It’s time to stop pretending we can solve climate change with unenforceable pledges to use fossil fuels a little less. We’re seven billion people and growing. We’re a 60 trillion dollar global economy and growing. It’s time for some new ideas and better tools. Here’s one: let’s make innovation central to the Durban negotiations. As an alternative to carbon targets, let’s create government clean energy RD&D (research, development, and demonstration) investment intensity targets that countries can sign up for in lieu of agreeing to cap carbon emissions. In doing so, world leaders would effectively boost investments in the front-end of clean energy innovation—an area of significant concern and underfunding—thus spurring the development of the very technologies all countries, rich and poor, need to drastically reduce emissions without ongoing expensive subsidies. Paraphrasing Arun Majumdar, director of Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, there a lot of places around the world that want to turn the lights on for the first time.
We need to help turn them on the right way—that is, without using more fossil fuels and emitting more carbon. It’s time to stop pretending we can solve climate change with unenforceable pledges to use fossil fuels a little less. Fortunately, the Durban talks seem ripe for new ideas for two reasons:First, many countries and advocates want to begin discussing new emission reduction targets and legally binding mechanisms. The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol—which called for a five percent reduction in carbon emissions below 1990 levels—expires in 2012 (and only some European countries meet their targets, largely with the help of carbon offsets). Though targets and timetables aren’t expected to be officially negotiated in Durban, each is expected to be a hot topic of discussion. But as we’ve learned from the U.S. and international climate debate, carbon reduction targets is a small piece of the larger policy puzzle. And, as we have seen, they might never get accepted by all nations needed to accept them.
Mandating carbon reductions does apply pressure on governments to take policy action (and it has arguably helped spur some governments to make limited actions so far), but by itself is insufficient and ultimately diverts attention from the real agenda: driving clean energy costs down through innovation. Caps rely almost exclusively on prices to induce change (caps raise the price of carbon emissions). An