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Precarious techno-optimism: Why we shouldn’t always believe what we’re told

In the third in a series of workshops aimed at mapping the most controversial solutions that are putting the path to a net-zero economy at risk, two speakers were invited to talk about the dangers inherent in techno-optimism.

dr Sofia Ribeiro, Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon

The first to speak was dr Sofia Ribeiro from the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon. Sofia is co-author of the article “The Techno-Optimists of Climate Change: Science Communication or Technowashing”, published in April 2022, which presents a critical view on the excessive optimism that surrounds advances in technology.

Sofia began by stressing the scientific consensus on the need to make drastic reductions in emissions of CO2 if we are to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The question today is not so much what we need to do to address the climate emergency, as how we should do it. Obvious answers include improving renewable solutions as a replacement for fossil fuels and promoting clean technologies. However, by remaining focused on the promises held out by technology, we are ignoring the need to make radical changes in our social practices.

Technology is, of course, indispensable, and greater investments are unquestionably needed in developing solutions that will help us tackle the crisis, but it is important to be aware of the danger of overoptimism in technologies that simply confuse the real issue rather than offer genuine answers.

Technowashing, by analogy with greenwashing, involves the promotion of new solutions by companies, decision makers, or opinion leaders with vested interests, even where there is little evidence of the efficacy of those solutions. Faced with the claim that ever-new technologies are essential in order to solve the problems generated by other technologies, we can easily become convinced that the only way to tackle the climate crisis is to rely exclusively on scientific advances rather than acknowledging the need for changes in behavioral patterns and economic models.

An excessive trust in technology can thus deflect attention away from the genuine problems inherent in the economic and political model followed in countries that have the biggest ecological footprint. At the same time, technowashing reinforces the position of human beings as dominant over the natural world and as permanently able to invent new ways of solving the problems they have caused through what are now obsolete technologies. Technowashing is a way of ensuring continued business growth, financial returns, and corporate reputation, since investment in such techniques deflect attention away from the planet-damaging practices promoted by countries and companies. Excessive trust in technology can even delay the implementation of robust public policies: by relying on solutions that are not even available yet, attention is diverted away from the more profound and immediate measures that need to be taken.

It is very easy for people to be manipulated without them realizing it. Technowashing tends to be used by decision makers keen to divert public attention away from their less sustainable practices, to maintain their business or personal reputation, and to ensure further economic growth or consolidate their position in the market. Well-known figures might even promote themselves as pioneers of revolutionary ideas, boosting their own image by appealing to people’s imagination rather than a real understanding of what is feasible.

The most-polluting companies typically attempt to associate themselves with the positivity of science and technology while their real goal is to increase profits and maintain the status quo. Technological ideas are thus driven by powerful marketing campaigns, which use images that have apparently come straight out of the movies. It can be difficult for laypeople to separate science fiction from reality when the same graphics and iconography are used. Communicating science as a product to be sold is not at all the same as communicating science for the purposes of information.

While scientific concepts do need to be simplified to enable the public to understand, care must always be taken not to create unrealistic expectations. Those who employ technowashing tend to use scientific concepts and methods to pass their ideas off as being based in science. They frequently support their claims by showing convincing charts and graphics, but what they are presenting is out of context. They might, for example, be introducing their ideas as working solutions when in fact the effectiveness of those ideas still needs to be confirmed. Although we are being sold the idea that technology can do anything and that innovative ideas can solve the climate crisis, we must approach all such claims with caution as long as the efficacy of the solutions in question remains unproven and as long as questions remain about their potential scale of implementation.

Mitchell Beer, Founding Publisher and Managing Editor, The Energy Mix

Next to speak was Mitchell Beer, founding publisher and managing editor of The Energy Mix news site and author of numerous articles on carbon capture and storage. He is also a Climate Reality Leader.

Mitchell reinforced the point made by Sofia that the unrealistic images used to promote innovative but unproven technologies are disseminated by public relations offices rather than engineering departments or project management offices. A good illustration of this in Canada and elsewhere in the world is the current promotion of so-called small modular nuclear reactors as the new generation of nuclear power that will “save us from climate change”. While these reactors may look impressive on PowerPoint slides, they’re still a technology under development that has never been built or proven in the real world have not in fact been designed or developed yet, nor is it proven that they will be cost-effective and safe.

We cannot, of course, write off all new technologies. But as Henry David Thoreau said, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; there is where they should be - now put foundations under them.” This is the standard that we need to apply, whether it is technology we are sure we want to use or technology that we are critical of and nervous about. If the details are there, and if the technology actually works and helps us to decarbonize, and can do it quickly and effectively, helping us get to the IPCC deadline of 45% by 2030, and if it is a technology that really puts communities first and promotes energy democracy, if it is a technology that allows us to create and sustain social circumstances in which no one is left behind — these are the criteria and the fair and realistic standards that will distinguish potentially or actually a useful technology.

Mitchell said that’s not the line of argument from those wanting to maintain the fossil fuel era. But if we are to do deep energy retrofits on all homes and commercial buildings, if our aim is for people to no longer have to choose between food and fuel, then that transition will depend on technologies such as heat pumps and insulation — a far different story than the one we are being told by the fossil industry. If the electrification of transportation can be expanded and is shown to make lives easier by cutting commuting time while simultaneously cutting carbon, we should be aware that this is not the kind of benefit we are going to hear about from the fossil industry. However, if we can see that choices like this are working not just to cut carbon but to improve quality of life, it will help insulate us from technowashing, allowing us to base our arguments on practical experience.

One key example of precarious techno-optimism is carbon capture and storage, a technology that has been under development since 1977 and still isn’t ready for prime time. The recent rise in advocacy and subsidies for CCS traces back to the word “unabated”. In May 2021, the International Energy Agency stated in its 1.5-degree scenario that there is no room for any new unabated oil, coal, or gas development. But fossil companies took that as a kind of “get out of jail free” card: If new fossil fuel projects can be constructed with carbon capture bolted on, they argue they can keep on extracting. The IEA 2022 report has just been released, in which there is still a major role for carbon capture, but, like the future of nuclear, wide use of CCS at a scale that will address the climate emergency is a technological pipe dream.

For those who are assuming that fossil fuels will decline slowly and gradually, carbon capture & storage is the technology of choice. In other words, CCS is a lifeline for fossil fuel companies that have no intention of changing what they’re doing. As a result, countries and companies can plan to go on extracting fossil fuels, since a large proportion of their emissions will be “abated”. However, CCS is a deeply questionable technology: there are difficulties making it work and keeping it on budget. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis published an exhaustive review of carbon capture projects in October 2022. It looked at 13 projects around the world that represent 55% of the total CCS capacity worldwide and found that 10 of these 13 projects were underperforming, had failed outright, or had had to be shut down, demonstrating that after 45 years of development, CCS is still more likely to fail than to succeed.

In October 2022, the Global CCS Institute reported massive interest in new CCS projects around the world. However, even if all the projects mentioned in its report are built, and even if they all work, which is unlikely, they will capture just 244 million tons of CO2 per year, which is less than 1% of the 36 billion tons of emissions that humanity was responsible for in 2021.

The other issue is that, as recently as January 2021, just over four-fifths of the carbon captured worldwide was being used for enhanced oil recovery. As oil wells are depleted, they become less productive and efficient. The idea thus emerged to inject captured carbon into the oil wells to help bring out the last oil more efficiently. Claims that the resulting carbon can also be captured in the height of techno-washing and techno-optimism at a time when we urgently need to achieve a 45% cut in emissions by 2030.

Mitchell concluded by emphasizing that we need the right mix of policy, technologies, financing, and behavioral change that will get us to 45% cuts by 2030, and there is nothing in the way that CCS is developing that suggests it is a realistic part of any such solution. Tying down the political discussion to technologies that are “all spin and no substance”, and directing public subsidies towards those technologies, represents a missed opportunity. Our scarce resources are being diverted into something that only works on paper. The best argument in favor of CCS is that, with fossil fuels in decline, the technology will still be available for other hard-to-abate sectors, such as heavy industry, cement and chemical production, steel, petrochemicals, and fertilizer. However, in this context advances are being made in electric arc furnaces, for example, which will require wind turbines and solar panels but will not involve the need to capture carbon. Regarding fertilizers, the choice we need to consider is between adding CCS facilities to factories that produce nitrogen fertilizers, a by-product of which is a nitrous oxide that is far more damaging even than methane, or investing in sustainable farming practices that benefit the community as a whole.

The two speakers in this third session of the Path to Zero workshop series both underlined how changes in behavior and attitudes, energy savings, and informed decision-making are essential if we are to avoid locking in solutions that neither bring us closer to the 1.5C warming limit goal nor promote more democratic community-based energy production.

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