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Tech’s nightmare climate scenario

Protocol Climate

Protocol Climate hive, rise up. Sorry, we’ve just always wanted to say that. It felt good. Where were we? Ah, yes, right. Today, we’re delving into a nice, uplifting set of topics: war and climate. With the world seemingly spinning out of control, we’ll explore some of the assumptions of the worst climate scenario scientists have dreamed up. Don’t worry, though: We’ll also talk about bitcoin mining with solar power and the electric vehicle investment revolution. Today’s newsletter really is an emotional rollercoaster, so make sure the safety bar is locked. And away we go…

The bad place

Last week, we talked a bit about how the big United Nations climate report had some actually decent(ish) news about how to fix things. That’s because scientists used climate models to plumb the Not Totally Terrible Future. But there’s another future in those models — the Bad Future — and it feels a lot like our present.

In that future, the world fractures, the technology we need to protect the climate stays in the hands of a few, stuff overheats and things frankly suck. Welcome to SSP3, as scientists like to call it, and brace yourself for its warning about the course we’re currently on when it comes to deploying the climate tech we desperately need.

The scariest world that climate models can imagine is … familiar. War. Competing superpowers. Increasing inequality. Rising carbon emissions and boatloads of — so far — empty promises. That’s pretty much the world now. But it’s also one used to model the future climate scenario known as SSP3. The “SSP” part is modelspeak for “shared socioeconomic pathway,” and the “3” part is because it’s the third scenario in a series of five. It’s climate scientists’ most pessimistic scenario, where there are major challenges to mitigation and adaptation; it’s like researchers channeling their inner The Roots to create a world where “things fall apart and tend to shatter.”

We need to confront the Bad Future now. This is a critical decade of climate action, one in which we need clean energy technology to be deployed at an unprecedented scale. Peering through the darkest looking glass could help us understand what could get in the way, and the risks already afoot in our splintering world. In SSP3, the spread of technology slows for a few reasons.

  • For one, countries start to look out for themselves rather than the global collective good. “Security concerns absorb policy attention and funding, with less attention paid to broader development goals [sustainable or otherwise],” Eric Kemp-Benedict, the Equitable Transitions Program director at SEI U.S., told me.
  • As distrust grows, it can create a cascade of failures that further puts the world behind the eight ball when it comes to deploying the climate tech we have and innovating to make it even better and cheaper. “The lack of cooperation reduces knowledge-sharing, thus reducing collective learning,” Detlef van Vuuren, a senior researcher at PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, told me.
  • Climate change has the potential to increase conflict and migration. But pouring money into border walls, the military or other parts of the national security apparatus is a reactive approach that essentially diverts money away from addressing the root cause: rising carbon emissions and the failure to scale renewable technology.
  • You need look no further for an example of this in the present day than the exploding U.S. military budget, which is about 30% higher this year than what the dead-for-now Build Back Better Act would’ve spent on climate provisions over an entire decade.

This is the climate era’s version of mutually assured destruction. A ton of carbon emitted anywhere is a threat to human life everywhere. That points to the need for technology, from wind turbines to solar panels to climate-smart agriculture, to be shared with everyone and not just countries that can afford it. Yet in SSP3, that doesn’t happen, despite the manifold benefits.

  • Van Vuuren pointed to the development of solar panels as a prime example of how technology can spread and scale, with R&D in the U.S., Japan and Europe driving innovation, installation in Germany driving demand and manufacturing in China driving down costs so the panels become more widely available everywhere. In SSP3, as trade and information flows dry up, that type of R&D to deployment pipeline becomes more tenuous.
  • Kemp-Benedict said if technologies are shared and iterated on by everyone rather than hoarded, “then they are more likely to be taken up, applied and maintained.” Given that we need solar panels and every other climate tech solution from public transit to energy-efficient buildings, it makes sense to share underlying technologies and let communities adapt them as they see fit.
  • Failing to share technology sucks for the climate. But it also sucks for the economy, which slows down due to less trade and innovation. (Yes, yes, I know. No economy on a dead planet.) A 2017 study of the various shared socioeconomic pathways found that “SSP3 has the highest annual GDP losses rate across all three climate mitigation scenarios in 2100.” Lovely.

But SSP3 isn’t necessarily our future.The scenario is just that: a scenario, not our fate. Scientists call it, in typically understated fashion, the “rocky road” scenario, but there are other pathways. The whole goal of the SSPs is to show us a range of possibilities from hell on Earth to something far more pleasant.

  • The latest IPCC report notes we still have a slim shot to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But the world needs to collectively rise up to the challenge to accomplish that.
  • That means funneling money into clean energy like never before, and it means sharing technology.
  • And as much as we may look at the worst of the world and see it as what defines the whole, there are brighter spots if you know where to look. We should learn from them. “We have Bhutan and Belarus, Sweden and Somalia,” Kemp-Benedict said.
  • He also said something else I want us to hang onto: “During the Cold War, there was a decision to actively share scientific information. The hope — and perhaps the reality — was that scientific and artistic exchange would keep communication open between the belligerents to make it harder for them to dehumanize one another. Could that work now? I’m not sure. Nevertheless, innovators have continued to innovate through enormously perilous times, such as the Thirty Years’ War and the French Revolution. But that speaks more to the human spirit than to national or business strategy.”

The power of human spirit alone isn’t going to be enough to fix the climate problem, though. Policies to foster cooperation and deployment of the technology are needed too. And we should heed the lessons in the climate models as we chart a course forward from the world we have today.

— Brian Kahn (email | twitter)

Can you really mine crypto without polluting the climate?

Nothing seems to inspire innovation right now like the desire to mine cryptocurrency. Last month, Exxon was diverting flared methane to power bitcoin servers; now, Blockstream, Block and Tesla are collaborating on an open-source mine that will rely on solar and battery storage alone to crank out magical internet money. While I tend toward crypto skepticism, there is one thing I can say for them: At least they’re not short on ambition.

The project aims to clean up crypto mining’s bad rap. Most crypto mines look for cheap energy, and it’s often fossil fueled. The companies are giants in their respective fields, though, which means they have the resources to try to execute something more ambitious than, say, turning a former power plant into a natural gas-fired crypto mine.

  • Blockstream deals in blockchain infrastructure, including the data centers used for mining. Founded in 2014, it is one of the stalwarts of the industry, and has a global reach.
  • Block — previously Square — is a fintech powerhouse that used to focus on digital payments but has expanded its horizons and now increasingly focuses on crypto. Together, Block and Blockstream will co-finance the mine.
  • The project will use Tesla’s solar PV arrays and Megapack batteries to generate 3.8 megawatts with a storage capacity of 12 megawatt-hours.
  • The proof of concept for the mine has roots in a 2021 white paper from Block (then Square), which claimed renewables plus storage could green bitcoin mining and speed up the deployment of renewables on the grid.

Good news, if it works: The project will be open source. In practical terms, this means that the facility will have a publicly accessible dashboard laying out the details on its performance.

  • At first, that will include details about power output and the number of bitcoins mined. A later version will also include both solar and storage data as well.
  • The companies said in a press release that “this transparency will allow the project to serve as an industry case study for future projects.”
  • Essentially, they aim to prove to other miners that renewables and bitcoin could be compatible, and perhaps even entice them away from fossil fuels. Given bitcoin mining has the same carbon footprint as the Czech Republic, that’d be a nice change of pace.

But the trios don’t want to stop at one solar-powered bitcoin mine. The project also aims to encourage renewables development in Texas more broadly. This is, again, part of the premise of the 2021 white paper.

  • The western part of the state is a potential golden goose for both solar and wind, owing to plentiful sunshine and gusty winds. But there are so few people living there that demand for generating electricity is largely absent.
  • The theory here is that bitcoin miners can incentivize building renewable energy infrastructure even in locations where there’s little demand or transmission potential.
  • You may be thinking, “It sounds suspiciously like they’re not adding clean energy to the grid. Are they just cleaning up one mine without lowering emissions?” Right you are!
  • But the companies’ pitch is essentially, “If you build it, they will come.” In this case, “they” is the transmission to bring the clean energy to the masses.
  • Blockstream’s Adam Back told CNBC that the three companies plan to add wind power and scale the endeavor, assuming it is profitable in its pilot stage.

This will be hard to pull off. The assumption that a pilot project could inspire so many copycats that crypto would be a major driver in developing renewables where there are none today strikes me as a bit optimistic. And I have other concerns about encouraging bitcoin mining, especially since so much of it relies on fossil fuels. But still: I’d love to be proven wrong!

Lisa Martine Jenkins (email | twitter)


"To win more revenue for your sales teams, start with the customer. Understand what your customers need, and make sure that those needs are aligned to clearly defined internal success criteria. Build trust across the teams that what you sold the customer is what is being delivered." - Pilar Schenk, COO at Cisco Collaboration

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One big number: The $515 billion electrification game

The electric vehicle revolution is galloping along at an ever-more-breakneck pace, with the number of models available for under $100,000 expected to soar into triple digits by 2025.

But even with less expensive EVs on the horizon, the change doesn’t come cheap. Carmakers are expected to spend more than $515 billion through 2030 electrifying passenger vehicle models of all shapes and sizes, according to a report from the consultancy ERM prepared for the Environmental Defense Fund. This represents an increase of more than $300 billion since ERM first put together an EV market projection in 2019. Suffice to say, it’s been a busy (read: chaotic) few years! So far, 13 manufacturers have announced plans to spend more than $75 billion on new or renovated EV plants across six states.

While carmakers and even the car-buying public have pictures of EVs in every driveway dancing in their heads, the supply chain may have other plans. Two years into the pandemic, everything from the minerals we need for EVs to manufacturing them remains a bit of a hot mess, even as inflation wreaks its own havoc. Witness the price hikes for Teslas, Lucids and various Chinese EVs over the past few months. A veritable parade of EVs may well be on the way, but speed bumps no doubt remain.

Lisa Martine Jenkins

On the calendar

How is the infrastructure rollout going — and what does it mean for tech?

It’s been almost six months since Congress passed the landmark $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The long-awaited bill promised significant investments in the tech industry, including $65 billion to support broadband expansion and another $7.5 billion to promote electric vehicle adoption. What progress toward those goals have we seen so far — and what can we expect in the next six months? RSVP for our discussion here.

Hot links

Carbon removal is hitting the big time, with a $925 million advance market commitment from some huge tech players — Alphabet, Meta, Shopify and Stripe — as well as the consultancy McKinsey.

“Alexa, grow a tree.” Yes, you can ask your friendly home assistant to do that. No, it will not solve the climate crisis.

Tesla’s Austin Gigafactory has some issues. While the company has promised jobs and Elon Musk has promised an “ecological paradise,” communities in the facility’s shadow aren’t seeing those benefits so far.

There’s a new battery team in town. Nissan has teamed up with NASA to create an all-solid-state battery for electric vehicles that could charge in just 15 minutes.

To cut emissions, truck makers are confronting a choice: batteries or fuel cells? Billions of dollars hang in the balance.

Most carbon removal options are not cost-competitive today, and may struggle to find a market, a truth driven home by the IPCC’s latest report.

A new tool seeks to demystify the ocean’s depths. Scientists have launched a digital map of kelp forests, in an effort to — here’s hoping — preserve my absolute favorite feature of the natural world.

Brian Kahn and Lisa Martine Jenkins


"Trying to make every deal as big as possible often adds complexity and extends sales cycles. To accelerate growth, sellers should focus on landing faster, and then expanding, and expanding again. Getting customers into your solution sooner helps you solve their initial problems, then later, you can grow together." - Michael Megerian, Chief Revenue Officer at Yello

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Thanks for reading! As ever, you can send any and all feedback to climate@protocol.com. See you Thursday!

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