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Fighting global warming hamstrung by under-investment in R&D

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 10:36am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 August, 2015, 12:40pm

In early August President Barack Obama surprised his supporters and enraged the opposition by announcing tougher benchmarks for reducing greenhouse gases from electricity generation plants. The Clean Power Plan directs states to cut emissions by about one-third from 2005 levels by 2030.

Instant push-back from fossil fuel interests was predictable. So too was the hostile reaction from denizens of the political right, a number of whom have declared any suggestion of human responsibility for increasing average global temperatures mythical.

Some states will seek to fulfill the prescribed target, despite entreaties from certain Republican quarters to ignore the directive. At least 15 states will pursue legal action to derail President Obama’s initiative.

The legal basis for the action and its immunization from political tampering could both be more robust. The Federal Government has never approved legislation to combat carbon emissions, so what action there has been is the result of state-level decisions or executive action.

The current initiative is the work of the Environmental Protection Agency and it relies on an interpretation by the Supreme Court of a provision in the Clean Air Act that declares carbon dioxide a pollutant. Executive action by the EPA could be reversed by a future administration.

No Republican candidate for the presidency has dared to support the latest EPA activism on power generation, and several have already articulated their unqualified opposition. Yet the public may be on the side of more action to address climate change.

According to a Pew Research Center, a public opinion survey taken towards the end of last year showed 64 per cent of the US population is in favour of curbing power plant emissions. Other polls by Pew on what should be done about the environment support these results.

The United States has typically not led on climate change, at least until the surprise joint announcement of significant emission reduction targets by President Obama and President Xi Jinping in the margins of an APEC summit last November.

That shared commitment improved the prospects for a successful outcome of the upcoming United Nations-sponsored climate change summit, scheduled for December 2015 in Paris. The meeting aims to establish a binding universal agreement on climate to replace the much criticized and less comprehensive Kyoto Protocol, which is due to expire in 2020.

The last international effort billed as a reboot of international commitments on climate change was the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, and that ended ignominiously. Could it be different this time, not least because of US and Chinese leadership?

Significant hurdles remain. The scientific reckoning is that current commitments on the table are insufficient to keep the global average temperature increase over its pre-industrial level below 2 degrees Celsius. That is the limit deemed by many essential to prevent dangerous climate change. Other challenges include bridging important differences over financing climate change mitigation and adaptation in poorer nations.

Whatever commitments can be extracted from international conferences, and however effective concerted leadership from the world’s major economies turns out to be, a major stumbling block obstructs the attainment of climate change prevention targets.

That obstacle is under-investment in research and development that will make clean energy a viable alternative to fossil fuels, combined with over-spending elsewhere. Renewables so far account for less than 3 per cent of global primary energy consumption.

According to a recent report proposing a significant effort to raise this share, less than 2 per cent of all publicly-funded R&D, amounting to $6 billion, is devoted to renewable energy technologies.

That figure looks paltry compared to the $101 billion spent worldwide on subsidizing production of renewables based on current technologies, and the $550 billion spent on the production and consumption of fossil fuels.

What these numbers suggest is that any amount of successful treaty-making at high profile international conferences, while no doubt essential, will remain insufficient. It will take us no further than unattainable promises unless governments shift spending priorities and confront deeply embedded economic and political vested interests at the national level.

 

Patrick Low is a Fellow, Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong