Only Technology Policy, Not More Targets and Timetables, Can Save Copenhagen

October 5, 2009 | Yael Borofsky,

"Copenhagen climate talks are in trouble," say Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in their new piece for the Washington Post's "Planet Panel", and the solution is to desert "unenforceable emissions targets and timetables," in favor of a new framework built on "technology investment, innovation, and deployment."

You can read an excerpt from the piece below or access the full article here.

Here's the problem in a nutshell. The world will roughly double its consumption of energy by 2050. Reducing emissions by half of today's levels before then will require inventing and deploying low-carbon sources of power that are far cheaper than today's alternatives. That's because no nation will implement pollution controls that raise the price of fossil fuel energy by very much -- certainly not enough for clean power sources to become cost-competitive.

Just as no government will make fossil fuels as expensive as today's low-carbon power sources, no private investors will make the large (multi-billion) investments needed to accelerate energy technology innovation. Only governments can do this. Happily, they have a long track record supporting private sector innovation through R&D and procurement. Examples include agricultural crops, radios, jet airplanes, microchips, computers, the Internet, solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear plants and pharmaceutical drugs.

A new treaty focused on technology investment, innovation, and deployment should include rather than exclude China and other large developing nations. China is already poised to massively out-spend -- and out-compete -- the U.S. in investments in everything from solar panels to nuclear reactors to electric cars.

No treaty can work that is against the economic self-interest of nations. Economic development through new technology has the potential to bring them together. After World War II, the European Coal and Steel Partnership did just that. Through coal and steel the continent was rebuilt, in part with U.S. investments. That partnership was so successful that it is today simply known as the European Union.

It is the creation of the EU -- not national air pollution laws -- that should be the basis for a new agreement in Copenhagen.

Last week, preliminary climate talks in Bangkok, Thailand entertained an alternative to binding emissions targets for developing nations dubbed "national schedules," after a proposal made by Australian ambassador Louise Hand. This approach - which is significantly more consistent with the kind of 'Kaya Direct' strategy advocated by Gwyn Prins et al - would stipulate that developing nations, and perhaps even developed nations (as the U.S. is exploring), create specific and actionable climate action plans to represent their commitment to a global treaty.

Such a framework would allow countries to commit to actual, measurable climate change mitigation efforts while acting in their own economic self-interest. Instead of turning to dubious accounting methods under the pressure of unenforceable targets, nation's have the space to create strategic actions plans based on improving energy efficiency and transitioning to clean energy technology.

As Nordhaus and Shellenberger suggest, such an effort would appeal to rapidly developing countries like China and India, who are disinclined to accept binding targets but motivated to expand their domestic clean energy industry and harness clean, cheap energy sources to sustainably power their economic growth.

With climate negotiations in Copenhagen just weeks away, the weaknesses of the Kyoto framework are crystal clear. A new strategy, such as national schedules, that brings nations together through "shared investments in low-carbon energy technologies" is necessary if there is to be any chance of reaching a global agreement that both developed and developing nations can embrace - and securing commitments to action plans that can truly drive sustainable global development and the decarbonization of the world's energy system.