Early in the Paris climate talks last month, Todd Stern, the US special envoy for climate change, set out for a group of reporters the administration’s view on how the problem should be tackled. “We have a lot of technology that is available right now on the shelf,” he said. “It’s being used, and can be used more, to drive emissions down now. But to get where we need to get, we need more.” The need for more innovation in energy was one of the strongest points of agreement at the Paris talks. Some have suggested that the most important news to come out of the conference was not the final accord, signed with great fanfare by the governments of 195 countries, but the commitments made by governments and wealthy individuals to research and develop technologies that can help the climate. Energy innovation is a concept that has become almost universally popular – among all from th e most traditional of oil companies to the most radical of environmental groups. Mark Jacobson of Stanford University and Mark Delucch i of the University of California Davis have published papers arguing that it would be possible to derive all the world’s energy, for all uses, from only wind, solar and hydro power, by 2050. Their analysis used only existing technologies that had already been deployed, at least in pilot projects, by 2010. But that would mean a huge transition and would require vast investment. Mr Jacobson and Mr Delucchi suggested the world would need 3.8m new large wind turbines, for example. The biggest problem with pinning hopes for the climate on energy innovation is that, like other forms of technological progress, it is highly unpredictable. Twenty years ago, most people tho ught it would be impossible to produce gas from shale at commercially viable rates. Today, shale accounts for more than half of all US gas production. In 1976, US government officials set out plans for nuclear fusion power that suggested the first working demonstration reactors could be starting up in 2005-10 at the latest. The latest experimental reactor, ITER in France, is scheduled to start its first fusion reactions in 2027. When the first demonstration plants might be built is anybody’s guess. In the mid-2000s, companies were making claims that cellulosic ethanol, produced from agricultural waste rather than foodstuffs, would soon be commercially available. A decade later, there are a few commercial-scale plants, but overall growth has been much slower than the US Government expected or hoped. If we are relying on innovation to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change, that is not a very comforting conclusion. Mr Trembath accepts that, but argu es that with global greenhouse emissions still on a rising trend – albeit with a probable dip last year – other attempts to address the threat since the 1997 Kyoto protocol have been largely unsuccessful.
FT 17th Jan 2016 read more »