After Durban

December 15, 2011 |

By Mark Caine, Research Officer at the London School of Economics, Co-ordinator for the Hartwell Group, and 2010 Breakthrough Generation Fellow

Ideas Whose Times Have Come

Something profound is happening in the world of energy and climate policy.

In the wake of another tepid COP conference that, once again, failed to put the world even "on a path to solve the climate problem", previously heterodox ideas are entering mainstream thinking.

From the inadequacy of the Kyoto protocol and the immediate imperative for adaptation to an innovation-centric climate policy, no-regrets action on non-CO2 forcers, and energy access for all: a set of pragmatic ideas that the Breakthrough Institute, Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke Jr., the authors of The Hartwell Paper, and others have advocated for years -- often to an onslaught of cynical opposition -- are now being promoted as front-line strategies to manage our complex set of energy and climate challenges.

Take the Kyoto protocol, which despite its well-documented structural flaws has been treated for years as the only game in town--the plan A for which "there really is no plan B". Now, realizing that the modest agreement reached at Durban is little more than a face-saving maneuver that means, at best, an eight year punt on universally binding emissions reductions, commentators are beginning to sing a different tune.

"Kyoto was built to fail," reports left-of-center UK paper The Guardian. The process has faltered, writes John Broder in the New York Times, because it taken on "too great a task." Political analyst Andrew Charlton reports from down under that there is, in fact, a plan B, consisting primarily of policy prescriptions that will sound remarkably familiar to anyone who has read Fast, Clean, and Cheap, The Hartwell Paper, The Climate Fix, or a growing body of books and academic articles advocating innovation-centric energy policies combined with robust adaptation measures and a commitment to universal energy access.

Perhaps more than any, this last issue has sailed from the margins to the mainstream. A key tenet of the 2010 Hartwell Paper, the imperative to empower the world's poor through the provision of universal energy access -- and bring energy poverty to the center of energy and climate debates -- has become a cause celebre at the UN Foundation. Did you know that 2012 is the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All? Finally, something everyone from Ban-Ki Moon to nu metal band Linkin Park can agree on!

In all seriousness though, the global community's newfound support for universal energy access is a heartening development--not least for the 1.3 billion people lacking electricity and the 2.7 billion people burning dung and sticks to cook and heat their homes. To be sure, the emissions implications of empowering these people using available technology remain inconclusive: the IEA's rosy estimate of a .7% increase in global CO2 emissions defines 'access' for rural denizens at a paltry 250 kWh/year, 1/55th of the US average and 1/32nd that of ultra-efficient Japan (World Bank data). Yet any steps to bring modern energy to the energy-poor are justifiable in their own right on basic principles of equity, not to mention their contingent benefits for public health, education, economic opportunity, and enhanced resilience to future climate impacts.

Post-"Post-pollution"

In his New York Times review of the shifting dynamics in the energy and climate debate, Andrew Revkin cites both Roger Pielke Jr. and the authors of The Hartwell Paper, crediting them for helping spread this "post-pollution" emphasis on climate resilience, energy modernization, and strategic public and private investment in clean energy innovation. Revkin is nearly alone amongst journalists in tracing back the roots of these approaches, but a frequent lack of attribution is predictable. Indeed, the broad, uncoordinated adoption of these "post-pollution" framings and policy approaches may have been inevitable, a reflection less of their progenitors than their sensibility.

As these framings and policy ideas become more widely accepted, the challenge for those of us who have long advocated these positions, including the Hartwell Group network which I work to coordinate, will begin to shift. As once-heterodox problem definitions and policy approaches from the Breakthrough Institute, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the Hartwell Group, and others enter mainstream discussion, what can we offer going forward?

Arguably, the most important thing we must do now is deliver top-quality research and analysis on the hard questions of innovation that are not yet being addressed in most climate policy discussions. Though many have accepted rapid innovation as a necessity, few have actually opened up the "black box" of innovation to understand what specific kinds of innovation we need, how to fund and scale them, and how to overcome persistent challenges such as rent-seeking behavior, energy efficiency rebound and backfire, and the "valleys of death" that plague the innovation and commercialization process. Understanding the need for innovation is not the same as knowing how best to do it.

The Breakthrough Institute has already taken up this effort, backing up its long-standing support for innovation as an energy and climate solution with detailed analysis of the mechanics of how innovation works and, by extension, how to spark, accelerate, direct, fund, and scale it. And the Hartwell Group is working to coordinate a network of international scholars and analysts to further develop key recommendations for actionable and pragmatic climate solutions.

This work alone won't solve the myriad complex, interconnected energy and climate challenges that face us. But it will help lay the foundation for a safer, more prosperous, and more equitable future--a future in which the essential functioning of the earth system is preserved and all people have access to safe, reliable energy and protection from the vagaries of extreme weather, whatever its cause.