John Kerry: US climate envoy criticised for optimism on clean tech

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America’s climate envoy John Kerry has been ridiculed for saying technologies that don’t yet exist will play a huge role in stabilising the climate.

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, he said the US was leading the world on climate change – and rapidly phasing out coal-fired power stations.

But he rejected a suggestion that Americans need to change their consumption patterns by, say, eating less meat.

He said: “You don’t have to give up quality of life to achieve some of the things we want to achieve.

“I’m told by scientists that 50% of the reductions we have to make (to get to near zero emissions) by 2050 or 2045 are going to come from technologies we don’t yet have.”

But his faith in unknown technologies has left some leading engineers aghast.

‘Not enough time’

Julian Allwood, professor of engineering and the environment at the University of Cambridge, told BBC News: “It’s virtually impossible for new energy infrastructure technologies to have a significant effect on global emissions in the time we have left to act.”

He warned that with every new energy-infrastructure technology so far, it’s taken 30-100 years from invention to 5% penetration of existing markets.

“Firstly,” he said, “the new idea is developed from laboratory through increasing pilot scales to initial introduction to national systems.

“We have to solve physical and operational issues, solve problems with integration, develop legal and environmental regulations, understand financing requirements and explore social consent as the first accidents occur.

“Growth then occurs at a linear rate, as government appetite for risk is constrained, and the incumbent technology fights to avoid closure.”

He said no country has ever introduced a new electricity generating technology at an average rate faster than 2% of national demand per year.

“Despite politicians’ wishful thinking,” he continued, “the most important innovation opportunities will be not about new technologies, but new businesses in areas such as remote working.”

Dr Jen Baxter, a spokeswoman for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, agreed that John Kerry’s timescale “seems very optimistic”.

She said some vital existing technologies such as capturing carbon from power stations and sucking CO2 directly from the air are not yet ready for mass usage.

So, rather than putting faith in start-up technologies, the world should focus on existing technologies.

“We need to make use of every technology,” she said. “It’s going to be a massive amount of work and these time frames are going to be long.”

“There needs to be lifestyle changes, too – such as getting people on to public transport.”

The prominent British engineer, Baroness Brown, said the climate crisis couldn’t be solved without eating less meat.

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