Solarpunk near-futures & the rise of fusion

Originally published on August 2022 and written by John White

As yet another record-shattering hot summer rages unabated across the Northern Hemisphere this year, it’s hard to find anyone who denies our global climate is going through some significant changes.

Some still argue about whether it is truly man-made or just a phase in our ecosystem, but many climate scientists who passionately believe the former are quietly optimistic that we have passed a tipping point in the debate. Governments, businesses and consumers around the world are broadly persuaded that climate change is real, and we now have countless tangible initiatives running in parallel at all levels of society, geared towards combating the pollutants we put in the air. At an individual level, survey after survey shows consumers are overwhelmingly adapting their lifestyles and working patterns to support the cause. Today thousands of companies, including JLL, Microsoft, AstraZeneca, Siemens, Ford, LG, IKEA, and P&G, have made commitments toward net zero.

New entrepreneurs are building companies anchored around sustainability and the circular economy, from clean cement to nuclear fusion to accelerated recycling, energy storage and carbon tech.

At a time when other industries are struggling to tap funds from VCs, carbon and climate startups have attracted record investments. $53.7 billion was poured into climate and carbon-focused startups in 2021. From $2.3 billion in January to $7.6 billion in December, that tripling of investment dollars is a sure sign carbon and climate ventures are top of VC agendas.

This investment is buoyed by government pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions. So far, over 137 countries have made various commitments that lead to net zero. These account for 70% of global GDP and over 70% of carbon emissions.

“We will solve the climate challenge because customers demand it, employees demand it, and investors demand it. Many (but obviously not all) policymakers at municipal, state, regional, and national levels are pushing for it, and those recalcitrant ones in opposition are slowly but surely losing hold.”

Dr Michael E. Webber,
CTO, Energy Impact Partners & former Chief Science and Technology Officer at Engie

Since the year 2000, the EU as a whole has demonstrated a 21% decrease in CO2 emissions. Italy reduced 28%, the UK 35%, and Denmark 43%, but the even better news is that the myth that increased emissions are directly related to economic growth is gradually being dispelled.

The Czech Republic has dropped its CO2 emissions by 13% while growing its GDP by 27%. France reduced its emissions by 14% while increasing its GDP by 15%. Romania saw an 8% decrease and 35% growth, and even the largest economy on Earth – the USA – decreased its emissions by 4% while growing its GDP by 26%.

Earlier this month, the US Government went a step further, passing the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) into law. As he signed the bill, the US President called it: “the most aggressive action ever, ever ever ever, in confronting the climate crisis.”

$370 billion in climate spending is the world’s single largest investment in the climate crisis and is a potential game changer for climate-tech ventures such as electric vehicle charging stations, sustainable batteries, solar energy, and direct air carbon removal.

The incentives and tax breaks in the package are combined with the creation of a National Green Bank that is designed to motivate the private sector to invest billions of dollars in climate-tech initiatives, with some going as far as saying that every dollar in government spending could unleash 10x in private investment.

The IRA isn’t simply investing in climate-tech. Through billions in tax credits, many of its initiatives are making it easier for consumers to switch to typically expensive low-carbon alternatives, such as electric vehicles and solar panels.

Whilst this all sounds incredibly positive, a nice counter to the doom and gloom headlines we’re so used to, some argue we’re deluding ourselves. That until we actually stop our thirst for unrelenting growth, we’ll never truly be in harmony with our environment.

“The Progress Trap”, coined by historian Ronald Wright, calls this a legitimate human condition. We create a technology that we become reliant upon, in this case: coal, oil extraction and combustion engines. But due to its side effects, we require another new technology to solve problems the old technology created, whilst never fully knowing the side effects the new technology will create.

Arguably, we’re in phase 2 of the progress trap as we emerge from the industrial age into the technological one…

Climate-Tech We’re Betting On To Win The Fight

Considered the most important indicator of our progress in the fight against climate change is the volume of “carbon parts per million” (or carbon PPM) in the atmosphere.

The broad consensus seems to be that 450ppm marks the threshold we want to avoid to keep temperatures below a 2ºC global temperature rise where the most severe side effects are predicted: melting ice caps, rising waters and mass global migration.

The Keeling Curve, maintained by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, maintains a regular monitor of PPMs. At the time of writing, we currently stand at just over 416ppm with circa 15 years left at current levels of carbon emissions until we break the 450ppm threshold.

It’s no surprise then that ventures focused on carbon capture (also known as direct air captures or “DACs”) are attracting the lion’s share of climate-tech investment. When picturing a DAC, think of giant fans that draw planet-warming carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, storing the polluting material away or recycling it into clean energy.

Iceland is at the epicentre of this innovation as it houses the world’s largest DAC plant, run by Swiss startup Climeworks. In April, Climeworks announced a $650m fundraise to build a second DAC in Iceland that is 10x the size of their first one. They then plan to continue building new DACs around the world every 18-24 months at 10x capacity from the previous build until they can handle literally a billion tons of carbon extraction a year.

“Nobody has ever built what we are building in DAC, and we are both humble and realistic that the most certain way to be successful is to run the technology in the real world as fast as possible.”

Christoph Gebald,
co-founder and co-CEO of Climeworks

Some understandably argue that carbon extraction is simply plastering over the cracks and not tackling the fundamental problem – that our consumption culture creates disproportionate carbon emissions in the first place.

Outside of carbon sequestration, other areas of climate-tech investments have focused on energy, transport, the built environment (buildings and infrastructure), industry, agriculture and food, with by far the most exciting developments taking place in fusion energy.

The science behind fusion energy is based on smashing two atoms together at incredibly high speeds and transforming the energy from that reaction into electricity. Once mastered, fusion power plants could provide cheap and endless energy without emitting carbon into the air or producing radioactive waste.

For years, the science had proved impossible to master. But in September last year, MIT startup spinout Commonwealth Fusion Systems successfully demonstrated it could generate an electromagnetic field strength of 20 tesla – the most powerful magnetic field of its kind ever created on Earth.

This electromagnetic field can capture and confine the energy created from smashing the atoms together, resolving the greatest uncertainty in the quest to build the world’s first fusion power plant.

“It’s a big moment. We now have a platform that is both scientifically very well-advanced, because of the decades of research on these machines, and also commercially very interesting. What it does is allow us to build devices faster, smaller, and at less cost”

Bob Mumgaard,
CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems

Eight weeks after the demonstration, Commonwealth Fusion Systems raised the largest Series B investment ever, securing $1.8 billion from the likes of Bill Gates, Google, Marc Benioff & George Soros, based on a plan to launch the world’s first fusion power plant, called ARC, in the early 2030s.

The combination of generating consistent green cheap energy whilst simultaneously being able to remove gigatons of harmful emissions from the atmosphere could go a long way to solving the climate crisis.

However, both are huge bets that are only estimated to be fully operational in the next decade. Understandably, some then believe we need a more significant mindset shift in order to truly tackle this challenge. Enter Solarpunk…

Visions Of A SolarPunk Future

Most popular films set in the future typically paint dystopian visions of dark, cybernetic fuelled city landscapes, run by authoritarian leaders with an unhealthy obsession for AI-fuelled surveillance of their populations, with residents surviving some form of environmental collapse.

This “Cyberpunk” genre has often been described as an artistic movement that is rooted in our anxieties about the rapidly developing technical age we live within. Solarpunk, however, offers a counter vision to Cyberpunk.

Instead of decay and dystopias, the future world does not have any existential threats, such as the climate crisis hanging over its head, and synergy is achieved between people on Earth, clean technologies and nature, where human activities do not harm the environment.

Imagine automated cities populated with lush natural landscapes, buildings covered with rich vegetation, complete with rooftop gardens, all powered by clean energy.

Solarpunk proposes a future where our technologies are built in harmony with nature and shared equally with everyone on the planet. Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay or the indoor waterfall inside the Jewel Changi Airport are often listed as the best immediate examples. In the world of fiction, if you’re a Marvel buff, Wakanda in the film Black Panther is considered the best example of Solarpunk in modern-day film.

“Solarpunk can be a balm to the rising climate and eco-anxiety, especially among young people. More are experiencing emotions of guilt, grief and an overwhelming sense of doom about the future of the planet amid worsening heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, and ecosystem degradation.”

Olivia Lai,
Managing Editor of

But Solarpunk is going far beyond just attractive architecture and biophilic design to make us feel better. Architects and environment designers are exploring ways to truly integrate natural elements into our built environments with the aim of improving wellbeing and sustainability.

The Living Building Challenge by the International Living Future Institute is one of the most ambitious regenerative building certifications in the world. It comprises seven performance areas: site, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity and beauty, all of which are monitored over a 12-month period to earn the certification.

The certification is so hard to attain that only 25 buildings worldwide have achieved the coveted award. However, in 2021, a further 338 global projects were officially registered on the path to certification, with the numbers expected to double again this year.

Of the 25 buildings worldwide with the certification, five are Google workplaces, including its new Sunnydale campus in California, described as the world’s largest renovation project at 250,000 square feet.

91% (3,400 tons) of the total waste it generated was diverted from landfill, and over 90% of its annual estimated energy demand is covered by 5,000 on-site solar panels. Captured and stored rainwater reduces demand for internal water usage, and 100% of irrigation demand is met by municipally-supplied recycled water.

What’s more, it appears Google is applying the approach to all its offices worldwide.

“In 2020, our 6 Pancras Square office in London became the first building in the world to be awarded a Zero Carbon certification, paving the way for a partnership between Google and ILFI to plan a volume approach to certification.”

Lauren Sparandara,
Google Sustainability Manager

Perhaps the Solarpunk visions of the future are nearer than we think?