The United States Must Lead the World on Climate Innovation

David M. Hart April 21, 2021
April 21, 2021

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Dozens of heads of state will celebrate Earth Day by joining President Biden for a climate summit. As the assembled leaders contemplate more ambitious national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they must treat innovation with equal seriousness. Without accelerating climate innovation, promises to cut emissions will be hollow. 

The United States, the world’s science and technology leader, should lead a global climate innovation initiative, as it did in Paris in 2015. This time, it should call on its international partners and rivals not only to “push” forward new climate technologies by supporting research, development, and demonstration, but also to “pull” them into large-scale use.

As the summit approaches, pledges have been coming fast and furious. More than 100 nations have promised to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. President Biden wants the United States to join them. China, today’s largest climate polluter, has set a 2060 goal. Biden’s summit aims to build momentum heading into this fall’s global negotiations. 

This new urgency is welcome. It reflects the terrible toll that climate change has already begun to inflict. But turning pledges into effective action is not easy. Affordable, reliable energy makes those of us who have access to it comfortable in the summer and winter, lets us go places near and far, and puts many of our favorite foods on our tables. Those who don’t have access to it desperately and deservedly want it, so they can share in these good things.

What’s needed is not just clean energy but clean energy that is as affordable and reliable as dirty energy. Otherwise, only the richest governments and people will make tangible sacrifices in the short run to avert greater risks of floods and fires in the long run.

The best news of the past decade, then, is not pledges but progress. Advances in renewables, electric vehicles, and other climate innovations, along with new business models and market structures, could cut emissions substantially in the coming decade. 

But this progress is not yet fast enough. According to the International Energy Agency, nearly half of the reductions needed to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 will come from technologies still in the demonstration or prototype stages. Another 40 percent will come from technologies that have recently entered the market and have not necessarily reached full cost parity with conventional resources.

Cement, the world’s most widely used material, accounts for about 8 percent of global emissions, and no good, clean substitutes are available. Steel (7 percent) and animal agriculture (12 percent) face the same problem. The list of challenges goes on from there to aviation, heavy-duty trucking, and beyond. Even sectors like electricity and automobiles face steeper hurdles than many imagine.

It’s also possible that no one will find adequate solutions to these challenges. National investments to develop and deploy innovations that would pull greenhouse gases from the air or ameliorate the worst effects of climate change would be sensible insurance policies against these all-too-likely possibilities.

The innovations that the world needs will not come about spontaneously. Markets provide too weak an incentive, even when taxes are imposed that cause polluters to bear some of the costs of climate change. Governments must play an active role, collaborating with businesses and civil society organizations, to accelerate climate innovation.

Public funding for research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) is one necessity. The United States, which expanded its RD&D investment over the past four years despite opposition from President Trump, is poised to grow it even faster under President Biden. It should push its international partners to do the same, as it did in 2015’s Mission Innovation initiative.

But Mission Innovation fell short in practice. Some countries failed to deliver on promises to double public investment in clean energy RD&D. The Biden administration will have to sustain pressure and build stronger international norms of compliance this time around.

Mission Innovation also fell short in conception and scope. RD&D funding may expand the supply of climate solutions, but that does not ensure they will be adopted. Policies that pull innovations into practice, through public procurement, regulation, and taxation are required as well. The United States’ global climate innovation initiative should seek to ensure that all nations implement such “demand-pull” policies.

Talk is cheap. Serious emissions reductions are hard. Innovation will make them possible and, ultimately, easy and affordable—if the nations of the world push and pull hard enough. The United States must lead them to do so.