High-Energy Innovation: A Climate Pragmatism Project


by G. Dirks, L. King, F. Laird, J. Lloyd, J. Lovering, T. Nordhaus, R. Pielke, Jr., M. Román, D. Sarewitz, M. Shellenberger, K. Singh, and A. Trembath

Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, and The Breakthrough Institute
December 2014
Download a PDF of the report here.

Executive Summary

In the coming decades, most of the innovation in clean energy technologies needed to combat climate change will likely occur in rapidly industrializing rather than developed nations. This report identifies and maps promising international efforts by private firms and governments in China, India, the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Africa to advance four low-carbon technologies –– shale gas, nuclear, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and solar –– and makes the case for more collaborations between nations.

Technological innovation often occurs where demand is rising the fastest. Wealthy developed nations have seen their overall energy consumption growth slow down in recent decades, along with the rates of economic growth. By contrast, energy consumption in poor and developing (non-OECD) countries is expected to increase 90 percent by midcentury. The so-called “BRICS” —  Brazil, Russia, India, Mexico, China, and South Africa — spend more on energy innovation (i.e., research, development, and deployment) than all 29 OECD member nations of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Today’s global energy innovation bears little resemblance to the 1980s-era model of “technology transfer” from rich to poor nations, as enshrined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Industrializing nations have in recent years pioneered innovation of next-generation energy technologies, and are beginning to market those technologies internationally. South Korea, for example, which has seen the cost of building standardized nuclear plants decline over time, is constructing advanced nuclear power plants in the United Arab Emirates for both electricity and desalination.

Basic research in national laboratories is critical but insufficient. Technological progress will come from demonstrating and deploying next-generation nuclear, solar, CCS, and natural gas technologies. Real-world trial and error is critical to technological progress, as the shale gas revolution, which took several decades, showed.

While emerging economies will do the heavy lifting, advanced industrial economies still play important roles. Germany, the global leader in solar deployment, is developing large solar power plants in South Africa and India. US energy utilities are working with Chinese firms to demonstrate carbon capture and storage technologies in Mississippi. Shale fracking technologies developed in the United States are being deployed with the help of US firms and public research agencies in China, which has a more complicated geology and requires significant innovation to become commercially viable.

Policy makers ought to view energy innovation as a global public good. The benefits of creating cheaper and cleaner energy sources are shared by all –– not monopolized by individual nations. For instance, the success of nuclear and shale gas in China depend largely on the successful development of similar technologies in the United States. Similarly, the United States may likely benefit from cheaper and safer nuclear, solar, or CCS developed in China. The broader picture is one of shared economic and environmental interests from creating cheap and clean energy.

Governments, industry associations, and philanthropies all have important roles to play in coordinating and contributing to accelerated low-carbon technology innovation within and among nations. While philanthropies have funded major international efforts to increase agricultural yields and improve public health, no such initiative yet exists on energy innovation. Policy makers, for their part, should seek to expand these promising initiatives for both economic and environmental reasons. Such an approach is more likely to succeed than efforts that require shared sacrifice. Governments have long encouraged and invested in technological change to access to cheaper, cleaner forms of energy for economic growth, national security, and environmental quality. Read more …

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