Wednesday, Dec. 09, 2009

Copenhagen's Real Challenge: Technology to Meet the Targets

Over the next two weeks, the intense negotiations at the U.N. summit on climate change in Copenhagen will focus on numbers: emissions cuts (in percentages), money for climate adaptation (in dollars), atmospheric carbon concentrations (in parts per million) and global temperature targets (in degrees). Already, grinding diplomacy and criticism have overshadowed the good feelings and pageantry of the opening day of the summit, with a leaked negotiation draft revealing the deep divisions that still exist between rich and poor countries on climate.

But there is one number that may not get discussed much at Copenhagen, even though it is as important as all the others: $10.5 trillion. That is the additional investment needed between now and 2030 to set the world on the path to low-carbon development, according to the International Energy Agency — a number that is far above the pittance the world currently spends on clean-energy research and development. As Jesse Jenkins and Devon Swezey of the think tank Breakthrough Institute wrote on Dec. 7, "Without measurable progress that dramatically increases global investments in clean energy, we can forget stabilizing global temperatures or atmospheric carbon dioxide at any level."

In other words, while global politics may shape how quickly and appropriately we structure our response to climate change, the actual work of reducing carbon emissions will ultimately be a technological problem. Beyond the policy wars in the halls of U.N. summits and on Capitol Hill, the battle against climate change requires better and cheaper forms of alternative energy, which will need to be deployed fast. Unfortunately, they don't exist. "Stabilizing the climate is a huge technological challenge, and the solution of ready-to-deploy, scalable low-carbon technologies is far from being a reality," wrote University of Montreal economists Christopher Green and Isabel Galiana in a commentary in the Dec. 3 issue of Nature.

Green and Galiana calculate just how far we are today from the reality of a truly low-carbon world. They estimate that, for instance, to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C higher than preindustrial levels — a projected upper limit of temperature rise before climate change could turn catastrophic — global carbon emissions would have to be reduced at least 80% by the end of the century. Assuming that global economic growth remains at a healthy 2.2%, which is necessary if developing countries are to continue to grow and pull their people out of poverty, the energy intensity of the global economy would need to be reduced to one-third its 2000 level, while total consumption of carbon-free energy would have to be three times greater than the total amount of energy consumed in 2000.

Trying to predict energy-use patterns nearly 100 years into the future is difficult, to say the least, but even if these numbers are off, Green and Galiana's research shows just how immense a challenge it will be to replace our fossil-fueled energy system with one that is free of carbon, especially while the global economy and population are growing. Legislating carbon reductions through a cap — which is ultimately the aim of both the U.N. negotiations and U.S. action on Capitol Hill — is important because it would give security to the business world and begin to price out cheap fossil fuels.

Ultimately, however, we will need better renewable-energy technologies — and that will require increased spending on innovation, in the U.S. and elsewhere. "Energy technology research and development will be essential to decarbonize the global economy," write Green and Galiana.

The authors argue that the best way to raise funds for energy R&D is to levy a small carbon tax — perhaps $5 per ton — that could produce as much as $150 billion annually for energy research around the globe. That would pay for several Manhattan Projects a year. Green and Galiana recommend steadily raising the tax to keep the funding going. To prevent that money from being abused by special political interests (the ongoing flow of funds to corn ethanol in the U.S. shows what happens when energy policy is infected by politics), they argue that allocation of the funds should be left to experts like the Gates Foundation.

Is this the global solution? Certainly it's part of it. Far too little is spent on energy R&D in the U.S., and the percentage of what is spent there has dropped in recent decades, even as concerns over global warming have intensified. President Obama's Department of Energy has done an admirable job of shifting direction, funding more innovation at the university level and focusing on helping new energy start-ups cross the "valley of death" to profitability. Energy R&D leads to new industries and, of course, new jobs. "Because our economic future depends on our leadership in the industries of the future, we are investing in basic applied research," said Obama in a speech on employment on Tuesday, Dec. 8. "We know the nation that leads in clean energy will be the nation that leads the world."

Meanwhile, the battle over carbon caps will continue in Copenhagen and in Washington, and it will be very contentious. Indeed, on the third day of negotiations in Copenhagen, a new rift opened between the most-threatened developing nations, which are pushing for tough emissions caps, and larger developing nations, whose main concern is the economic impact of caps. In this context, perhaps the biggest advantage to a more technology-focused climate policy could be in global public opinion. Carbon caps are politically controversial because they implicitly acknowledge that the world has limits and that countries will have to fight for their individual shares. But technology offers the promise that with the right breakthroughs, we can keep growing. "Investing in R&D to make clean energy cheap is the most popular energy proposal there is," says Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute. That may be a global deal everyone can embrace.