Besides a global treaty based on decentralized action, the Paris climate negotiations saw the announcement of a public-private coalition for doubling clean energy R&D. As a White House press release puts it,
“On the first day of the conference, President Obama joined other world leaders to launch Mission Innovation, a landmark commitment to accelerate public and private global clean energy innovation, and dramatically expand the new technologies that will define a clean, affordable, and reliable global power mix. Twenty countries representing around 80% of global clean energy research and development (R&D) funding base committed to double their R&D investments over five years. In addition, a coalition of 28 global investors led by Bill Gates committed to support early-stage breakthrough energy technologies in countries that have joined Mission Innovation.”
Why is this important? Today’s energy technologies are cleaner than ever before, but they are not yet good enough to produce ambitious decarbonization in a world of rapidly growing energy demand.
Solar and wind power are rapidly increasing their share of electricity generation, but intermittency remains a major obstacle to rapid expansion. Better transmission and storage technologies would help to address the problem.
Nuclear power is haunted by safety and waste disposal concerns, its capital costs are very high, and its recent track of deployment disappointing. New technology could address these concerns.
Similar arguments apply to offshore wind, tidal power, advanced biofuels, and energy efficiency.
Perhaps even more important, clean energy has made very little progress in replacing oil in transportation. Electric vehicles have potential on this front, but much technological progress is needed to realize this potential.
Unfortunately, energy R&D today is badly neglected by governments and private companies alike. Compared to the technologies we need for a global low-carbon future, governments and private investors are failing to deliver. In 2014, global R&D investment was below $12 billion — only 1/2 of what it was in 1980.
There are a few possible explanations for this troubling lack of investment in invention and innovation. Private companies ignore energy R&D because the expected profits are limited. Even though improved energy technology would be very useful for the society, the private returns to gradual improvements in clean energy technology are not attractive.
Governments ignore energy R&D because there are few political gains on the horizon. Energy breakthroughs are rare, and most research produces incremental gains at best. At the same time, the case of Solyndra shows that even modest investments by governments are easily politicized when they fail to deliver. R&D does not bring success in elections, yet it may backfire if something goes wrong — and in research, something always goes wrong.
The clean energy R&D announcement is important because it helps governments and private investors escape the low-investment trap. Indeed, international commitments to increase clean energy R&D are a no-brainer. They allow governments and entrepreneurs to reap reputational benefits from their contributions and, through pooling of resources, increased probability of success.
Why did it take the world so long to arrive at such commitments? One culprit is “techno-nationalism” – governments hesitate to share innovations with perceived competitors (published article; ungated working paper version).
Another is the false perception that R&D crowds out deployment. In reality, R&D is so inexpensive compared to deployment that major increases in R&D would not slow down deployment even in the short run. Even a true believer who has complete confidence in a renewable energy revolution has little reason to worry about R&D.
The clean energy R&D commitment is one part of a general trend toward smarter, more strategic international climate policy. Other similar trends include improved renewable energy policy, growing interest in carbon pricing, and the movement to dismantle fossil fuel subsidies. Let’s agree to support efforts to increase clean energy R&D and hold governments and businesses accountable for the laudable Paris commitments.