Mission Innovation: Despite Trump, America Is Still In

May 22, 2018

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Major improvements in energy technology are essential to meet the global challenge of climate change. That’s why 22 countries and the European Union launched Mission Innovation (MI) in conjunction with the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Its goal is to accelerate breakthroughs and radically lower the cost of clean energy by doubling the signatories’ public investments in relevant research and development and fostering collaboration to bring new technologies to scale. Mission Innovation investments have the potential not only to reduce carbon emissions and clean energy costs, but also to expand access to affordable energy for all consumers, including in the developing world.

Halfway through its first five years, Mission Innovation has evolved into a promising forum for global cooperation. Unfortunately, just as with the Paris Agreement itself, the Trump administration has backed the U.S. government away from commitments made in the previous administration.

Nonetheless, global energy leaders convening in Malmo, Sweden this week for the Third Mission Innovation Ministerial meeting should not mistake the U.S. government’s position for that of the United States. As with Paris—which thousands of U.S. states, localities, companies, and nongovernmental organizations continue to support—America is “still in” Mission Innovation.

Either way, it’s time to take this nascent effort to the next level. The official U.S. position notwithstanding, the ministerial should not only reaffirm existing commitments among the remaining signatories but make new ones that would further strengthen Mission Innovation. Doing so would send an important signal that fellow travelers in the United States and elsewhere would likely follow.

Mission Innovation’s signatories didn’t just commit to doubling their funding for clean energy research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) within five years. They also agreed to collaborate more closely with one another and with private investors who can take new energy technologies to scale globally. That is why, to take one prominent example, Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV), a group of wealthy investors led by Bill Gates, has pledged more than $1 billion toward achieving the mission.

Moreover, while the Trump administration has officially withdrawn the American funding pledge for Mission Innovation, the U.S. Congress has rejected the administration’s proposed budget cuts for clean energy RD&D. In fact, it recently approved a 12 percent increase in RD&D spending for the U.S. Department of Energy in 2018 and is expected to increase funding in 2019 as well.

This U.S. commitment to energy RD&D should encourage other Mission Innovation member countries to follow through on their own commitments. The European Commission and several other signatories are already meeting their commitments, according to preliminary data.It’s also important that Mission Innovation members strengthen information sharing and improve reporting so that the world can track the initiative’s progress.

In addition to expanding the size of member countries’ energy RD&D programs, Mission Innovation seeks to improve their quality. It has, for instance, identified seven critical technology “innovation challenges” where public RD&D investment can have maximum impact—smart grids, off-grid access to electricity, carbon capture, sustainable biofuels, converting sunlight to fuels, clean energy materials, and low-carbon affordable heating and cooling. Member countries, including India, Canada, Mexico, China, and Italy, have hosted follow-on workshops to develop international RD&D roadmaps to address these challenges.

The United States has not yet sought to tackle all of these innovation challenges, despite having substantial domestic interests in addressing them. But it is continuing to provide leadership in carbon capture, hosting an international workshop on the topic in Houston, Texas in September 2017 near the Petra Nova facility, the world’s largest coal-fired power plant that has been retrofitted with carbon-capture technology.

Member countries should build on this momentum and expand their efforts to address the innovation challenges.To do so, they will need to build up Mission Innovation’s small secretariat and provide more support from their own energy ministries.

The Trump administration’s opposition to the Paris agreement motivated thousands of U.S. companies, investors, institutions of higher education, and faith organizations to join the “We Are Still In” coalition. So while the administration has weakened public-private energy innovation partnerships at the federal level, they are thriving at the state and local levels, where authority for many areas of clean-energy policy, including electricity and transportation, happens to be vested in the United States.

Mission Innovation, for its part, also continues to move forward. It signed a cooperative agreement with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to “drive private sector involvement, public-private partnerships, and knowledge sharing around public-private research and technology development.” And BEV announced five technology focus areas to guide its investments.

But much more remains to be done. The WEF agreement focuses on only three of the seven innovation challenges. BEV is in the early stages of implementing its strategy investment strategy.

Mission Innovation should continue to seek out new private sector partners and opportunities for collaboration across all seven innovation challenges. Its member countries should ensure that their RD&D investments lead toward private-sector investment opportunities as they mature.

This week’s Third Mission Innovation Ministerial provides a great opportunity to reinvigorate global energy RD&D cooperation and accelerate clean energy innovation. Despite the Trump administration, the United States’ message from the sidelines is: We’re still in!