How the world already prevented far worse warming this century
But the virtues of the agreement, ultimately ratified by every country, are more widespread than its impact on the ozone hole. Many of those chemicals are also powerful greenhouse gases. So as a major side benefit, their reduction over the last three decades has already eased warming and could cut as much as 1 ˚C off worldwide average temperatures by 2050.
Now, a new study in Nature highlights yet another crucial, if inadvertent, bonus: reducing the strain that ultraviolet radiation from the sun puts on plants, inhibiting photosynthesis and slowing growth. The Montreal Protocol avoided “a catastrophic collapse of forests and croplands” that would have added hundreds of billions of tons of carbon to the atmosphere, Anna Harper, a senior lecturer in climate science at the University of Exeter and a coauthor of the paper, said in an email.
The Nature paper, published August 18, found that if production of ozone-depleting substances had continued ticking up 3% each year, the additional UV radiation would have curtailed the growth of trees, grasses, ferns, flowers, and crops across the globe.
The world’s plants would absorb less carbon dioxide, releasing as much as 645 billion tons of carbon from the land to the atmosphere this century. That could drive global warming up to 1 ˚C higher over the same period. It would also have devastating effects on agricultural yields and food supplies around the globe.
The impact of rising CFCs levels on plants, plus their direct warming effect in the atmosphere, could have pushed temperatures around 2.5 ˚C higher this century, all on top of the already dire warming projections for 2100, the researchers found.
“While it was originally intended as an ozone protection treaty, the Montreal Protocol has been a very successful climate treaty,” says Paul Young, a climate scientist at Lancaster University and another author of the paper.
All of which poses a question: Why can’t the world enact a similarly aggressive and effective international treaty designed explicitly to address climate change? At least some scholars think there are crucial but largely overlooked lessons in the success of the Montreal Protocol, which are becoming newly relevant as global warming accelerates and the next UN climate conference approaches.
A fresh look
At this point, the planet will continue warming for the next several decades no matter what, as the dire UN climate report warned last week. But how much worse it gets still depends heavily on how aggressively climate pollution can be reduced in the coming decades.
To date, nations have failed, both through the Kyoto Treaty and the Paris climate accord, to pull together an agreement with sufficiently ambitious and binding commitments to phase out greenhouse-gas emissions. Countries will assemble at the next UN conference in Glasgow in early November, with the explicit goal of stepping up those targets under the Paris agreement.
Scholars have written lengthy papers and entire books examining lessons from the Montreal Protocol, and the commonalities and differences between the respective efforts on CFCs and greenhouse gases.
A common view is that the relevance is limited. CFCs were a far simpler problem to solve because they were produced by a single sector—mostly by a few major companies like DuPont—and used in a limited set of applications.
On the other hand, nearly every component of every sector of every nation pumps out greenhouse gases. Fossil fuels are the energy source that drives the global economy, and most of our machines and physical infrastructure are designed around them.
But Edward Parson, a professor of environmental law at the University of California, Los Angeles, says it’s time to take a fresh look at the lessons from the Montreal Protocol.
That’s because as the dangers of climate change become more evident and dire, more and more countries are pushing for stricter rules, and companies are increasingly approaching the stage that those like DuPont did: switching from steadfastly disputing the scientific findings to grudgingly accepting that new rules were inevitable, so they had better figure out how to operate and profit under them.
In other words, we’re reaching a point where enacting more proscriptive rules may be feasible, so it’s crucial to use the opportunity to create effective ones.
Strict rules, consistently enforced
Parson is the author of Protecting the Ozone Layer: Science and Strategy, an in-depth history of the Montreal Protocol published in 2003. He stresses that phasing out ozone-depleting compounds was a more complex problem than is often appreciated, because a sizable fraction of the worldwide economy relied on them in one way or another.
He adds that one of the most persistent misunderstandings about the deal is the notion that the industry had already developed alternative products and therefore was more willing to go along with the agreement in the end.
On the contrary, the development of alternatives happened after the regulations were in place. Rapid innovation continued as the rules tightened, and industry, experts, and technical bodies hashed out how much progress could be achieved and how quickly. That produced ever more and better alternatives “in a repeated positive feedback,” Parson says.
The prospect of lucrative new markets also helped. Many of those companies ended up making lots of money from the shift to new products.
That suggests the world shouldn’t wait around for innovations that will make it cheaper and easier to address climate change. Countries need to implement rules that increasingly ratchet down emissions, forcing industries to figure out cleaner ways of generating energy, growing food, producing products, and moving things and people around the world.
Inside the conference where researchers are solving the clean-energy puzzle
The Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E) funds high-risk, high-reward energy research projects, and each year the agency hosts a summit where funding recipients and other researchers and companies in energy can gather to talk about what’s new in the field.
As I listened to presentations, met with researchers, and—especially—wandered around the showcase, I often had a vague feeling of whiplash. Standing at one booth trying to wrap my head around how we might measure carbon stored by plants, I would look over and see another group focused on making nuclear fusion a more practical way to power the world.
There are plenty of tried-and-true solutions that can begin to address climate change right now: wind and solar power are being deployed at massive scales, electric vehicles are coming to the mainstream, and new technologies are helping companies make even fossil-fuel production less polluting. But as we knock out the easy wins, we’ll also need to get creative to tackle harder-to-solve sectors and reach net-zero emissions. Here are a few intriguing projects from the ARPA-E showcase that caught my eye.
“I heard you have rocks here!” I exclaimed as I approached the Quaise Energy station.
Quaise’s booth featured a screen flashing through some fast facts and demonstration videos. And sure enough, laid out on the table were two slabs of rock. They looked a bit worse for wear, each sporting a hole about the size of a quarter in the middle, singed around the edges.
These rocks earned their scorch marks in service of a big goal: making geothermal power possible anywhere. Today, the high temperatures needed to generate electricity using heat from the Earth are only accessible close to the surface in certain places on the planet, like Iceland or the western US.
Geothermal power could in theory be deployed anywhere, if we could drill deep enough. Getting there won’t be easy, though, and could require drilling 20 kilometers (12 miles) beneath the surface. That’s deeper than any oil and gas drilling done today.
Rather than grinding through layers of granite with conventional drilling technology, Quaise plans to get through the more obstinate parts of the Earth’s crust by using high-powered millimeter waves to vaporize rock. (It’s sort of like lasers, but not quite.)
The emergent industrial metaverse
Annika Hauptvogel, head of technology and innovation management at Siemens, describes the industrial metaverse as “immersive, making users feel as if they’re in a real environment; collaborative in real time; open enough for different applications to seamlessly interact; and trusted by the individuals and businesses that participate”—far more than simply a digital world.
The industrial metaverse will revolutionize the way work is done, but it will also unlock significant new value for business and societies. By allowing businesses to model, prototype, and test dozens, hundreds, or millions of design iterations in real time and in an immersive, physics-based environment before committing physical and human resources to a project, industrial metaverse tools will usher in a new era of solving real-world problems digitally.
“The real world is very messy, noisy, and sometimes hard to really understand,” says Danny Lange, senior vice president of artificial intelligence at Unity Technologies, a leading platform for creating and growing real-time 3-D content. “The idea of the industrial metaverse is to create a cleaner connection between the real world and the virtual world, because the virtual world is so much easier and cheaper to work with.”
While real-life applications of the consumer metaverse are still developing, industrial metaverse use cases are purpose-driven, well aligned with real-world problems and business imperatives. The resource efficiencies enabled by industrial metaverse solutions may increase business competitiveness while also continually driving progress toward the sustainability, resilience, decarbonization, and dematerialization goals that are essential to human flourishing.
This report explores what it will take to create the industrial metaverse, its potential impacts on business and society, the challenges ahead, and innovative use cases that will shape the future. Its key findings are as follows:
• The industrial metaverse will bring together the digital and real worlds. It will enable a constant exchange of information, data, and decisions and empower industries to solve extraordinarily complex real-world problems digitally, changing how organizations operate and unlocking significant societal benefits.
• The digital twin is a core metaverse building block. These virtual models simulate real-world objects in detail. The next generation of digital twins will be photorealistic, physics-based, AI-enabled, and linked in metaverse ecosystems.
• The industrial metaverse will transform every industry. Currently existing digital twins illustrate the power and potential of the industrial metaverse to revolutionize design and engineering, testing, operations, and training.
The Download: China’s retro AI photos, and experts’ AI fears
Across social media, a number of creators are generating nostalgic photographs of China with the help of AI. Even though these images get some details wrong, they are realistic enough to trick and impress many of their followers.
The pictures look sophisticated in terms of definition, sharpness, saturation, and color tone. Their realism is partly down to a recent major update of image-making artificial-intelligence program Midjourney that was released in mid-March, which is better not only at generating human hands but also at simulating various photography styles.
It’s still relatively easy, even for untrained eyes, to tell that the photos are generated by an AI. But for some creators, their experiments are more about trying to recall a specific era in time than trying to trick their audience. Read the full story.
Zeyi’s story is from China Report, his weekly newsletter giving you the inside track on tech in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.
Read more of our reporting on AI-generated images:
+ These new tools let you see for yourself how biased AI image models are. Bias and stereotyping are still huge problems for systems like DALL-E 2 and Stable Diffusion, despite companies’ attempts to fix it. Read the full story.