investment and lowers capital costs for one technology, can it be adapted for another at the same stage of maturity? If a state government accelerates a new climate solution by tackling soft costs – siting and permits and environmental impact assessments – can their methods work for the needs of a different region? What caused a market exchange to come together and scale robustly, and can those lessons be applied to an exchange for carbon credits? These questions can shape new hypotheses, experiments, and learning that over time can speed up the process of scaling up. That’s what this new type of innovation can look like, and these are the avenues we are exploring at Actuate as we plan our portfolio of programs.
Incite.org, Schmidt Futures, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation have generously supported this effort.