The climate community is backing the wrong policy and it’s running out of time. New climate leadership is needed, not to try to coax countries into agreeing to emissions targets, but to commit to targets on clean energy innovation. In other words, nations should set goals to invest a certain amount of money in research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) to make clean energy so cheap that all businesses and consumers will voluntarily replace fossil fuels with clean energy because it makes economic sense to do so.
Pressing for binding emissions targets has been a losing battle with some of the world’s biggest polluters. And that’s why global climate negotiations recently concluded in Lima, Peru mark the beginning of the end of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). After months of hope that a climate treaty breakthrough was at hand, negotiations fizzled and countries agreed to voluntarily propose carbon targets which experts say will not come close to addressing climate change. After decades of failure the UNFCCC has simply run out of time.
False hope in Lima
Climate advocates believed Lima would be different. In the lead-up to the negotiations, the United States and China fueled some degree of international excitement with a bilateral agreement to address climate change. China committed to peaking emissions by 2030 and the Obama administration committed to reducing carbon emissions by 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025, although achieving this goal will require Congressional action, which is unlikely. Some climate advocates interpreted these “commitments” as a victory, considering the two countries account for a third of total global emissions, and neither country had previously made such a commitment before.
Unfortunately, that commitment meant little towards advancing steep carbon cuts. In Lima, China remained firm that developing countries should not be required to bear a significant burden towards cutting emissions. And although the United States used the announcement to establish what French climate change Ambassador Laurence Tubiana called, climate “credibility,” this failed to impact the negotiations in any meaningful way.
The political-economic realities
In reality, the hype leading up to Lima blinded some advocates into thinking that another couple of weeks of negotiating weak voluntary carbon targets would produce a better climate outcome. Once again, the negotiations focused almost exclusively on getting countries to agree to reduce emissions through non-binding targets, rather than on developing a climate strategy that prioritises innovation policy to accelerate the development of cheap clean energy.
The Lima talks – and the UNFCCC process in general – simply perpetuate the false narrative that nationally determined emission cuts are a core solution to climate change despite clear evidence to the contrary. Island and Sub-Saharan African countries advocate climate adaptation and economic development over emission reduction commitments because asking low-income countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will do little to curb a changing climate – these countries’ contributions to cumulative emissions is marginal and is estimated to stay as such through the next half-century. But even commitments by high-emitting, high-income countries will continue to be ineffective as long as the unsubsidised cost of clean energy remains higher than fossil fuels.
Break the gridlock with innovation
As much as climate advocates like to say otherwise, the solution to the negotiating gridlock is technological: without cheap, zero-carbon technology options, negotiating global carbon targets will hit the same economic wall. High-income nations don’t want to slow their development. Low-income nations worry about the loss of competitiveness from higher energy prices. And making the targets voluntary to alleviate the negotiating gridlock achieves little other than a feel-good press statement. Under voluntary targets, countries will simply set less ambitious goals, change the goals when a new regime comes to power, or ignore the goals outright when carbon reductions require higher energy prices.
Of course, innovation, by definition, is uncertain. It’s not possible to know what clean energy innovations will emerge in the future. But we do know that, to paraphrase hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, the more shots at the goal the more likely one is to score. And investments in RD&D are shots at goal. As such, nations should sign up for commitments to increase clean energy RD&D to 0.15% of national GDP. If most nations did this we’d see an increase in clean energy RD&D from roughly $24bn today to $100bn per year. Quadrupling public funding would accelerate development of ideas being tinkered on in labs today and allow for much more investment in risky, higher payoff ideas that could jump-start de-carbonisation.
With so much focus on the Lima negotiations, negotiators and advocates shackled their climate hopes on a failed system pushing failed policies. If the global community doesn’t start taking the technological challenges more seriously, it will find itself negotiating new global carbon targets well past the date climate scientists say global emissions must peak. It would indeed be too late.