What’s missing from our climate pledges? Low-carbon R&D

Countries should make pledges to fund low-carbon research - such as developing solar technology - and development as part of global climate talks. University of Salford Press Office/Flickr, CC BY

Countries will bring specific targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to climate negotiations in Paris at the end of 2015. Some governments have made initial pledges, such as the US’s target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

But it is this same mechanism that failed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and the 2009 Copenhagen Accord. Will it be third time lucky, or should the Paris conference try a different approach?

In a paper recently published in the Journal Climate Policy, we argue that the negotiations should also seek to accelerate research and development on low-emissions technologies. These technologies might include: solar and wind, electric cars and fuel cells, batteries, nuclear power or carbon capture.

Pledges set in Paris should include specific support for research, as well as limits on greenhouse gas emissions. A panel of scientific experts – similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Chance – might also be created to assist states to select research priorities and to monitor national research efforts.

States’ pledges to support scientific research should eventually be coordinated within an international innovation plan.

Accelerating low-carbon innovation

Mitigating climate change means reducing the carbon intensity of economies, with the goal of displacing fossil fuel use. Virtually every serious analysis of climate change has concluded that technology policy must be used to accelerate the pace at which low-emissions innovations are brought to market.

The US Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy is probably the best known recent example of successful technology policy. Unusually, APRA-E has received bipartisan support under both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Governments typically fund research because it produces public benefits like reduced pollution and increased economic growth. These “positive externalities” can be ignored by the market, resulting in insufficient basic research.

This market failure needs to be corrected. For example, economist Ross Garnaut called for the global community to pledge US$100 billion each year to an international “Low Emissions Technology Commitment” in reports prepared for the Rudd and Gillard governments. Our proposal seeks to implement Garnaut’s plan by incorporating it into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Some people will worry that adding research and development to climate negotiations will distract from the urgent task of actually reducing emissions. After all, it’s easy to imagine governments using increased research funding as an excuse to drag their feet on emissions cuts.

Regrettably, with or without a pledge to support scientific research, it seems inevitable that Australia won’t commit to ambitious emissions cuts in Paris. So if advocates of climate action were to salvage long-term commitments to energy research from the negotiations, it would be arguably a significant victory.

In fact, even if there is no increase in spending, the kind of guaranteed long-term support secured by an international treaty would boost the efficiency of our research effort. This is because the general tendency for government priorities to change and for funding to stop and start is itself a major impediment to progress.

If other countries also commit to increased research, the global environment and Australian economy would both benefit from accelerated global innovation.

A spoonful of research can help the climate policy go down

Creating an effective international response to climate change is enormously difficult and the vicissitudes of politics mean there will always be some states that are more committed than others (think how the US position on climate change shifted between the Bush and Obama administrations).

One important challenge is to ensure that those states that resist ambitious emissions limits — these currently include Australia, Japan, India and Canada — do not undermine international action.

Our proposal seeks to take advantage of the fact that opponents of ambitious mitigation targets are sometimes willing to expand research investments. An international agreement that recognised diverse types of contributions would minimise the impression that some states were free-riders, and so might lift total contributions to both emission cuts and research.

Australians understand all too well how difficult it can be to build political support for climate policies that carry even a modest price tag. This is part of the reason why new technologies are needed.

Accelerated research, development and demonstration should reduce the cost of low-emissions energy systems. In the long-term this will boost the prospects for international decarbonisation.

Will governments accept our advice? Obviously some ideologues will reject any solution that expands state support for scientific research.

However, international pressure over climate change is mounting (particularly from the United States) and many governments of developed nations have painted themselves into a corner by rejecting or ignoring most of the mechanisms through which emissions reductions might be achieved.

Within Australia specifically, a focus on energy research could give the Prime Minister a smart, positive climate narrative that will make a productive contribution in both national and international debates.

What’s more, were the federal government to embrace one of Garnaut’s suggestions it might inch us a tiny bit closer to stable, bipartisan, science-based climate policy.