We must overcome short-termism, inconvenient truths and cuts to R&D and find the Brunels of low carbon technology
By Tom Delay (The Carbon Trust): Here’s a thought. If necessity is the motherhood of invention how come we are so far away from the wholesale deployment of low carbon energy technologies that can redeem humanity from the worst impacts of climate change?
With carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere rising steeply since the industrial revolution and extreme weather events now occurring with greater frequency around the world, and closer to home, one would be forgiven for thinking that the race for low and carbon free alternatives to powering our lives would be at full throttle and on its last lap. Think again.
Back in 1939 and faced with a different kind of necessity for invention, a German military threat no less, it took Oppenheimer and the other 130,000 scientists working on the Manhattan Project six years and $26 billion (in today’s money) to uncover the secrets of nuclear fission that so fundamentally changed the war and redefined the geopolitics of the past seventy years.
Yet in the case of climate change, which is set to transform our very existence, there have been no high security, secret locations as with the Manhattan Project. Quite the opposite. For the past quarter of a century the world’s leading climate scientists have been openly publishing their findings on climate change – for all of us to read – whether we agree with them or not.
Perhaps that’s where we made a mistake. If we had kept it top secret, corralled the world’s leading scientists and engineers to a series of hidden labs around the globe we might by now, beyond the scrutiny of short term political and business interests, have developed affordable low carbon technologies ready to deploy at scale. But we didn’t. We have to a nation dithered and argued, failing to engage market forces to bring essential technologies like carbon capture and storage and offshore wind to commercial reality.
Each year for the world’s energy ministers, the International Energy Agency examines government spending on the commercialisation of key low carbon technologies. Their findings make depressing reading. We are spending little more each year on R&D on these critical technologies than we were when the IPCC published their famous first report on climate science in 1990. And, despite its importance, the energy sector only accounts for about 4% of total government R&D spending, down from 11% in 1980. Furthermore when we look at what we need to spend to stay within 2C of average warming we discover that a massive funding gap has opened up which represents some $30-$70 billion a year.
Why are we not responding to the greatest engineering challenge that man has ever faced with the purpose and focus of a modern day Manhattan Project? There are many reasons – but here are three.
Action has been stymied by the generational dilemma, where the threat is long-term but the action required is short-term. Unlike the threat of war which was imminent and to which President Roosevelt, when convinced, responded with decisiveness in 1939, climate change represents a long-term threat to politicians all too often short-term minded.
Secondly, as Al Gore famously phrased, climate change raises inconvenient truths for all of us – not least those that have based past and future economic prosperity and well-being on the burning of fossil fuels. Not surprisingly, calls to leave coal and other fossil fuels in the ground have been resisted by investors and industries that struggle to respond to the challenge of climate change.
And, most recently, the severe economic downturn has forced economic and finance ministries around the world to re-assess research and innovation budgets as they weigh up short-term priorities against longer term ‘nice to haves’. R&D In these critical technologies has all too often been seen as an optional extra and funding has fallen off a cliff post 2009 as budgets have been reigned in.
So what to do? Most historians date the industrial revolution as lasting between 1760 and 1830. We have a similar amount of time to turn the world’s energy system on its head. Necessity, that mother of invention, and the world’s leading scientists tell us that we need a low carbon transformation that undoes the environmental side effects of the last industrial revolution.
We must find the Brunels, Edisons and Stephensons of our low carbon time. Innovators that can literally change the world. But we must help them. We need a new urgency around innovation. We must as societies change the short-termism that besieges politicians like the fog of war. And we must do it with facts and argument. The most compelling of which is to see action today as an investment and not a cost. We must build a new consensus forged around the belief that we can deliver technological solutions to climate change and these solutions will deliver economic prosperity in the long-term.
Our recent research across 11 low carbon technology families, from offshore wind to CCS, provides strong evidence to policy-makers that this is not just positive thinking to rally the animal spirits but it is also commercial common sense. We have found that if you look at just offshore wind then an investment of £500 million out to 2020 in key innovations, such as lower cost foundations, will help deliver long term cost savings of £45 billion by 2050. Despite the win-win opportunities that innovation will bring to the UK economy we have identified a £3 billion funding gap that exists for low carbon innovation in the UK alone.
As politicians start to count the cost of the recent flooding and look for ways to respond we will see a move to policies enabling us to adapt better to the climate change that is already built into our climate system. But the scale of long term climate impacts tell us we cannot afford to throw in the towel on climate change mitigation.
Innovation is fundamental and we need to explain why. Beyond the environment, it will deliver prosperity and a collective enterprise that the best minds of a generation and our hard-earned money will put to the most logical and noble use.
• Tom Delay is chief executive of the Carbon Trust