There’s a lot of focus now on the politics of Paris. Will poor countries get the “climate aid” they want? Will China agree to reduce its growth, leaving millions more in poverty, by committing to far-reaching carbon cuts? What will be the wording of the treaty that emerges?
It is easy to become cynical. Let us instead take a step back and ask a much more interesting question: what would it take for Paris to succeed? By this, I do not mean that the delegates manage to sign some kind of treaty. I mean, what would it take for Paris to have a real impact on climate change?
Research suggests that the climate policy initiative that an effective treaty would be based on is one that we hear very little about here in Paris: a massive R&D effort to make green energy cheaper.
For 20 years, we have insisted on trying to solve climate change by supporting production of mainly solar and wind power. The problem with this approach is that it puts the cart in front of the horse. Green technologies are not yet mature and not yet competitive, but we insist on pushing them out to the world.
Instead of production subsidies, governments should focus on making renewable energy cheaper and competitive through research and development. Once the price of green energy has been innovated down below the price of fossil fuels, everyone will switch.
This simple message has long been rejected as heresy – I have been labelled a “climate denier” and all sorts of things for questioning the status quo approach.
But things are looking up. Yesterday, Bill Gates, along with China, India and the US promised a multibillion-dollar fund for green R&D. And The Economist this week pointed out that the main solution to climate was innovation. Moreover, a number of prominent British researchers and business people suggested a much greater focus on green research and development through an “Apollo program” for renewable energy – named after the United States space programme that landed the first man on the moon. Just as massive support for research and development got us to the moon, the aim is for a massive focus on green research and development to make climate-friendly forms of energy competitive.
The initiators of the project suggested specifically that an annual 0.02% of GDP be set aside for green research and development. Even the man behind the famous “Stern Review“, Nicholas Stern, who has in the past been responsible for promoting a very narrow focus on production subsidies, is among the backers of the proposal.
This is great news. And precisely what Copenhagen Consensus and I have argued for more than eight years.
During the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate project, 28 climate economists and a panel of experts including three Nobel Laureates found that the best long-term climate strategy is to dramatically increase investment in green R&D, with every dollar spent on green R&D one hundred times better at avoiding climate damage than investing in today’s inefficient solar and wind energy technology.
There are other components of a successful climate treaty – like the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies. But one thing that is certain is that we’re not going to make a successful dent in temperature rises until we solve the technological challenge. This is what the conversation in Paris should be about.
Bjorn Lomborg is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and Visiting Professor at Copenhagen Business School. He researches the smartest ways to help the world, for which he was named one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers. His numerous books include The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cool It, How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place and The Nobel Laureates’ Guide to the Smartest Targets for the World 2016-2030.