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Published in English from economie.gouv.fr
Exponentially more powerful machines could make possible major reductions in emissions, putting the goal of limiting global warming within reach.

The emerging technology of quantum computing could revolutionize the fight against climate change, transforming the economics of decarbonization and becoming a major factor in limiting global warming to the target temperature of 1.5°C (see sidebar “What is quantum computing?”).

What is Quantum Computing?
Even though the technology is in the early stages of development—experts estimate the first generation of fault-tolerant quantum computing1 will arrive in the second half of this decade—breakthroughs are accelerating, investment dollars are pouring in, and start-ups are proliferating.2 Major tech companies have already developed small, so-called noisy intermediate-scale quantum (NISQ) machines, though these aren’t capable of performing the type of calculations that fully capable quantum computers are expected to perform.

Countries and corporates set ambitious new targets for reducing emissions at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). Those goals, if fully met, would represent an extraordinary annual investment of $4 trillion by 2030, the largest reallocation of capital in human history. But the measures would only reduce warming to between 1.7°C and 1.8°C by 2050, far short of the 1.5°C level believed necessary to avoid catastrophic, runaway climate change.

Meeting the goal of net-zero emissions that countries and some industries have committed to won’t be possible without huge advances in climate technology that aren’t achievable today. Even the most powerful supercomputers available now are not able to solve some of these problems. Quantum computing could be a game changer in those areas. In all, we think quantum computing could help develop climate technologies able to abate carbon on the order of 7 gigatons a year of additional CO2 impact by 2035, with the potential to bring the world in line with the 1.5°C target.

Quantum computing could help reduce emissions in some of the most challenging or emissions-intensive areas, such as agriculture or direct-air capture, and could accelerate improvements in technologies required at great scale, such as solar panels or batteries. This article offers a look at some of the breakthroughs the technology could permit and attempts to quantify the impact of leveraging quantum-computer technology that are expected become available this decade.

Solving so far insoluble problems

Quantum computing could bring about step changes throughout the economy that would have a huge impact on carbon abatement and carbon removal, including by helping to solve persistent sustainability problems such as curbing methane produced by agriculture, making the production of cement emissions-free, improving electric batteries for vehicles, developing significantly better renewable solar technology, finding a faster way to bring down the cost of hydrogen to make it a viable alternative to fossil fuels, and using green ammonia as a fuel and a fertilizer.

Addressing the five areas designated in the Climate Math Report as key for decarbonization, we have identified quantum-computing use cases that can pave the way to a net-zero economy. We project that by 2035 the use cases listed below could make it possible to eliminate more than 7 gigatons of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) from the atmosphere a year, compared with the current trajectory, or in aggregate more than 150 gigatons over the next 30 years (Exhibit 1).

Exhibit 1

Shift 1: Electrifying our lives

Batteries

Batteries are a critical element of achieving zero-carbon electrification. They are required to reduce CO2 emissions from transportation and to obtain grid-scale energy storage for intermittent energy sources such as solar cells or wind.

Improving the energy density of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries enables applications in electric vehicles and energy storage at an affordable cost. Over the past ten years, however, innovation has stalled—battery energy density improved 50 percent between 2011 and 2016, but only 25 percent between 2016 and 2020, and is expected to improve by just 17 percent between 2020 and 2025.

Recent research3 has shown that quantum computing will be able to simulate the chemistry of batteries in ways that can’t be achieved now. Quantum computing could allow breakthroughs by providing a better understanding of electrolyte complex formation, by helping to find a replacement material for cathode/anode with the same properties and/or by eliminating the battery separator.

As a result, we could create batteries with 50 percent higher energy density for use in heavy-goods electric vehicles, which could substantially bring forward their economic use. The carbon benefits to passenger EVs wouldn’t be huge, as these vehicles are expected to reach cost parity in many countries before the first generation of quantum computers is online, but consumers might still enjoy cost savings.

In addition, higher-density energy batteries can serve as a grid-scale storage solution. The impact on the world’s grids could be transformative. Halving the cost of grid-scale storage could enable a step change in the use of solar power, which is becoming economically competitive but is challenged by its generation profile. Our modeling suggests that halving the cost of solar panels could increase their use by 25 percent in Europe by 2050 but halving both solar and batteries might increase solar use by 60 percent (Exhibit 2). Geographies without such a high carbon price will see even greater impacts.

Exhibit 2
Through the combination of use cases described above, improved batteries could bring about an additional reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 1.4 gigatons by 2035.

Shift 2: Adapting industrial operations

Batteries

Batteries are a critical element of achieving zero-carbon electrification. They are required to reduce CO2 emissions from transportation and to obtain grid-scale energy storage for intermittent energy sources such as solar cells or wind.

Improving the energy density of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries enables applications in electric vehicles and energy storage at an affordable cost. Over the past ten years, however, innovation has stalled—battery energy density improved 50 percent between 2011 and 2016, but only 25 percent between 2016 and 2020, and is expected to improve by just 17 percent between 2020 and 2025.

Recent research3 has shown that quantum computing will be able to simulate the chemistry of batteries in ways that can’t be achieved now. Quantum computing could allow breakthroughs by providing a better understanding of electrolyte complex formation, by helping to find a replacement material for cathode/anode with the same properties and/or by eliminating the battery separator.

As a result, we could create batteries with 50 percent higher energy density for use in heavy-goods electric vehicles, which could substantially bring forward their economic use. The carbon benefits to passenger EVs wouldn’t be huge, as these vehicles are expected to reach cost parity in many countries before the first generation of quantum computers is online, but consumers might still enjoy cost savings.

In addition, higher-density energy batteries can serve as a grid-scale storage solution. The impact on the world’s grids could be transformative. Halving the cost of grid-scale storage could enable a step change in the use of solar power, which is becoming economically competitive but is challenged by its generation profile. Our modeling suggests that halving the cost of solar panels could increase their use by 25 percent in Europe by 2050 but halving both solar and batteries might increase solar use by 60 percent (Exhibit 2). Geographies without such a high carbon price will see even greater impacts.

Investment Relations