Clean technology research and development is critical for curtailing climate change. But is it enough?

A number of leaders in the energy/climate field, from Bill Gates to a group of British climate experts, have recently called for governments across the world to significantly increase spending on research and development (R&D) for clean energy technologies. Implicit in many of these calls for R&D, however, is the misleading idea that the climate change problem can be solved mainly by investments in clean technology R&D. Take the Global Apollo Project report, for example:

"One thing would be enough to [make energy clean]: if clean energy became less costly to produce than energy based on coal, gas or oil. Once this happened, the coal, gas and oil would simply stay in the ground."

 

“One thing would be enough to make it happen: if clean energy became less costly to produce than energy based on coal, gas or oil. Once this happened, the coal, gas and oil would simply stay in the ground.”
— A Global Apollo Program to Combat Climate Change

While the statement above is true -- and while more publicly funded R&D into all greenhouse gas abatement strategies (including carbon removal) is almost certainly a positive thing -- focusing exclusively on this "one thing" to fight climate change is likely sub-optimal for a number of reasons:

  1. First, there is another way to keep fossil fuels in the ground: regulation. Governments can either impose taxes on carbon-intensive fuels, or simply restrict their use outright. In fact, such regulation would likely spur significant private-sector R&D into clean energy technologies, in the end accomplishing similar (or even deeper) cost reductions for clean energy technologies as compared to cost reductions from public-sector R&D efforts. Most governments have done a poor job of regulating carbon emissions to date -- and have found that climate regulation garners less political support than clean energy R&D -- but smart climate regulation is too valuable a tool to shelve for a focus only on R&D.
  2. Second, a focus on clean energy R&D buries the importance of a key variable in the fight against climate change: time. Cost reductions for clean energy technologies can take significant amounts of time -- event with massive R&D pushes. And we don't have time to wait for R&D to reduce the costs of clean energy, raising the importance of complementary strategies to reduce emissions.
  3. Third, the fact that not all fossil fuels cost the same amount to produce increases the challenges for clean energy systems. Take the oil supply curve, below, for example:

For clean energy to out-compete all supplies of oil on price alone, they can't just get below the current price of oil -- they will have to get below the lowest-cost oil supplies, which are very cheap. This level of cost reduction is hopefully possible to accomplish with massive investments in R&D, but there is significant risk that such cost reductions will not happen at the pace needed to curtail climate change. One strategy to reduce this challenge is to make the cost of these inexpensive fossil resources through smart regulation. Alternatively, policies that encourage the development and deployment of carbon removal systems could enable us to meet climate goals even if R&D efforts to reduce costs of clean energy systems didn't result in prices low enough to displace all carbon emissions.

The bottom line:

While something like a Global Apollo program for clean energy (and for other climate change abatement strategies too) is almost certainly a good idea, society risks moving too slowly to curtail climate change by focusing primarily on R&D. Instead, pursuing parallel policy pathways that increase the cost of extracting and using carbon-intensive fuels alongside clean technology R&D efforts can help ensure that we decarbonize as swiftly as needed to curtail climate change -- and that we do so in as economically-viable and sustainable a manner as possible.