It is possible to achieve a carbon neutral world…but it’s up to technology developers to get us there.

2015-01-t-arai-toshiba-headshotGuest columnist Takafumi Arai is Chief Specialist at Toshiba Smart Community .

The concept of being carbon neutral has gained popularity from Hollywood celebs like Chris Martin of Coldplay to major corporations including Google and IKEA. The city of Palo Alto, California is also determined to be the first carbon-neutral city in the United States. These devotees know what they can do to be carbon neutral (e.g. buy carbon credits, or use renewable energy such as solar or wind).

Yet, while consumers and corporations should continue to make the effort to be carbon neutral by being conscious of and using carbon off-set tactics, it is not truly possible to be carbon neutral until we address the issue on a higher level. We need to work together to reduce the amount of carbon being created and dispersed into our ecosystem in the first place. This is why it is important to explore the true meaning of carbon neutral, what can be done to achieve carbon neutrality, and discuss what the world would look like if it was truly carbon neutral.

Why carbon neutral?

One of the biggest challenges with managing carbon levels is that most consumers aren’t even aware of the small activities that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In addition to driving a car or taking a plane, little things like simply turning on a computer contributes to the issue. And regardless of how hard a select group of people try to offset their own emissions, there will be approximately 102,465 flights per day in 2014, according to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) and 2.4 billion units of mobile devices including PCs will be shipped in 2014, according to Gartner Research.

Those numbers paint a bleak picture: it doesn’t seem possible for consumers to off-set these carbon emissions on their own. That said, the contributions from major corporations do help. Google, for example, is putting programs into place that reduce its environmental impact, such as its shuttle and electric vehicle carpooling program, which the company estimates is equivalent to taking an estimated 5,700 cars off the road each year!

These initiatives by major corporations and the offsetting efforts by consumer devotees are a good step in the right direction. But we need to find solutions that every consumer can take to stop carbon emissions before they are created and dispersed into our ecosystem.

So, what can be done today?

There are several technology developments that show a lot of promise for a carbon neutral future:

  • Electric vehicles. Because EVs use electric energy stored in on-board battery packs, they eliminate the need for a combustion engine, meaning no fossil fuels are burned. The batteries are lithium-titanate, and are safe, rechargeable battery solutions that have a high rate of performance. Plus, due to their long-life capabilities, the lifecycle of the car is extended, reducing the energy produced from the manufacturing and transportation of new vehicles. One current barrier to mainstream adoption, however, is costs. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids to compete with gas-powered cars, battery prices need to drop by between 50 and 80 percent.
  • Hydrogen-powered Vehicles. Fuel cell vehicles have been explored for many years by the government and car OEMs. And while the DoE’s Fuel Cell Technology Program claims that, as of 2011, fuel cells achieved 42–53 percent vehicle efficiency at full power, there are still concerns that the cost of manufacturing will limit hydrogen vehicles in the near future. Yet, there are several major OEMs that are planning to introduce a production model of a fuel cell car in the next year. With new technologies being developed very quickly, we expect these vehicles will be around sooner than expected.
  • Hydrogen Fuel Cell Batteries. In addition to the positive changes that hydrogen use can offer the mainstream automobile industry, we also can see pure hydrogen fuel cell batteries being used in commercial and public facilities, and in residential homes. For example, there are some very promising hydrogen town projects currently underway, such as those being implemented in Japan, where residential fuel cell systems are being used to provide heat and power in homes. Or if you look at the U.S., companies like Whole Foods and Coca-Cola have installed multi-megawatt (MW) fuel cell systems to provide heat and power to their commercial properties.

It is possible to achieve a carbon neutral world…but it’s up to technology developers to get us there

The world is full of exciting technology developments that will eventually enable zero carbon emissions, like those mentioned above. When we reach the point that society is able to use all of these technologies in our everyday lives, this is when we will be able to reach carbon neutral.