The Alternative to the Climate Nuclear Option is Innovation
- Oct 22, 2014 8:00 pm GMT
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Out of fear the world is running out of time to aggressively act against climate change, some climate advocates are calling for the climate nuclear option: limiting economic growth to deeply decarbonize the global economy. It’s easy to see why—world leaders continue to propose weak policy options that all but guarantee dangerous global warming. Yet pitting economic growth against climate mitigation misses a crucial caveat: deep decarbonization and economic growth can be accomplished at the same time if nations significantly expand pro-growth clean energy innovation policies to rapidly speed-up technology advancement.
According to the International Energy Agency, even if every country—including the United States—meets its voluntary carbon targets, global emissions will still be 60 percent higher than necessary to prevent dangerous warming. It’s clear cautiously cutting carbon emissions will not, in the long-term, position the world to adequately fight climate change.
So what is preventing countries from committing to deep decarbonization? Most countries recognize deep decarbonization through conventional climate policies like carbon pricing represent to high an economic cost in the short-term. High income countries are hesitant to aggressively deploy clean energy because of the potential for higher energy costs and grid reliability issues that not only impact consumer spending, but can make domestic industries internationally uncompetitive. And low income countries simply want more access to cheap energy to accelerate economic development, even if that means burning fossil fuels.
It’s the quintessential tradeoff in the climate policy debate, and it’s holding the world back from addressing global warming in a meaningful way.
For some climate advocates, the meager carbon cuts pledged by the international community is too little too late. Carbon cuts need to start very soon and on a scale not seen in modern times. As a result, climate advocates like David Roberts, Naomi Klein, and Mark Buchanan, are pushing a more modern version of the ‘limits to growth’—the need to slow economic growth as a last ditch ‘climate nuclear option’ to deeply decarbonize the planet as quickly as possible.
This is in contrast to many leading climate advocates arguing the world doesn’t need to tradeoff the wellbeing of our climate for our economy. For instance, a series of new reports (here, here, and here) by leading international organizations argue that cutting carbon emissions quickly and growing the global economy can be achieved at the same time.
This division among climate advocates is important because if the global community’s meek policy responses to-date are any indication, the climate nuclear option—even under the very good intentions of averting climate catastrophe—is destined to be at worst a non-starter for global policymakers and at best even slower at climate mitigation than the modest strategies deployed today. A pro-growth climate strategy is the only quick and viable path to deep decarbonization.
Unfortunately, pro-growth climate advocates are still relying on conventional and economically tenuous climate strategies from the past to counter anti-growth proponents. Pro-growth reports appeal to sometimes vague notions that potential future economic returns from a clean energy economy will exceed the higher cost of deploying the technology.
Yet, even if it is true that moving to a clean energy economy provides a greater future economic rate of return, it still ignores the very real cost and base load limitations that cause consumers, industry, and governments to hesitate going all in on clean tech. This is particularly true because clean tech is still cost and performance limited under many circumstances where government incentives aren’t generous enough (or don’t exist) or where solar and wind intermittency begins to limit high levels of deployment.
To make a stronger pro-growth argument for climate policy, advocates need to appeal to individual self-interest: How do we make clean tech a cheaper and more economically palatable option than fossil fuels for everyone as quickly as possible?
The key way of doing so is clean energy innovation policy—an aggressive strategy of investment in clean tech research, development, commercialization, and manufacturing as well as innovation-based reforms in key energy institutions, regulations, and tax incentives.
To a modest degree, some climate advocates are at least starting to recognize the need for a climate innovation strategy. At least two of the studies cited here explicitly call for increasing investments in energy innovation.
From the study by the World Resources Institute:
“The United States should increase federal funding for research, development, and commercialization of low-carbon and energy-saving technologies. This would help foster opportunities for American businesses and manufacturing by helping the country remain a world leader of innovation.”
And from the study by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate (their 10-point global action plan):
“Scale up innovation in key low-carbon and climate resilient technologies, tripling public investment in clean energy R&D and removing barriers to entrepreneurship and creativity.”
In both cases, climate advocates are including investments in innovation as part of their pro-growth climate strategy—a positive first step! But in both cases it’s a low priority and not part of the organizations’ core climate policy outreach strategy.
Moving forward, pro-growth climate advocates need to create an expanded, cohesive, and higher priority clean energy innovation strategy to counter the climate nuclear option and provide the most viable policy alternative to achieve deep decarbonization.