Nature: Technology-Led Policy Needed for Climate Success in Copenhagen and Beyond

December 4, 2009 | Yael Borofsky,

Updated 12/7/2009

"The fixation on near-term targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions at the climate meeting in Copenhagen has resulted in insufficient attention towards the technological means of achieving them."

So begins "Let the Global Technology Race Begin," an article in Nature by Breakthrough Senior Fellow Christopher Green and co-author Isabel Galiana explaining the need for a technology-led approach to mitigating climate change instead of the emissions reductions target approach that is the hallmark of conventional climate policy.

The authors' focus on a technology builds on the findings of a 2008 Nature article entitled, "Dangerous Assumptions," co-authored by Green, Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke, Jr., and Tom Wigley. They found that the IPCC had significantly underestimated the emissions reductions necessary to achieve climate stabilization and thus, had seriously underestimated the scale of the technology challenge, concluding:

"enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at levels that are currently considered acceptable... In the end, there is no question whether technological innovation is necessary -- it is. The question is, to what degree should policy focus explicitly on motivating such innovation?"

Here, Green and Galiana answer this question. Their analysis shows:

"cumulative emissions consistent with minimizing the rise in global temperature (climate stabilization) can be achieved by investing US$100 billion a year for the rest of the century in global energy R&D, testing, demonstration, and infrastructure."

The two experts offer three suggestions for how a technology-led approach to policy would work to catalyze the research, development, and deployment of a steady stream of clean energy technologies:

1) Instead of emissions targets, governments would agree to "credible long-term global commitments to invest in energy R&D," technology and infrastructure financed by "a low carbon price of $5 per tonne of emitted carbon dioxide, which would raise almost $150 billion per year globally and $30 billion in the United States alone."

2) The carbon price would "send a forward pricing signal to deploy new or improved low-carbon technologies" by rising gradually over time "doubling, say, every 10 years."

"These would span the technology spectrum: basic R&D in breakthrough technologies, 'enabling' R&D that allows scale-up of existing technologies (such as utility-scale storage for intermittent solar and wind energy); testing and demonstration projects; end energy-related infrastructure, such as 'smart grid' that help to manage intermittent energy sources."

3) Dedicated trust funds should be created to isolate R&D monies from "political interference." These funds would be overseen "by independent committees drawn from the public and private sectors." Countries that do not engage in R&D could use their portion of the funds "to purchase successfully developed technologies from those that do participate [in R&D]."

Galiana and Green explain how a technology-led policy "inverts the usual relationship between carbon pricing and technology, whereby carbon pricing is naively expected to induce fundamental technological innovation."

They ask:

"What if aggressive emission-reduction targets were adopted and enforced without paying attention to the capabilities of existing technologies to deliver good low-carbon substitutes?"

The authors answer this question - which is far from hypothetical given the approach to imminent climate negotiations in Copenhagen next week - using the Kaya Identity, an equation that describes the relationship between carbon emissions, population, GDP, and energy use.

"The Kaya Identity tells us that attempting to reduce emissions sharply would substantially reduce economic growth. For example, meeting the G8 goal of slashing global carbon emissions by 50% by 2050 - which would require developed countries to reduce emissions by up to 80% - could result in economic costs as high as 10% or more of their GDP."

Instead, the authors assert, a technology-led policy is economically attractive even to rapidly developing nations who stand to gain economic benefits by participating in the already developing clean energy race.

"A global technology race could attract new generations to the challenge of stabilizing climate by asking them to share their scientific and creative capabilities rather than to sacrifice future development."

Green and Galiana's conclusion echoes the Breakthrough's focus on creating a "politics of possibility," instead of a politics of limits:

"Ultimately, a technology-led policy is optimistic because it rewards success rather than punishing failure."

This article summarizes a paper the pair wrote for the 2009 Copenhagen Consensus on Climate. That paper is well worth a read and can be accessed by clicking here (