How is the coronavirus crisis affecting the research and development of sustainable technologies? We spoke with the leaders of research projects funded under the CO2WIN programme.
The Covid-19 pandemic is changing our personal and professional lives in many ways. At present it is unclear just how this crisis will affect the development of key technologies for a sustainable future such as carbon capture and utilization technologies. Experts are urging decision-makers to place a strong focus on sustainability as they allocate economic recovery aid. At the same time, governments will have to grapple with shrinking budgets in the wake of this crisis.
So how do scientists view the situation? Are they anticipating changes in the research and development of sustainable technologies? Will the focus of research shift? Will the anticipated role of carbon utilization technologies change in a world that must now come to terms with disrupted supply chains and much harder national borders? We spoke with the leaders of research projects funded under the CO2WIN programme, which was established by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research to support the development of carbon utilization technologies.
Researchers expect Covid-19 to bring change
Eleven of the thirteen project leaders surveyed anticipate that the coronavirus pandemic will change scientific research relating to the development of sustainable technologies.
Just over half of those surveyed expect to see budgets shrink, with less funding available in their field of work in the near future. The interviewees anticipate that this will be due largely to the resulting redistribution of funding: "Public funds may be needed more urgently for medical research at the moment" or "Cuts will have to be made elsewhere to fund the various economic recovery programmes" or "A lot of funding / aid packages will be directed to other projects and technologies". Private sector investment in relevant research and development is also expected to decline: "Private sector investment is being cut or slashed entirely due to the economic crisis". Investment priorities could also shift to focus on "job retention in more traditional areas".
But it is also true that the crisis is focussing attention on what really matters, and around a third of those surveyed suggested that funding could increase as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. "There will be a greater emphasis on automation and digitalization, system security and resilience across all applications – or additional consideration will be given to these aspects. Sustainable technologies should be promoted as a matter of principle. Crises like the Covid-19 pandemic simply highlight the need for action."
After the crisis is before the crisis – Keeping the climate emergency in focus
"The Power-to-X energy transition must be implemented!" The big problems from the time before the crisis haven't gone away and still call for decisive action as well as investment in the development of sustainable technologies. "Carbon dioxide levels will rise again rapidly when economic activity recovers to normal levels. Only long-term systemic reductions can change the trajectory of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere over the long term." The interviewees appear to concur with the approach taken so far to the research and development of sustainable technologies: None of the respondents anticipate that the focus of research funded in this area will shift.
Opinion is divided on the future development of public acceptance and policy environments
Respondents to the survey are divided on the question of the extent to which the coronavirus pandemic will affect public acceptance around the promotion and implementation of sustainable technologies. Roughly half of the participants expect public approval to grow, while one quarter of the respondents predict that approval will remain at current levels or decrease. None of the respondents gave any reasons for their assessment and so we can only guess at why opinions differ on this issue.
When asked how the pandemic might affect the external parameters for sustainable technologies, such as energy transitions or emissions trading, a majority of seven respondents noted that they do not expect circumstances to change. Six respondents, however, anticipate substantial changes in the policy and regulatory environments for the development of sustainable technologies. Here again, the possible redistribution of funding looms large: "Business is favoured over ecology" or "The Green Deal is not the only show in town and will have to share investments". Due to the crisis, "companies are unable to make any major investments to drive innovation". Other possible developments that the project leaders cited include "heightened nationalism" and "emissions trading or taxes", as well as a possible increase in research activities in areas such as the "expansion of power-to-x technologies, expansion of e-mobility, establishment or expansion of green hydrogen technology".
Will carbon utilization technologies play a larger role in the economy and energy systems?
The role that carbon utilization technologies will play in our future economic and energy systems is still uncertain and will be determined by the political backing that they garner and other societal parameters as much as their actual development. What role will the coronavirus pandemic play in this context? Five respondents anticipate that in the wake of the pandemic these technologies will play a more important role in our changing economic and energy systems due to the "increasing need to integrate all sectors of the economy and the energy system in a holistic circular economy", "the urgent need to implement the energy transition" and their capacity to support "decentralized approaches to climate protection".
The corona pandemic could lead to or reinforce new insights such as a "broad public interest in maintaining the reduced emission levels that have accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic" and the understanding that "it is possible to throttle the economic system and that this has positive effects on the environment. Now all that we need to do is make the right investments (Green Deal)." Nearly two-thirds of respondents anticipate that the relevance of carbon utilization technologies will not be affected by the pandemic.
Either way, it appears unlikely that this research field will be hit by a "brain drain" in the aftermath of the pandemic: just one respondent stated that they have considered changing their professional focus.