U.S. Intelligence Community Says Breakthrough in Fusion Energy Would Meet Paris Agreement Goals

On October 21, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) released their first-ever National Intelligence Estimate on the threats posed by climate change. Its findings are sobering: fights over countries’ responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions cuts will increase geopolitical tensions, while states secure their interests over resource-rich regions like the Arctic. Meanwhile, climate driven migration and water stress from increasingly extreme climate effects will increase risks of armed conflict. No country will be safe from the impacts of climate change, but the worst effects will be acutely felt in developing countries.

The disturbing findings in the report, who’s full title is “Climate Change and International Responses Increasing Challenges to US National Security Through 2040,” rest on a clear finding that the current international effort to reduce emissions to the Paris Agreement goals of limiting the increase in global temperatures to only 1.5°C will fail. The IC finds that although solar, wind and other clean energy sources will increase globally, they will fail to displace fossil fuels fast enough to meet the Paris targets.

However, there is a note of hope in an annex to the report, where the IC notes that the assumption of failure to reduce emissions could be wrong is:

“A major breakthrough in and large-scale deployment of zero-carbon energy would alter our assessment that the global energy transition is not on pace to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C.”

Fusion energy is the only energy source listed in the report as capable of both a major breakthrough and large-scale deployment:

“Multiple venture-backed startup companies could utilize their capital—combined with improved computational and materials science—to develop a breakthrough in nuclear fusion, a near endless source of energy that governments have been researching since the 1950s without success.”

Put together with cheap carbon dioxide removal, the report finds that this could

“spur a deep decarbonization pathway that results in the globe reaching net zero emissions well before 2050.”

To be clear, earlier in the report, the IC walks through other clean energy solutions to climate change, saying that renewable energy will grow rapidly, along with energy storage, but that zero-carbon sources like nuclear fission and hydropower will grow in some places while shrinking in others. They note that “The potential to gain an edge in markets that could be worth hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars is fueling increasingly intense competition.”

The climate crisis, and the increasingly lucrative economic competition it is fueling, is the most important reason for both private investors and governments to invest in a rapid acceleration of fusion energy. The American government can support the acceleration of fusion energy by funding new public-private partnerships, already passed by Congress, that would directly support the privately-funded fusion community in commercializing fusion energy.

While the U.S. intelligence community does not asses the likelihood of such a breakthrough, the members of the Fusion Industry Association are working with focus and drive to meet the challenge. FIA member companies share a timeline to make sure that commercial fusion energy will be ready in time to meet the climate challenge, while being capable of scaling-up to meet the massive global demand for zero-carbon, firm sources of energy. As we’ve written elsewhere, fusion energy is inevitable, but where will it be commercialized and will it be fast enough to meet the climate challenge are open.

This National Intelligence Estimate's dire predictions about how climate change will drive conflict should show that investments by the U.S. government to accelerate private fusion are worth it.