Climate change agreements were never able to fully resolve the crisis. We need to focus on technological change.
With the surprise triumph of Donald Trump in the US elections, many are worried about the fate of the recent progress that’s been made on climate. Come January, the leader of the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter will be someone who thinks human-made climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China and who has promised to withdraw crucial American support from the Paris agreement.
But all is not lost. The reality is that climate agreements were never able to fully solve the climate crisis anyway — they merely bought us time. Those of us who care about our planet could use Trump’s election as a clarion call to refocus on and accelerate our efforts in research, development and innovation in low-carbon technologies that cost less and perform better than the status quo.
We need to shift our attention from political solutions to technological ones. Technologies that cost less and perform better — with lower emissions of greenhouse gases — than existing ones harness market forces to scale sustainable and lasting change. Consumers will naturally choose these options on their own — without any government subsidies. This should be our goal. For example, the explosive growth of solar in recent years was largely driven by the dramatic reduction in costs coupled with rising electricity rates. This market push has arguably had a more significant effect than any government-issued incentive.
However, the paths toward low-cost, low-carbon and high-performing technologies are not easy. We need the best and brightest minds across all sectors working toward this objective.
Multi-sectoral partnerships and collaboration are one path that can draw upon the strengths of one sector to compensate for the weaknesses of another. For example, here at Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Energy (CUE), we adopt an “industry-driven, academic-led” model for our research. Our industry partners define the needs, and we propose nonpartisan, evidence-based solutions while maintaining our academic independence. Our work is at the applied end of the academic research spectrum, and most solutions can be implemented within the next five years.
CUE also leads cutting-edge energy storage research by bringing together federal government funding, industry partners and academics across the country in the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Energy Storage Technology Network. This network recognizes that further integration of intermittent renewable technologies such as wind and solar hinges on the ability to store electricity for times when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. As such, it focuses on four key themes to accelerate innovation: storage technologies; power conversion; systems integration; and economics and policy. This model of multisectoral collaboration can be replicated for other technologies crucial for decarbonization.
The public sector should target its investments on driving down the costs of low-carbon technologies. Every expenditure for climate should be reviewed by asking several key questions, including these:
- How will this drive down unit costs of the technology?
- Does this investment enable the technology to perform better than the status quo?
- Does this investment lower carbon emissions?
Governments could also encourage highly skilled people to take more risk to accelerate innovation and drive the economy. Thanks to Canada’s strong public education systems, we have one of the most highly educated workforces in the world. However, we do not share the same entrepreneurial spirit as our neighbours to the south, and this hinders our ability to grow and lead. Governments can look for ways to unlock this potential, especially among experts within the public service, many of whom hold a wealth of knowledge and experience but do not want to risk leaving stable jobs with good pensions and benefits to try out their ideas.
The private sector needs to increase investments in promising low-carbon technologies so that these technologies can compete with the status quo. At last year’s COP21 climate conference in Paris, Bill Gates announced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of wealthy investors committed to funding scalable clean energy solutions in partnership with public funding. But this is just a fraction of the investment needed; we need many more investors willing to follow Gates’ lead and commit patient capital to this cause.
On the other hand, while political solutions such as the Paris agreement are insufficient, they are still useful in that they buy us time – perhaps the time that is needed to make that breakthrough discovery. Even if every signatory to the Paris agreement fulfilled its pledge — a highly questionable assumption — this achievement would still be insufficient to avoid disastrous climate outcomes. And on a national level, a mandated minimum carbon price is nowhere close to spurring the change we need. The carbon price is to start at $10 per tonne, going up to $50 per tonne in 2022. We need something in the range of $150 to $200 per tonne to meet our (insufficient) targets.
Make no mistake: Trump’s promises to withdraw US support from the Paris agreement and to repeal the Clean Power Plan will certainly set us back. But this is not catastrophic — yet. Individual states still have the ability to pursue climate goals independent of the federal government. We always understood that those political solutions were not enough on their own, so we now have to redirect our efforts to our only real hope of success: low-cost, low-carbon technologies.
This presents a unique opportunity for Canadian academics, governments and businesses. The federal government and many of the subnational governments are motivated with respect to climate and have already committed large sums in their budgets. We need to ensure that public dollars are channelled to the most promising avenues, and that experts in all sectors can work together to create low-cost, low-carbon, made-in-Canada technologies that can be exported around the world.
Canada has already made enviable progress on climate. Let’s not be disheartened by Trump’s presidency, but instead let’s acknowledge the climate science, understand the limitations of political solutions and concentrate our efforts on technological solutions. Imagination, ingenuity and thinking big are how we solved the largest societal challenges in the past. Let’s continue this tradition and have Canada lead the way.
Photo: Marco Prati/Shutterstock.com
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