Ecocentric

Why Innovation Alone Isn’t Enough to Win the Climate Fight

After the failure of cap and trade, many climate advocates have focused on energy innovation as a way to sidestep tough politics. But there's avoiding the battle over climate change

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ken Welsh

Politics can be frustrating. Actually, it’s more like politics ARE frustrating, especially in America and especially in 2013, where a constitutional system designed for maximum gridlock has met intense partisanship fed by the nano-second news cycle of social media. Right now the government of the United States seems wholly incapable of getting out of a self-designed trap to needlessly slash billions of dollars in spending and cut hundreds of thousands of jobs at a moment when the American economy is beginning to pick itself off the floor. (You may know this as sequestration.) And this comes just a few months after we nearly tipped over the fiscal cliff, which at least had a much snazzier name than sequestration. Meanwhile the nominated Secretary of Defense floats in limbo at a moment when the world is, well, pretty unstable, all because a few senators are in a snit. Political dysfunction forms the backdrop of our days.

What does this mean for climate policy? Well, if the government can’t get itself together to deal with the much more immediate threats of sequestration, properly responding to a long-term and highly complex challenge like climate change has basically entered the realm fantasy. This is especially true when one of two political parties refuses to acknowledge the problem exists. There was a chance in 2009 and 2010 with comprehensive climate legislation, but that died for countless reasons. And while there are executive actions or EPA regulations that could begin to address carbon emissions, we really need more ambitious legislation. And that simply seems impossible.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that in the wake of cap-and-trade’s death a few years ago, some climate advocates began to plot another line of attack, one that wouldn’t break the political deadlock so much as sidestep it altogether. It’s energy innovation—policy, to put it simply, that focuses on making clean energy cheap, rather than making dirty energy expensive through a carbon cap or regulations. You don’t have to worry about trying to outflank the coal industry or convince that Midwestern Democratic senator that he won’t lose his seat if he votes for carbon pricing. Instead, by spending significantly more public money on energy research and subsidizing clean power, you’ll be able to achieve carbon cuts—and build a new clean energy economy—without engaging much in politics at all.

There’s a certain subset of energy wonks—I’d include myself in that category, except that I hate the term wonk—who seem naturally disposed to innovation policy. This is especially true if you live in New York or San Francisco, and if you prefer to don a gas mask whenever you deign to visit Washington. But while there’s a lot about innovation policy to like—and I’ve definitely covered it favorably on this blog—it’s not perfect, and it’s likely not enough alone to solve climate change. And most of all, innovation policy is political, as much as we might wish otherwise.

That’s the conclusion of Michael Levi’s new essay (PDF) in Issues in Science and Technology on the “Hidden Risks of Energy Innovation.” Levi, who directs the program on energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations, punctures a hole in the illusion that innovation policy is certain to succeed where carbon pricing failed. Instead of sidestepping political fights, innovation policy will create new ones:

Alas, the turn from regulation to innovation is not a magic recipe for eliminating conflict over domestic or international policy, or even for significantly reducing it. Instead, it will create new fights in new spheres. This is not a reason to reject a big technology push as part of a serious climate strategy; climate change needs to be confronted, and conflict is almost certainly endemic to serious climate policy. Nonetheless, before policymakers place their bets on technology policy, they would do well to better understand the opportunities for conflict that lurk there. If they do, they will realize the limits of technology policy and will more likely pursue a modest but constructive approach. If they do not, the more likely outcome is a drive that tries to do too much with technology policy. But just like the maximalist efforts to solve every climate problem with cap-and-trade and an international treaty, that overstretch is likely to beget failure.

The problem is politics. Americans don’t like regulation—usually—but they’re also not that fond of significant new government spending, especially now. And, as Levi notes, “without new taxes, spending, or regulation, government has no significant tools with which to promote clean energy innovation.” Whether you’re forcing emissions cuts through carbon pricing or using subsidies to force down the price of clean energy, you need to divide up a limited pie. And that means a political fight.

Levi isn’t arguing that energy innovation policy is a waste, or that we should simply go back to focusing only on carbon pricing. He’d like a technology strategy that is “robust yet restrained in its ambitions.” That means investment in very basic energy research, as well as support for more cutting-edge technologies, while avoiding big subsidies for mature technologies. An agency jumpstarted by the Obama Administration—the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is the perfect vehicle for that kind of funding. (I’ll be attending the ARPA-E conference in Washington this week.) That will look different than the tends of billions of dollars that were spent on clean energy during Obama’s 2009 stimulus, but the point then was to jump start a depressed economy—and as a side benefit, to do so while helping out clean technology. But that’s not politically viable for the long term.

This sort of humble climate and energy policy makes sense to me, but it’s likely too little, too late for those who view climate change as an existential threat. But there’s a practical benefit to taking it easy:

When faced with a massive problem, people naturally grasp for an all encompassing solution that promises salvation. Yet such schemes invariably reveal themselves to be mirages, and overwrought efforts to realize them too often backfire. Wiser policy will involve modest moves forward on multiple fronts, including technology. It would be tragic if policymakers chose a different course and replaced one overburdened climate strategy with another.

And don’t worry—there will be political battles to fight even with a relatively scale down climate and energy strategy. But this is one environmentalists might just have a better chance of winning.

46 comments
MichaelLeeSimon
MichaelLeeSimon

We need to go to war with China to make them stop burning coal. That is the only way to prevent an out of control CO2 rise. Who thinks CO2 is serious enough to do that?

LeeNhan2
LeeNhan2

want to really reduce the use of petroleum  must first complete solution for alternative energy to not argue anymore


LeeNhan2
LeeNhan2

Target - green environmental forever needed new initiatives 

Intended to find solutions Technology and Alternative Energy for the energy crisis and aims to develop new ideas with impact on Economics and the Environment. 

Please add my new energy sources 100% Green

Activities such as wind power, but not necessarily placed outdoors, working 24/24h

See my model wind energy. simple - mild-effective-inexpensive, can be placed anywhere in the southernmost islands north pole ( the Arctic and Antarctica )(even cold weather)

It is located in a closed cycle -not too noisy - not interfere with the direction of the wind

Details at  www.trongdong.weebly.com

alannogee
alannogee

@TheDailyClimate @BryanWalsh @TIME Poll after poll & focus groups find Americans like enviro regs, RPS. Mostly just that GOP leaders don't.

jdyer2
jdyer2

Most of the public lives in this fantasyland where they believe that some new miracle clean energy source is going to be invented, it will replace all our fossil fuels, and we will live happily ever after.  Your article points out why this will never happen- most countries are drowning in debt; and it takes a generation or so for the public sentiment to get around to doing something about a festering problem that is not an immediate problem.  Of course then it is too late.

RedTapeMovement
RedTapeMovement

Here are few suggestions, which needs urgent attention:  


1. There should be a WORLD COMMISSION FOR SCIENCE AND DEVELOPMENT for promoting the researches and developmental works which have zero to low carbon emission. 

2. There should a compulsory constitutional amendment to make ENVIRONMENTAL WAY OF LIFESTYLE a compulsory duty. 

3. Our investment in R & D should be more on the forthcoming areas like solar, tidal, wind and water energies apart from on lowering carbon emission. 

4. There should be a big role for N.G.Os. in implementing environment friendly plans & projects of government. 

5. There should be effective AWARENESS programmes, at grass root level, to save the environment from degradation, like RED TAPE MOVEMENT [
http://twitter.com/RedTapeMovement]. 

6. Carbon caping should not be the one way legislation programme against developing nations. 

7. This should be the primary duty of DEVELOPED nations to provide financial help and green technology transfer to help DEVELOPING nations in phasing-out the fossil fuels. Recently, Dec. 2012, The European Commission and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) have each announced a €5 million contribution to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to help assist 25 developing countries around the world reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 
8. Sustainable developments should be given priority. But recently it was reported by rainforestportal.org, on April 16, 2012, that sustainable management is not playing a good role in Rainforest areas as it is destroying Primary Rainforest [ 
http://www.rainforestportal.org/issues/2012/04/earth_meanders_the_great_rainf.asp ]. The portal says, "Old forests are a vital part of the biosphere's ecological infrastructure – and have a prominent, central role in making the Earth habitable through their cycling of carbon, energy, water, and nutrients. Primary rainforests cannot be logged in an ecologically sustainable manner; once logged – selectively, certified, legally or not – for throw-away consumer crap, their primary nature is destroyed, and ecological composition and dynamics are lost forever". So, on the name of Sustainable Management, no-one should be allowed to destroy Ancient forests. 
The 2006 Stern Review concluded that to lessen the impact of Climate Change would cost the world around 1% of GDP per year while no action would cost between 5% and 20% of GDP per year and will adversely affect global economy. Immediate actions are MUST, to be taken. So, world leaders and community must take actions to control and stop Climate Change, because carbon emissions are rising rapidly. 
Such steps are big BUT will be helpful in controlling GREEN HOUSE EFFECT and CLIMATE CHANGE. 

Prabhat Misra 

http://www.academia.edu/2404721/Climate_Change_is_there_any_solution

 On behalf of Red Tape Movement

snorte
snorte

@TIME help us. CHILE, South America: murdered trade union leader of a shot in the head. RT

SighGoliath
SighGoliath

@TIME How about you do a story on winning the fight against political, corporate(forgive redundancy), and governed corruption?

allanz1844
allanz1844

Dear Grant you have it ass backwards. Without more children all Western Societies will collapse. Besides the "climate fight" is already over. Fracking is going to very quickly create an American Renaissance and create millions of high paying jobs. 

GrantHarmon
GrantHarmon

Once again, another article about reducing emissions while ignoring the elephant in the room; increasing population.  For each kilowatt you save, your neighbor that had twins is burning twice as much.  It doesn't really matter how environmentally friendly you are if we continue breeding like rabbits

BobShafer
BobShafer

Why do none of these Climate Change/Global Warming Articles bother to mention the Inconvenient Fact that the amount of CO2 that this country puts out has been going down. And for that we can thank all of the folks out there that are using Fracking to bring the cost of producing electricity from Natural gas below the cost of electricity from Coal.

MatthewStepp
MatthewStepp

@votesolar @bryanrwalsh deployment is part of innovation. Your framing is all wrong.

JKBullis
JKBullis

Support for basic research and cutting edge technologies seems like innovation until we discover how this kind of support is metered out by government agencies, DARPA-E being no exception.

Obviously there has to be some control of where the money goes. But planners can not resist defining the tasks. There also can be comfort in sending money to established institutions and recognized authorities. But this does not accomplish much in the way of innovation.

(2)

At the government level, innovative thinking could recognize the need for bold policy thinking like changing the way the Nation thinks about water. A discussion of how we might implement universal irrigation and an associated massive expansion of agriculture could be innovative. This could make our country highly productive again, using resources that are much under-used now. And if well planned, it could be a major part of a climate solution.

The difference between this as a climate solution and cap and trade is that this has the elements of sound economics. Cap and trade sounds like a serious policy, but it is just a game that makes energy users pay more for electricity by forcing out the more cost effective processes. It also throws the uncertainty wet blanket on the industrial world that is the main hope for job recovery. Real innovators would see the problems in such policy.