Friday, January 09, 2009

Climate priority

I have long agreed with the conclusion that Paul Klemperer comes to in his recent paper What should be the top priority for climate change?:
More R&D into clean energy is probably the highest priority of all. There are other priorities too, of course. In particular, curbing deforestation is cheap and cost- effective, and has the collateral benefit of preserving biodiversity. But finding a clean energy source that is cheaper than those currently available is the only politically plausible way of curbing growth in developing nations’ emissions.
But, Klemperer cautions, "the vagueness of [my] remarks demonstrates an urgent need for research into the economics of innovation!"


Clive Bates said...

Caspar - try this thought experiment

Imagine that all technology development stopped today... you just had today's technologies (and maybe the benefits of scale, incremental improvement and manufacturing innovation to bring down costs in the future.)

How far could you go in addressing climate change?

In my view a very long way...

What unaddresssed technology need will be met by this innovation, vaguely (but assertively) deemed to be a top priority for addressing climate change?

The innovation needed is in politics, policy, economics and behaviour.

Caspar Henderson said...

I agree it could go a long way, not least in most developed countries (I recall your lightbulbs!); but (and this is without doing the maths) hard to see how it could be enough for stabilizing well below 450ppm, let alone returning to approx 270ppm if China, India etc are to grow economically. It's necessary to massively increase R&D to change the trajectory on, for example Chinese investment in coal to liquids plants

Clive Bates said...

Yes, the problem is challenging... but you could have dozens of new technologies but have them never used.

The various forms of carbon capture or removal are clearly important - but what is the barrier here? CCS works in all its bits -it's just a huge addition to a power plant that is not profitable at the moment. .

It's not as though all the available technical options have been used to remotely close to the maximum extent possible. At Kingsnorth the energy market conditions work strongly against it - so why should they build an uncompetitive plant? But could it be done technically? Yes. And it probably would be done if they had no choice and could make money.

I think we should push back on technology as priority. It masks the innovation needed in the markets and regulatory frameworks in which technology is deployed. And those come down to attitudes, behaviours and politics - and probably innovation in the way we live and how we choose to satisfy ourselves. Social technologies rather than physical technologies.

It depends on your model of innovation too - do scientist go into a huddle and out of the lab pops the hypercar, super-house, eco-generator, etc. I think the social technologies drive the innovation in physical technologies... innovators are constant looking for signals from regulators, markets, legislators, public opinion, trends in society etc.

(...and there is a particularly American pork-thing about it too - why not subsidise the car makers rather than raise gas prices or tax Detroit monster truck shopping cars).

Chris Goodall said...

When I hear talk of R+D, I have a slightly depressing vision of graduate students working in an engineering laboratory somewhere on the edge of a university campus. It seems remote and unfocused. I think R+D is all very well, but needs to be supplemented by a range of other measures. Paul Klemperer has also written persuasively of the need to offer fabulous public prizes for innovations, for example. I think that government purchasing can also be very helpful - an order for 100 tidal turbines spread across 10 suppliers would do more for the nascent UK industry than anything else.

R+D support for invention and early stage research is a great idea, but a successful programme will also need to reward actual commercial success. Given the nature of British society in particular, I've always thought that the right way to incentivise progress in these areas was to offer seats in the House of Lords to those achieving defined objectives, such as generating a gigawatt hour from turbines in the Pentland Firth. That would really get people going.