It’s become part of climate-change lore: Just weeks after Donald Trump won the election in 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown took to the stage during a conference in San Francisco and proclaimed that “California will launch its own damn satellites” to track climate change if the new president continued to deny its existence.
At first, people laughed in recognition. While previously serving as governor of California from 1975 to 1983, Brown earned the nickname “Governor Moonbeam,” a jab at both his idealism and his enthusiasm for, yes, launching a satellite into space to track the state of our planet. But this time around, Brown’s outer-space ambition felt not only more realistic but also the exact brand of defiance that people were craving after the shock of Trump’s victory. And this year, Brown doubled down on his promise at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, saying that California will indeed launch an emissions-tracking satellite in the next several years.
Fighting climate change in the age of Trump requires the kind of audacious leadership that Brown has exemplified since the ’70s. But to make good on progressive climate policies, political and industry leaders need to know that technology exists to make their goals possible.
When it comes to stopping climate change and shifting to renewable energy, it does. After the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its report on October 8, detailing the imperative need to fully decarbonize in the next three decades or face disastrous global consequences, Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Fast Company that most of the technology we need to make the change to a carbon-free society exists or is in development. What we lack, she says, is political will.
That is an issue that merits its own article to unpack, but for now, let’s focus on some of the tech that could help us take carbon out of the equation by 2050–starting with the satellites to track emissions and the state of the planet all the way through to inventions that suck carbon out of the air and startups connecting consumers directly with renewable energy. Some are still in development, others are scaling up–and while what you’ll read about is by no means a complete picture of the whole landscape of energy and climate tech, hopefully you’ll come away with a sense that if all of these solutions come together, we could see a carbon-neutral planet in the next several years–regardless of Trump’s determination to pull us backward.
Keeping track of pollution hotspots
When Stephane Germain, the president of the Canadian company GHGSat, heard Brown promise–again–that California will launch a satellite, he felt hope: His idea was catching on. In 2016, GHGSat launched a tiny satellite, nicknamed Claire, that can detect concentrations of methane and carbon dioxide from orbit. Now, it’s raised over $20 million in funding–with backers including the governments of Alberta and Canada–and is looking to scale up partnerships with both governments and private-sector companies across Canada and the U.S. to get a clearer sense of where to target emissions reductions efforts.
“Climate change drives everyone at the company, so as the urgency to solve it has increased, we’ve felt our sense of purpose and mission get stronger and stronger,” Germain tells Fast Company. “We’re doing everything we can to help contribute to solutions.”
While Brown has faced some criticism for his focus on the satellite, when so many related issues–from the need for dense, affordable housing near transit, to supporting development and implementation of renewable energy–also need to be addressed, it can’t be overstated how important it is to have a sense of where greenhouse gases are clustered, and who is emitting them. That’s what GHGSat’s tech can do. Gases like methane and carbon dioxide absorb light at specific wavelengths, and GHGSat’s patented sensor can detect where, exactly, light is being absorbed at those wavelengths, and how much, to come up with an image that shows the volume of emissions in a single place over time. For instance, GHGSat’s satellites use high resolution sensors to detect track individual leaks from mining and fracking operations, and collect data from coal-burning power plants.
Knowing where greenhouse gases are concentrated and who’s emitting them is a crucial tool for governments trying to regulate or tax emissions. But GHGSat has also inked partnerships with private companies, Germain says, “to help them really get a grip on what their emissions are, because they have a complicated problem on their hands.” GHGSat is monitoring services to the Canada Oilsands Innovation Alliance, a group of companies aiming to use tech to clean up their practices, and a handful of hydro companies in Canada (some U.S. partnerships are still under wraps). GHGSat is not currently working with California on its satellite–that will be developed via a public-private partnership between the California Air Resources Board and another satellite tech startup, Planet Labs–but they’re happy to be a resource, Germain says. Ultimately, GHGSat isn’t territorial or precious about its work–Germain believes efforts to track the state of the planet and especially, greenhouse gas emissions, can play a parallel role. The European Space Agency, for instance, is launching a fleet of satellites to track global emissions, and the Environmental Defense Fund is launching one to look specifically at methane leaks over broader areas of land. Tracking greenhouse gas emissions, Germain says, “is hard work, we have to work together with complementary technology.”
Correcting our carbon mistakes
Figuring out where emissions are concentrating is one thing; tackling them is another. Even as companies and governments shift to renewable energy, they still have to deal with the excess amounts of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere: Carbon dioxide levels, currently around 405 parts per million, are the highest they’ve been in 800,000 years.
A number of startups are pioneering ways to, quite literally, suck carbon from the atmosphere. The “direct air capture” (or DAC) industry is still new, and nowhere near at scale enough to begin making a dent in the overall concentration of carbon. But startups are optimistic. Last year, for instance, the European company Climeworks debuted its first carbon-capture machine: Three stacked shipping containers equipped with small fans that pull in air from which carbon dioxide can be filtered out, purified, and stored. So far, Climeworks is selling its captured CO2 to a local greenhouse, which is using it to increase the concentration of CO2 to make plants grow faster, and is looking at selling it to sparkling water companies which use CO2 to create carbonation, or companies that can convert it to jet fuel .
Peter Fiekowsky, climate scientist and founder of the Healthy Climate Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to the specific goal of removing 1 trillion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere and reducing the atmospheric parts per million to 300 by 2050, is excited by the development of DAC technology. But when surveying current models, he noted two things that concerned him. One is that most applications for captured carbon–jet fuel, soda carbonation, or greenhouse augmentation–require nearly pure CO2, which is expensive. The other is that none of those methods permanently remove carbon from the atmosphere–they just recycle it.
So Fiekowsky identified and launched a partnership with a California-based startup, Blue Planet, which is pioneering a way to transform captured carbon into building materials like concrete, which would permanently sequester the CO2 and does not require it to be purified. Blue Planet’s process revolves around capturing and concentrating carbon dioxide, and mixing it with seawater. The gas and minerals react to form limestone, which, in terms of mass, is around 44% CO2. “Carbon mineralization is the most stable form of carbon sequestration,” says Blue Planet CEO Brent Constantz.
This method, by which the startup could source CO2 from pretty much anywhere and convert it into usable rock, would also reduce the need to ship such building materials long distances–another source of climate change, Constantz says. To demonstrate the impact of Blue Planet’s tech, he likes to use the example of California. Currently, the state emits 500 million tons a year of carbon dioxide, and to prevent climate disaster, it needs to reduce that total to 400 million tons a year by 2020. California uses 240 million tons of rock each year, but due to permitting restrictions, it has to import most of it. “But if you consider that 44% of the mass of limestone is CO2, we could use 100 million tons of CO2 to make that 240 million tons of rock,” Constantz says, and bring California’s emissions down to the required levels in the process.
The partnership with the Healthy Climate Alliance is helping Blue Planet more directly capture carbon and get its solution out there–just recently, Constantz met with the team building the state’s high-speed rail about the possibility of using the construction materials themselves to reduce emissions. “Government’s greatest lever to stop climate change is through procurement policy,” Constantz says, and carbon-sequestering rock, he says, is both financially feasible and a highly effective way of cleaning up the atmosphere.
Giving power to the people
One of the difficult things about being a person in the age of near-climate catastrophe is managing the feeling of personal inefficacy while hoping that wide-scale solutions, like satellite imaging and carbon capture, actually work. Drift, a clean-energy startup based in Seattle, understands this. The startup launched on the same day that Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement, and for CEO Greg Robinson, that was symbolic: Even as the federal government was moving away from climate action, Drift, he hoped, would give consumers a way to continue to uphold the agreement and shift to renewable energy themselves.
Drift bills itself as “a new type of power company” and it’s translating a clean energy solution that big companies like Apple and Google use–purchasing renewable energy directly from producers, without going through utilities–for individual consumers, using the blockchain and AI to anticipate customer energy needs. “There are these big companies talking about how they’re going green and carbon neutral,” Robinson says, “but small businesses and regular consumers don’t have a team of people to navigate all that for them.”
When Drift’s platform launched last year (initially in New York State, though it’s expanding soon), it provided a way for those smaller consumers to purchase power directly from the sate’s many independent renewable energy generators, including small hydro producers and developers with excess solar power. (Of course, the power that actually, say, turns on a light in that person’s shop or apartment is a mix of clean and non-renewable, but the point is that their money is only going to renewables.) For customers, the cost of switching to 100% renewable energy via Drift is either the same or lower lower than paying a standard utility company, and because Drift handles the shift from the traditional utility once customers sign up, it’s a fairly painless transition.
That, for Robinson, is the goal. Shifting to 100% renewable energy in the next several decades, as the UN report made it clear is necessary, requires building up enough demand for clean energy that independent generators and utility-scale renewables are able to scale enough to overtake dirty power. For that to happen, consumers need a way to act on their preference for affordable clean power, which is what Drift is trying to do.
As the startup continues to expand its customer base (according to Robinson, Texas and the Mid-Atlantic region are next), it’s forging more and more partnerships with renewable energy producers across the country, and aims to develop a wide-ranging network of independent producers that can meet customer demand as it grows. “We have a goal to source enough clean energy to provide 100% renewable, every hour of every day,” Robinson says.
It’s undeniably frustrating to be living suspended between the knowledge that sweeping, transformative climate action in the next several decades is the only thing that will keep the planet from burning, and that the president of the most powerful country in the world seems determined to do nothing about it. While startups working in tandem to track emissions, clean up the air, and develop better clean energy systems are not the full scope of the solution, when combined, their efforts could keep the planet on track, regardless of Trump.
As Robinson says: “We can all get mad at what’s going on, or we can all get moving and take action.”