Excerpted from pp. 165-171 of Climatenomics: Washington, Wall Street and the Economic Battle to Save Our Planet by Bob Keefe, published by Rowman & Littlefield. Copyright 2022. All rights reserved.
This extract, first published on 19 Sept. 2022, is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address key policy challenges, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. The Forum Network aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields, and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
On the island of Borneo, in the shadow of Mount Kinabalu, the third-highest island peak on Earth, jungle plants are digging their roots deep into the soil and doing the business of mining some of the most important elements necessary for our clean-energy future.
You read that right. The plants are doing the mining.
It turns out that numerous species of fern-like plants and small trees, including Alyssum murale, Phyllantus balgoyii, and hundreds of others around the world, actually suck up nickel, cobalt, and other metals naturally as they grow, their tender roots acting like magnets for elements that otherwise could only be obtained by digging up and destroying the Earth, plants, and animals around them. Scientists in Borneo, with the watchful eye of investors, entrepreneurs, and mining companies around the globe eagerly tracking their work, have now figured out how to cut back the growth shoots of such plants once or twice a year, burn or squeeze them, and extract nickel, a key component of electric car batteries and the generating equipment used in wind turbines.
As recently as a decade or two ago, nobody in their right mind thought we could get enough energy from the sun or wind to power entire American cities.
Known as “phytomining,” the process could someday produce enough nickel to supply the ever-increasing demand for battery energy storage while also abating the environmental destruction, the carbon emissions, and the millions of gallons of wasted water that come with traditional mining operations. It’s an optimistic potential solution for an otherwise seemingly unsolvable problem—how to produce enough metals for all the batteries we need for energy storage and electric vehicles without destroying the planet while doing it. It also illustrates the importance of the interconnected web of government, scientists, business, and capitalism necessary to solve the climate crisis before it kills our economy. The process of phytomining was developed beginning in 1983, far from Borneo in the bowels of the obscure Washington, D.C., labs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. Research agronomist Rufus Chaney came across the idea during the fifty-two years he spent at the lab, quietly studying such processes as part of his work researching how to clean up toxic Superfund sites. Chaney retired in 2016. Now, venture capitalists, mining companies, and start-up entrepreneurs are looking for ways to commercialize Chaney’s idea and the groundbreaking work—quite literally—being done in places like Borneo.
Read more: Critical Minerals: Responsible supply chains for a sustainable future by Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Agency
Perhaps most importantly, though, the idea of getting metals from plants to help make and store clean energy is illustrative of just how little we really know about the future of clean energy and climate solutions. The fact is, as recently as a decade or two ago, nobody in their right mind thought we could get enough energy from the sun or wind to power entire American cities, or that electric vehicles would take off so quickly that every major car manufacturer would blow up their business models, throw out their plans, and abandon vehicles powered by fossil fuels that drove the world’s economy for more than a century. And the fact is, we just don’t know what the future holds in terms of scientific and business breakthroughs that could alter the world’s approach to climate change.
What we do know is we need to move quickly.
We also know groundwork being laid today will yield climate solutions that most of us can’t even fathom today. That groundwork includes game-changing public policies coming out of Washington. It includes the innovation coming from climate-tech entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists funding them. And it includes the catalyzing public protest ringing across the country and throughout the world emphasizing the need to do more to save the planet.
Most people, not just aging hippies or young people but businesspeople, farmers, and military leaders want climate action, and now.
What we also now know is that the rising economic costs of climate change are impacting everyone who lives on this planet. These costs are unsustainable. The United States might have the most powerful economy on the planet, but it can’t continue to weather $145 billion annual economic damages from climate and weather-related disasters forever and continue to have the quality of life and the longevity of life that we have all come to expect. And if the United States can’t afford the costs of climate change, what about smaller nations around the world—in other words, just about any other country? Beyond the borders of the United States, the economic costs of climate change and the economic benefits of climate action will reshape the global economy and determine the winners and losers during the next generation on Earth. Countries that embrace clean energy and climate action will benefit from more jobs, investments, and economic growth. Countries that ignore climate change or allow factions of their population and incumbent industries to keep them in the past will flounder.
We’ve also learned that most people, not just aging hippies or young people but businesspeople, farmers, and military leaders want climate action, and now. In the more than twenty years since my organization was founded by two environmentally minded Silicon Valley businesspeople, Nicole Lederer and Bob Epstein, the number of business leaders, investors, and other professionals who are a part of E2 has swelled from a handful of tech entrepreneurs to a national network of more than eleven thousand members and supporters from every walk of life. These include business leaders from every state and every sector of our economy who share the common realization that what’s good for the environment is good for the economy, and vice versa.
In E2’s work, and in my previous twenty-plus years as a business, technology, and political journalist, I’ve witnessed just how fast—and how slow— change can happen. My colleagues and I have seen how smart climate and environmental policy at the federal, state, and international levels can drive businesses and investments and create millions of jobs. We’ve seen how neither government nor business nor the general public alone can accomplish change. We’ve realized it takes the combination of all three, threaded together by the common fabric of crisis or opportunity, to really make change happen quickly. […]
During another election year, during another era, one of America’s greatest presidents took to the podium on May 13, 1908, to speak to governors assembled from across the country. Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican in his last year in office. Six months later, the country would elect his hand-picked fellow Republican, William Taft, as his successor. Roosevelt had presided over one of the most economically transformational and successful periods in U.S. history. He also was a conservationist and outdoorsman who understood the economic value of the country’s natural resources and their historic role in making America great but also the economic value of conserving those resources and the importance of planning for a different, better future.
“We have become great in a material sense because of the lavish use of our resources, and we have just reason to be proud of our growth,” Roosevelt told the governors gathered before him. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils shall have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation.”
We have the foresight to know climate change is killing our economy, and that we can save it—and our planet—by expanding clean energy and other climate solutions. The question is, will we choose a future that’s dark and unsustainable, or one that’s bright and promising?
Back then, climate change didn’t threaten the world and every human and animal like it does now. And Roosevelt didn’t have the hindsight we now have to understand the connection between burning coal, oil, and gas and the ruining of the planet. But Roosevelt understood the importance of not wasting America’s resources. He understood decisions he and other national and world leaders made at the time would impact generations for centuries to come. And he understood that if they didn’t make wise decisions, with both the economy and the environment in mind, it would ultimately spell disaster for both.
“One distinguishing characteristic of really civilized men is foresight,” he said. “We have to, as a nation, exercise foresight for this nation in the future; and if we do not exercise that foresight, dark will be the future!”
A century or so later, the words of the Republican president known as the Wilderness Warrior still ring true. Today, we have the hindsight to know what an economy built on fossil fuels and energy waste has done to the planet. We have the foresight to know climate change is killing our economy, and that we can save it—and our planet—by expanding clean energy and other climate solutions.
The question is, will we choose a future that’s dark and unsustainable, or one that’s bright and promising?