Saturday, February 07, 2015

Make haste slowly

When you are in a rush somewhere, first make sure that you are running off in the right direction. That is a thought worth thinking when it comes to climate policy. Over the last years, I have become increasingly concerned that the world is essentially running in the opposite direction of where we should be going if we want to prevent dangerous climate change. Unfortunately, data supporting my view is mounting. The share of thermal coal in the world’s energy mix is the highest since the 1970’s. Shale gas and oil are flooding the market leading to historically low prices for fossil fuels. And the renewable construction spree underway in countries such as Sweden is wasting billions of euros on an effort that ultimately seems to do very little to slow the global growth in greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead of all this we should focus much, much more on basic energy research, the further away from actual deployment, the better. In fact, the challenge to craft an effective global response to climate change may be so big that we should perhaps put our money even further “upstream” in everything from early childhood education to scientific literacy as that would raise the overall economic growth rate and make vast, and fundamentally uncertain, investments in energy R&D politically possible. Somewhat paradoxically, given the very urgency of climate change, it is particularly important that we do not continue further down our current cul-de-sac in terms of policy.

The key to successful mitigation is surprisingly simple: make clean energy significantly cheaper than any fossil alternative and a shift will happen, both in countries that currently lack the political motivation to act on climate change (think Australia) and in those countries that cannot afford expensive small-scale renewable energy. The latter is particularly important considering that 3.5 billion people still lack access to modern energy. As more people will (rightfully!) demand everything from refrigerators to washing machines, there is an obvious risk that that demand will otherwise be met by fossil fuels such as coal.

For more on these and other unorthodox ideas, I am very happy to direct you to my new co-authored article “Making climate leadership meaningful: energy research as a key to global decarbonisation” which just has been published (as “early view”) in the journal Global Policy.

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