In conjunction with the Paris climate agreement in November 2015, the United States and 19 other nations formed the Mission Innovation initiative, promising to double their clean energy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) investments by 2020. With the next meeting of the parties to the climate change agreement set to begin in Morocco on November 7, ITIF held a discussion on what the United States has been doing to keep this promise and what may be on the horizon for federal clean energy RD&D in the next four years. At the event, ITIF released a new report illustrating how, to create a low-carbon energy system, the United States must overcome not just climate-change deniers, but also “magical thinking” that low-carbon energy policy should be built entirely around a “science push,” a carbon price, or a massive deployment of existing technologies. Innovation should be a central focus for policymakers.
Doug Rand, the assistant director for entrepreneurship at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, began the panel by providing an overview of the Obama administration’s plan to double federal energy RD&D investments from $6.4 billion in the 2016 fiscal year to $12.8 billion in 2021, in accordance with Mission Innovation. The plan covers a wide range of technologies and would also implement key reforms in the national labs and other RD&D institutions. The investment will prepare the next generation of low-carbon energy technologies for rapid deployment, so that their cost curves can replicate the impressive recent achievements in solar photovoltaics, electric vehicles, and LED lighting.
To realize the administration’s plan, Congress would need to reconsider the size and distribution of the domestic discretionary budget, said Matt Hourihan, the director of the research and development (R&D) budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The trajectory of recent years and the sequestration limitations anticipated in the near future do not bode well for the five-year doubling goal proposed under Mission Innovation. Catrina Rorke, the energy policy director at the R Street Institute, pointed out that there needs to be a sober conversation about energy subsidy and regulatory reform as well as consideration of the demand for low-carbon energy, if the doubling plan is to win support from conservatives. While acknowledging the political and structural issues that pose difficulties for Mission Innovation in Congress, Franz Wuerfmannsdobler, a senior policy advisor for Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), encouraged policymakers to consider not only short term goals, but longer term goals as well.
Ali Zaidi, associate director for natural resources, energy, and science at the Office of Management and Budget, offered some words of hope in concluding the panel. He stated that the U.S. clean energy innovation ecosystem is rapidly growing stronger, and that Congress has a great opportunity to build on this strength for the good of the nation as well as the world.
An important takeaway from the overall discussion is that the United States is not yet on track to fulfill the promises made in Paris. Major political and institutional barriers must be overcome if Mission Innovation is to become a reality. Yet, moving in the direction outlined by the administration is essential if the larger Paris goal of limiting the rise in global temperature to two degrees or less is to be achieved.