We Need to Scale Up Critical Technologies to Decarbonize the Hardest Sectors

We Need to Scale Up Critical Technologies to Decarbonize the Hardest Sectors

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), roughly half of the emissions reductions needed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 will come from technologies that are not yet ready for commercial markets. On January 13, The Center for Climate Security (CCS), a non-partisan institute of the Council on Strategic Risks, hosted a panel discussion called Jumpstarting Demand for Climate Solutions: The First Movers Coalition and US National Security. Panelists explored and considered paths to accelerated innovation, and the embrace of breakthrough technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Innovating Better Decisions

Panelist Anshu Roy, PhD, the founder and CEO of Rhombus Power, America's leading AI company currently serving the Department of Defense, talked about the role AI can play in identifying, scaling, and tackling the technologies needed to hit net zero by mid-century. Roy added that achieving the goals established at COP26 will require both optimization and incremental innovations of currently operating technologies, as well as moonshot technologies.

Moonshot technologies that could decarbonize the global economy while also allowing it to grow might include advanced and affordable carbon capture devices, innovative manufacturing processes, and AI-driven initiatives. Rhombus Power, for its part, creates a holistic picture for how institutions can maximize savings while minimizing risks in mission effectiveness.

Roy stressed the need for a centralized AI and data platform that can gather a vast range of data points and produce analyses too complex or labor-intensive to undertake otherwise. Already, Roy's AI platform Guardian has found success in the defense sector, enabling budgeting decisions to be made in a threat- and timeline-informed manner. This has allowed the defense sector to accelerate the transition from analysis and policy commitments to action.

The First Movers Coalition

Earlier, in November 2021, the US and the World Economic Forum launched the First Movers Coalition (FMC) which aims to create demand signals to stimulate the development of new technologies. Panelist Varun Sivaram, the senior director for clean energy and innovation in the office for Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, notes this strategy has long been pioneered by the Department of Defense.

The FMC is an indication of the US government's will to flex its historical expertise and institutional muscle to strengthen demand signals for important climate technologies. In other words, it seeks to support innovation and promote the development and implementation of clean energy technologies by helping companies harness their purchasing power and supply chains.

Panelist Mike Witt, chief sustainability officer of the Northrop Grumman Corporation, reaffirmed the importance of bolstering supply chain management and building partnerships. And one of President Biden's major announcements at COP26 was that the coalition is primarily focusing on eight sectors: steel, trucking, shipping, aviation, cement, aluminum, chemicals, and direct air capture.

Aviation was a particular topic of discussion. Panelist and Senior Advisor for Climate in the Office of the Secretary of Defense Joe Bryan, stressed the need for technological innovations in aviation.

While Brian Moran, vice president of Boeing's sustainability initiative, announced the company’s commitment to optimize the efficiency of currently operating fleets; to fly airplanes and drones on hydrogen fuel cells; and to fly planes on 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by 2030. Through a mixed program of carbon offsets, renewable energy, and conservation efforts, the company already reached net-zero emissions in its operations in 2020.

Looking Ahead

By and large, the panel agreed that the Department of Defense will play a pivotal role in determining whether or not we reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Moderator Sherri Goodman, a senior advisor at CCS, noted the US military's huge buying power across key sectors in the FMC. Sivaram hit home the message that the defense sector already has an established history of investing in and developing alternative fuels. As Bryan highlighted, the Department of Defenses operations are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, the FMC is an important step in the kinds of global and private-public partnerships that will make moonshot technologies readily available. The backing by the US defense sector is a reassurance that announces to the world the country's commitment to a carbon-free future, despite what the previous administration may have suggested.

The panel hosted by CCS underscores the kind of future that policymakers, entrepreneurs, and other stakeholders are starting to plan for -- achieving it in time will require bold, clear, and accelerated action.

The Center for Climate and Security: The First Movers Coalition and US National Security, January 18, 2022.