A year ago, President Biden signed the bipartisan agreement law on investment in infrastructure and employment, the biggest infrastructure investment since the New Deal.
Among the many key climate investments included, the Infrastructure Act provided a long-awaited down payment on several new and promising climate solutions, including carbon dioxide removal, hydrogen, long-term energy storage and technologies to support clean industry.
We spoke with Natasha Vidangos, Senior Director of Climate Innovation and Technology at Environmental Defense Fund, on the continuation of these investments and how they can help us to face the climate crisis.
Why are these investments in new climate technologies so important?
NV: This funding is remarkable for several reasons. Although we now have many of the solutions we need to tackle the climate crisis at our fingertips – such as clean energy and electric trucks, buses and cars – there are still areas of our economy where our current toolbox is insufficient. If we are to reduce climate pollution to safer levels, i.e. net zero by mid-century, we will need to create new solutions and improve existing ones. This will only happen if we invest now.
The bipartisan Infrastructure Act supports public investment in research and development of key technologies capable of addressing these challenges. They have huge potential, but it’s also difficult to do them right and it takes a whole community approach to chart the way forward. This includes:
- Carbon Dioxide Removal, which covers a variety of ways to reduce carbon pollution already in the atmosphere, such as direct capture from the air.
- Hydrogen, a potentially cleaner fuel that could power heavy industry, shipping and aviation.
- Long-term energy storage, which could help save electricity generated by wind, sun and other clean sources for much longer periods of time.
This new government investment could be a game-changer, because we know it has worked before: research has shown that government funding has played a major role in improving wind, solar and battery technologies and substantially reducing their costs. The cost of solar power, for example, has fallen nearly 90% over the past decade and is now cheaper than building new coal-fired power plants in many places around the world.
The other exciting part about it the new funding is that it is used to test and pilot many of these technologies in the field – beyond the lab. This is essential to move these technologies from concept to market. For example, the Infrastructure Act will test direct air and hydrogen capture through demonstration “hubs” across the country, which many states, businesses and communities are applying to host in this moment.
What are some of these “difficult areas” of our economy where we need these new climate technologies?
The industry is important. It is the third largest source of climate pollution in our country and is predicted to increase. What makes it so challenging is that it covers a wide variety of complex but essential processes – from the production of cement and steel to the manufacture of all sorts of different goods and materials. For example, to produce steel you have to heat it to over 1,000 degrees Celsius, a process that requires a huge amount of energy and lets out harmful climate and air pollution when powered by fossil fuels. . We need to find better ways to do this.
The Infrastructure Act offers a diversity and breadth of approaches to advancing climate innovation in industry: a strategy for producing alternative fuels like hydrogen; financial assistance to manufacturers to modernize industrial facilities and make them more energy efficient; assistance in exploring ways to create markets for clean materials, and more.
And for those watching closely, the White House just released a Net-Zero Game Changers Strategy that articulates 37 priority areas for innovation. How the administration advances these priorities and how they intersect with the resources of the bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act can have a huge impact on the issues we are facing. able to solve then.
What are the next steps to test these new climate technologies in the field? What are some of the potential challenges?
It is an old saw that with great opportunity comes great responsibility. As the next generation of solutions hits the field, we need to think beyond the technology itself and consider what is needed to ensure new solutions are effective, safe and fair. No solution scales successfully without difficulty. We have to be ready for them.
This includes addressing known challenges, such as the need to ensure that the new direct air capture centers I mentioned earlier can monitor and verify that greenhouse gas pollution is reduced and stored safely. We need to make sure the impact is as good as we think!
It also requires addressing emerging challenges, such as the insight of EDF scientists and a growing community of international scientists that hydrogen emissions can produce significant indirect global warming – potentially 30 times greater than carbon dioxide. carbon during the first 20 years of its release. Sensors to measure hydrogen leaks at relevant levels are still in the research and development stage, so we need the Department of Energy to increase funding and partnerships to develop them (as they have made with this recent funding announcement). Where we don’t have all the answers, we need to encourage the use of common sense best practices wherever possible, and start collecting data and supporting research so we can get the answers faster.
What could these new investments mean for communities? How will they be involved?
Communities have a major stake in these new investments, so it is essential to work hand in hand with them when we deploy new technologies.
It is difficult to underestimate the importance and complexity of this subject. While we know we need to think about scaling solutions and accelerating progress, we also know we can’t take a “one size fits all” approach to community engagement. No two communities are the same and no one knows their needs and priorities better than they do.
There are fundamental areas where there are no-regrets actions, such as ensuring strong protections for the health and well-being of communities by reducing pollution and increasing transparency. We also need an early and genuine partnership to ensure that these investments are truly welcomed by the community and come with benefits that match their priorities, such as well-paying job opportunities, training programs quality, a reduction in pollution or access to roads, drinking water, or any other necessary infrastructure. Getting these details correct is especially important for communities with a legacy of pollution impacts, which are disproportionately communities of color and low-income communities.
Authentic and meaningful community engagement, however, is only the beginning. We also need to think about how the whole process of innovation – from finding a whole new technology to making it available – can produce positive results for more people.
What will be EDF’s role in developing the new climate technologies you mentioned?
We’re at a pivotal time to shape the next generation of solutions, and we can’t afford to be wrong. The climate emergency is upon us, and the urgency is real. Some think that means we have to go faster, with a focus on ways to develop faster and create new technologies in the field. Others say we have to do better, improve safeguards and make room for processes that ensure the deployment of new technologies is seamless, safe and collaborative.
In reality, we must do both – and with great care. EDF has teams of scientists, policy and industry experts working across disciplines to take a more holistic approach to supporting new technologies, so that we can tackle many of the challenges I mentioned above simultaneously, rather than in silos.
To sum up: the Infrastructure Act has made a historic investment in promising – potentially game-changing – climate technologies, but our next steps to ensure they fully benefit our communities, the economy and the climate matter enormously.
Let’s honor this anniversary by taking the first steps to getting it right.