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Engineers: You Can Disrupt Climate Change

Engineers: You Can Disrupt Climate Change

Decarbonization, carbon capture, and solar-radiation management will provide work for decades to come

Seven years ago, we published an article in IEEE Spectrum titled “What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change.” We described what we had learned as Google engineers who worked on a well-intentioned but ultimately failed effort to cut the cost of renewable energy. We argued that incremental improvements to existing energy technologies weren’t enough to reverse climate change, and we advocated for a portfolio of conventional, cutting-edge, and might-seem-crazy R&D to find truly disruptive solutions. We wrote: “While humanity is currently on a trajectory to severe climate change, this disaster can be averted if researchers aim for goals that seem nearly impossible. We’re hopeful, because sometimes engineers and scientists do achieve the impossible.”

Today, still at Google, we remain hopeful. And we’re happy to say that we got a few things wrong. In particular, renewable energy systems have come down in price faster than we expected, and adoption has surged beyond the predictions we cited in 2014

Our earlier article referred to “breakthrough” price targets ( modeled in collaboration with the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.) that could lead to a 55 percent reduction in U.S. emissions by 2050. Since then, wind and solar power prices have met the targets set for 2020, while battery prices did even better, plummeting to the range predicted for 2050. These better-than-expected price trends, combined with cheap natural gas, caused U.S. coal usage to drop by half. The result: By 2019, U.S. emissions had fallen to the level that the McKinsey scenario forecast for 2030—a decade sooner than our model predicted

And thanks to this progress in decarbonizing electricity production, engineers are seeking and finding numerous opportunities to switch existing systems based on the combustion of fossil fuels to lower-carbon electricity