Quill Robinson

Quill Robinson

Gov’t. needs to embrace, not hinder innovation

By Quill Robinson

President Joe Biden has pledged to cut America’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. He intends to meet this ambitious target through a wave of new federal spending and government programs. Yet, our best hope for reducing carbon emissions isn’t new government spending. It’s a technological sea-change–one that can only come from the private sector.

Government is slowing progress against climate change by imposing regulations that prevent emissions-lowering technologies from reaching the market. If our leaders really want to save the planet, they need to get out of the way of entrepreneurs who can actually do so.

One would expect the government to embrace technology with the potential to cut carbon pollution. President Biden himself has promised to “spur American technological innovation” as part of his climate agenda.

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Quill Robinson

Unfortunately, some of the most promising green-tech breakthroughs face severe headwinds as a result of misguided or antiquated federal policies.

One such technology–profiled in “They Say It Can’t Be Done,” a new documentary on the relationship between innovators and regulations — is an artificial tree developed by Arizona State University physicist and engineer Klaus Lackner.

These man-made trees contain a special plastic resin that can absorb carbon dioxide and release it when submerged in water. They’re 1,000 times more effective at taking in carbon dioxide from the air than natural trees. Once captured, this carbon dioxide can then be reclaimed and converted into fuel.

Lackner’s design could be scaled to produce units that each remove a metric ton of carbon dioxide daily. The main stumbling block is the lack of clear regulations surrounding carbon-capture technologies.

Until a uniform federal framework exists, the process of bringing this technology to market will remain impossibly complicated and fraught with risk.

Or consider technologies that could reduce the need for large-scale livestock farming. Raising billions of chickens, pigs and cattle requires vast amounts of water, feed and land. The resulting carbon footprint is massive–about 7.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases a year.

Here too, new technologies could help reduce emissions. Researchers are designing cell-cultured meat produced in the lab rather than the feedlot. This lab-grown protein is safe, healthy and far less carbon-intensive than traditionally farmed meat.

One start-up that makes lab-grown meat, Eat Just Inc., has obtained approval to sell its cell-cultured chicken in Singapore. But it’s still waiting for the green light from American regulators. According to the firm’s founder, it could be another year or more before U.S. approval comes through.

For an industry as capital-intensive as cultured meat production, this sluggish approval process can make it impossible for a start-up to launch and get its products to market.

High-tech solutions like these are precisely what’s required to protect our planet from the threat of climate change. While it’s impossible to say whether lab-grown meat or artificial trees are the best solution, an accessible and level regulatory playing field allows the best innovations to thrive.

Too many Americans believe that when it comes to climate change, only the government is up to the task. The fact is, the main barrier to large-scale adoption of sustainable technologies isn’t a lack of government involvement, but too much — or at least the wrong kind.

In order to make good on his promise to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint, the president and his team will need to recognize how government obstructs the development and deployment of technology that can fulfill that promise.

Quill Robinson is the American Conservation Coalition’s vice president of government affairs. This piece originally ran in TechCrunch.

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