–This article originally appeared at New Scientist magazine.
If the aims of the historic Paris climate deal are to be met, a moonshot effort to develop technologies that can decarbonise the world economy will be needed – and the US has been positioning itself to lead this push.
The accord involves 195 countries pledging to achieve voluntary cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of the US, president Barack Obama has vowed that by 2025, its overall carbon emissions will be at least 26 per cent lower than in 2005.
Until recently, the partisan divide in the US on climate issues looked unbridgeable. Top Republicans in Congress have repeatedly threatened to block climate legislation.
Yet in recent years an important new paradigm has been emerging, one reinforced by the ambitious Paris deal – the need for a step change in clean energy technologies. The idea is not to make fossil fuels more costly, but to make clean technologies cheaper and more effective.
Obama, together with billionaire philanthropists and other governments, has already led pledges to seed this private effort by funding energy research.
No more dirty development
The challenge is to produce technologies that enable countries such as India to “skip the dirty stage of development”, said Obama during the announcement of a pre-summit initiative. “If we put our best minds behind it and we have the dollars behind it, we will discover what works.”
“Private companies will ultimately develop these energy breakthroughs,” added Bill Gates in an interview, “but their work will rely on the kind of basic research that only governments can fund.”
Congress has a long history of bipartisan work to fund basic scientific research, argues Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank in Oakland, California, that looks at technological solutions to environmental issues.
In the late 1990s, for example, a Republican-led Congress doubled spending on medical research to $30 billion annually, about the amount experts say the US needs to spend on clean energy research.
Economic selling point
Funding for research on advanced energy technologies could gain Republican support if it avoids favouring one technology over another and is framed in terms of maintaining US economic competitiveness, concludes Shellenberger.
That means solar, wind and other renewables would have to be packaged with funding for nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage. This diverse portfolio not only has the ability to broker political cooperation, but also represents the mix that many experts, such as economist Jeffrey Sachs, argue will be needed to decarbonise the world economy.
Boosting US spending on energy innovation is only one step among many we need to take on climate change. Domestic and international spending on resilience, for example, should also be a top priority.
But the new innovation paradigm the Paris deal creates offers a unique political opening, providing the opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to collaborate on technological advances that could ultimately go a long way to reducing emissions.