War and new climate law make history in 2022

Executive Editor

Every year since 2018, I’ve looked back and ahead at the trends shaping the past year and the year to come, including reality checks of my previous predictions. We’re keeping the tradition going.

This week let’s look back on the trends we predicted would drive 2022. Then, our Jan. 4 edition will look at the trends we’re watching at Cipher in 2023.

Before we get to the five trends we wrote about last January, there’s a big one we didn’t foresee: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

The resulting and ongoing war has severely exacerbated the energy crisis, which we mentioned as a 2021 trend. The war is permeating virtually every geopolitical debate and is changing the course of history.

In the short-term, the conflict is prompting a rush to secure natural-gas supplies outside of Russia and a resurgence of coal power, particularly within Europe. Longer term, though, it’s hastening the move away from fossil fuels, according to two separate reports from the International Energy Agency in recent months (its annual outlook in October and its renewable energy forecast earlier this month).

Unlike during previous energy crises, many kinds of clean energy are now at a point in their development and affordability where they could realistically replace oil, natural gas and coal.

Our five predicted trends for 2022:

More money, but hopefully not more problems.

This time last year, I said the U.S. Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s climate and energy funding, which at the time was a record $115 billion, could create headaches for implementation.

The Inflation Reduction Act, whose total funding going toward climate is $369 billion over 10 years, dwarfs all prior investments in this space.

So, I was right about there being more money—but I’m blown away by how much!

The challenges implementing IRA will be similarly supercharged.

Potential issues include hiring enough workers to implement the law quickly enough so companies can take advantage of the law’s time-sensitive incentives. Next year, the law and its proponents will also face Republican scrutiny with the GOP in control of the House of Representatives.

First-of-their-kind projects to the starting line.

I might want to reconsider including this as a trend in the future—unless I want to list it as a trend every year for the next 30 years!

We are seeing a lot of projects—too many to name here—be announced, break ground or commence construction.

A smattering of examples: Lower-carbon hydrogen plants all around the world, including Texas, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates; and at least two sustainable aviation fuel plants, including Fulcrum BioEnergy plant in Nevada and LanzaJet’s plant in Georgia that received the first grant from the Catalyst program at Breakthrough Energy (which I mentioned in my 2022 look-ahead piece). Georgia is also fast becoming ground zero for electric-vehicle manufacturing.

Back in January, I mentioned the U.S. State Department’s First Movers Coalition, a group of companies launched in November 2021 supporting cleantech products in eight hard-to-abate sectors, like aviation and manufacturing.

At the annual United Nations Climate Conference of the Parties (known as COP27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in November, FMC announced it’s tackling cement too. At next year’s COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the group will launch an effort tackling the chemicals sector, a spokesperson said.

Global climate and energy equity.

Progress on this topic has been a mixed bag.

Climate-fueled extreme weather—especially when afflicting low-income nations—received top billing at COP27. World leaders agreed to create the first loss and damage fund wherein wealthy countries pay developing countries to recover from extreme weather events.

While the announcement shows increasing awareness of the effects of climate change, such a fund does not replace the financing developing countries need to continuously adapt to future warming impacts, leaders from developing countries and experts say, as Anca wrote recently.

In my predictions, I wrote I would be looking to see if financial and multilateral institutions from wealthier nations would show leniency on previously announced restrictions on fossil-fuel financing in developing countries.

That seems unlikely from at least one powerful source: the European Investment Bank, according to a September report in The Financial Times.

Despite the restrictions for developing countries like those in Africa, Europe is increasingly turning to African natural gas to make up for its loss of Russian resources.

Such a twist of circumstances provides an ironic backdrop for African leaders to emphasize the importance of developing their economies with natural gas, as Nigeria’s president said in a November Washington Post op-ed and a top United Nations official explained in a Cipher Newsmakers video interview from September.

Whether the VC market cools down.

Venture capital is still pouring into climate technologies, but at a cooler rate than in 2021.

Source: PitchBook • Data compiled upon request from Cipher. *2022 data complete through Dec. 5.

“I think some of these sectors got a little overheated and ahead of themselves,” said Eric Toone, the technical investment lead at Breakthrough Energy Ventures, one of the world’s biggest funders of climate tech startups. “The market overall has cooled off a little bit, which is not necessarily a bad thing.”

Toone specifically mentioned the food space, including lower carbon protein companies, such as Beyond Meat, whose stock price is down nearly 80% over the past year.

Despite these challenges, stocks of climate-minded companies are, on average, doing better compared to the broader stock market, according to a stock index tracking roughly 40 companies in this space created by Energy Impact Partners, a VC firm focused on climate tech.

Source: Energy Impact Partners • The EIP Climate Tech Index tracks the performance of public companies primarily involved in providing technology that supports global decarbonization. Companies included can be found at the source link.

Reckoning with clean-energy criticism.

In my 2022 look-ahead, I highlighted four areas of strife I saw emerging in the clean energy debate:

  • Appropriately disposing of cleantech at the end of its life;
  • Safely mining for clean energy materials;
  • Streamlining permitting processes;
  • Ensuring new cleantech industrial facilities (like direct air capture) are built with environmental justice in mind.

Calls to streamline permitting came to a political head this fall (on the heels of a two-part Cipher series on the topic). But nothing has passed Congress and progress seems unlikely any time soon.

Movement on these topics is usually slow. The war in Ukraine and resulting energy crisis demanded attention that might have otherwise gone to these other areas.

What’s next: In our Jan. 4 edition, we’ll be highlighting five trends Cipher will watch next year. What’s on your radar? Tell us at news@ciphernews.com.

Editor’s note: Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) is a venture capital fund within the Breakthrough Energy network, which also supports Cipher. Catalyst is a program within Breakthrough, which is also a partner with the First Movers Coalition. Bill Gates, founder of Breakthrough Energy, has provided funding to Beyond Meat.