Supporting the Energy Innovation Agenda
November 4, 2016
Today the Paris Climate Agreement comes into force just 11 short months after its successful negotiation. Now comes the hard work of implementing the structure it created and delivering on the pledges of individual and collective action. Over the next two weeks, the international climate community will meet at the 22nd Conference of Parties in Marrakech, Morocco, and focus on these important operational details. While there is a great deal of rightly placed focus on the realization of the near-term goals set forth at Paris, there is a complementary need to focus on the role that innovation will play in helping society meet both its near-term and longer-term emissions reduction and adaptation goals.
A lot of things came out of the UN climate negotiations in Paris over and above the agreement that was reached by around 190 countries. One of the most notable was an initiative called Mission Innovation—a consortium of 20 countries each pledging to double their research and development (R&D) spending on clean energy technologies. It is accompanied by a private-sector counterpart, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which is a group of billionaires and wealthy institutions coordinated by Bill Gates to make a similar step change increase in clean energy research and technology innovation.
Both partnerships have advanced their work and will be announcing details of their progress at the meetings in Marrakech. So far, neither group appears to be trying to force large innovation partnerships but instead will allow investment decisions to be determined by each investor (either individual or government) so that collaboration between and among efforts is not seen as a given or even seen as necessary. This is potentially a good thing. Vehicles for technology collaboration already exist. Some of them are successful, but others are stymied by the sheer amount of coordination they require. The other benefit appears to be that each country can focus on the area that makes the most sense for it—matching investment with its greatest strength or greatest need. Where the cooperation comes into play is the ability to match a need with a competence—countries can pursue partnership where it makes sense, and the commitment to increase funds allows for new openings to strike up those relationships with new money.
This focus on innovation has catalyzed new additional efforts as well. Today, the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a consortium of oil and gas companies who last year came together in support of the global climate goals put forth in the Paris Climate Agreement, has thrown its hat into the climate innovation ring with a pledge to invest $1 billion over 10 years on technologies above and beyond what it invests in within its own companies. The group will focus on carbon capture utilization and storage, oil and gas methane emission reduction, industrial efficiency, and low carbon transportation options. Funding will go to demonstration and development of technologies where the group thinks its collective efforts (representing more than one-fifth of global oil and gas production) could move the dial on lowering emissions between now and 2040. The group also announced it will focus this year on technologies that will “realize the kinds of approaches that will be required to achieve net zero emissions in the second half of the century.”
Whether globally coordinated or not, these initiatives, along with others, form the basis of a global innovation agenda whose aim is to turn the tide on challenges associated with deep decarbonization. So far, Bill Gates has been a notable spokesperson for this agenda. The core of his message is that the technologies we need to deeply decarbonize are not yet invented or sufficiently developed to be deployed on a scale that allows for significant emissions reduction (on the order of 80 percent or more). Some in the environmental community find this to be a troubling and counterproductive message that could distract from current efforts to reduce emissions. Others see it as proof that successfully battling climate change is a technological Hail Mary pass of sorts. Both of these interpretations fail to reflect the long-term nature of the climate challenge. As U.S. secretary of energy Ernest Moniz has pointed out on several occasions, while the world has technologies and policies that exist today that can bend the curve and even significantly reduce emissions over the course of the next several decades, innovation allows society to have a suite of technologies to provide optionality and risk management for the pathway to deep decarbonization throughout the rest of the century. These should be thought of as a necessary complement to deployment of existing technologies, not a replacement for them.
The Obama administration put out its FY2016 budget proposal, and it included the U.S. contribution to Mission Innovation—a doubling of U.S. clean energy research and development over the next five years. An aggressive budget proposal (on a range of issues, not just a doubling of R&D) was bound to receive a fair amount of congressional pushback, especially in an election year. It is important to remember, however, that the clean energy sector has become an important contributor to the U.S. economy, job creation, and source of international competitiveness. It was also one of the few areas where there has been consistent bipartisan cooperation throughout previous administrations. The controversy over stimulus spending soured that history a bit, but the track record of other ventures like the Advanced Research Project Agency–Energy (ARPA-E) and the successes of various U.S. national labs should allow room for a more open-minded approach to increased R&D funding. While much of the future budget battles will focus on whether or not the United States can afford to make such a big increase in expenditure, it would be wise to consider what we might be losing by not making this investment. Indeed, while these partnerships and initiatives are focused on how strides can be made together, there is also an element of competition among the countries and companies engaged in this endeavor. The United States has been a leader thus far on this innovation agenda. That’s a position we should try to maintain.
Sarah O. Ladislaw is a senior fellow and director of the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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