Decarbonisation goes slowly because emitting carbon is our core business

I have spent the last 6 months trying to learn about the climate crisis, hoping eventually to contribute to solving it as an operator and an investor. I am by no means an expert and have still a huge amount to learn. This post is an attempt at simplifying and sharing some of my learnings and nascent beliefs. All errors are my own and I welcome correction and feedback.

There is no shortage of serious resources out there on what the climate crisis is, why it is without a doubt man-made and why it is almost certainly not good news for the world population, so I won’t spend time on that. Let me just say that I believe the climate crisis to be the most important issue I can work on.

This being said, the climate space is at first quite baffling: the problem is obvious, most people are keen to solve it and there is a lot of capital and people focusing on the issue. Yet, in spite of a lot of efforts and small victories, the overall situation seems to be getting worse at a steady pace. Why?

Some like it hot

Analysis like Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air or How To Avoid A Climate Disaster suggest that the climate crisis is not so much an engineering issue (Managing the stock of CO2 in the atmosphere) as it is a civilisation crisis: we just do not really have the technology to sustain a high-comfort low-costs western lifestyle without emitting greenhouse gases at a huge scale. Some non exhaustive examples in no particular order:

  • 42% of all carbon emissions come from stuff that most people in developed countries completely take for granted: heating/cooling ourselves, moving around conveniently and eating decently well and cheaply. Recent events show that only a minority of people are ready to compromise on any of these things.
  • Another 31% of all carbon emissions come from building stuff — and our society loves stuff. Prevent industries from emitting carbon today and, as it stands, no more concrete (It means no construction) and no steel (it means, well, no more anything!).
  • As a comparison, air travel, often portrayed as an easy culprit, is only 7% of global emissions. The first lockdowns in 2020 showed what happens when all air travel stops: not much in the grand scheme of things. Our greenhouse gas addiction is not tied to what we consider to be luxury, it is tied to the most fundamental aspects of our way of life.
  • At the core of the issue is the fact that it seems that there is just not enough renewable energy around to sustain the energy requirements of our lifestyle — or at least not without massive tradeoffs — for instance a massive multi-decade push into nuclear power. And digitalisation only partially helps as Netflix or Bitcoin are hugely energy demanding.

Energy consumption (80% of which comes from fossil fuels) and growth are basically the same thing. Growth is what underpins our entire economic and political model — growth of population, production, lifestyles, etc. This is the root of the issue and probably explains why obvious solutions like aggressive carbon pricing are not gaining much political love: doing so would almost certainly destroy growth in the short run, dramatically lower quality of life across the board (or at least dramatically increase its cost and decrease its availability) and impact everyone everywhere. The oil and gas industry is often singled out as a big cause of climate change, but it feels to me that it is not so much the cause of the issue as the providers of a lifestyle that nobody wants to give up (although that shouldn’t excuse everything either). Ultimately, decarbonizing our economy will require either a change of paradigm in energy production or to make dramatic tradeoffs in how we all live and I wish good luck to any political leader having to deal with that.

Since neither is really on the cards, and decarbonization remaining without a doubt Plan A, there is a lot of interesting work being done in construction (developing carbon neutral concrete, improving building codes to create more efficient houses, improving the quality of heat pumps, etc.), transport (electrifying transport, building charging infrastructures.) and energy (capturing carbon at the point of emission, investing into new gen nuclear power, research into nuclear fusion) and more. But if going from 50Gt of CO2e per year to 0 has such a wide and radical impact on how we live, it is bound to be slower than we hope — if it ever happens voluntarily -, which means that we are highly likely to need strategies to buy time to a much greater extent than what is being portrayed today.

Buying some time (or at least trying)

To simplify, there are broadly 3 strategies to buy time that are being discussed, with a healthy dose of disagreement between and within parties:

  • Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR): cleaning the stock of carbon in the atmosphere to bring it back to pre-industrial levels (See picture above, an installation from Climeworks, a Direct-Air-Capture company),
  • Adaptation: learning how to live with a fast changing climate and increasing amount of extreme climatic events
  • Solar engineering: tampering with the albedo of the earth to decrease how much sunlight makes it to the atmosphere.

As I was looking for gaps in the climate space to invest in or work on, I dived deep into Carbon Dioxide Removal (See next post)