Refreshing the Global Agenda for Climate Innovation

Linh Nguyen May 27, 2021
May 27, 2021

Energy ministers from the world’s leading economies will convene next week, hosted by Chile. It’s one of the most important meetings in the build-up to this fall's global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. 

The world has a long way to go in a short period of time to achieve a net-zero emissions energy system by 2050. The countries gathering next week—including the United States, China, Japan, members of the European Union, and others—must not only fulfill past promises to boost clean energy innovation by increasing their investment, but also refresh the agenda for that investment. Key technologies that have received inadequate support in the past, particularly long-duration energy storage, hydrogen electrolyzers, and carbon removal, deserve a higher place on the global agenda. These technologies are critical to boost electrification and decrease emissions from hard-to-abate sectors such as transportation and industry.

Despite progress in recent years, the clean energy transition is not occurring fast enough to meet the ambitious climate goals set in Paris in 2015. According to the International Energy Agency, only 6 out of 46 critical energy technologies are “on track.” While international cooperation on climate innovation has led to impactful programs across dozens of countries (such as the Electric Vehicles Initiative and 21st Century Power initiative), given the narrow pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050, the energy ministers can—and must—do more. 

First, they should launch a new initiative on long-duration energy storage, which the United States should lead. Long-duration energy storage is needed to balance the grid during periods when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing. As solar and wind power play larger and larger roles in the power system, this balancing function (performed by natural gas in many places) grows ever more Important. A 2018 report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation finds that much more grid-scale storage will be needed if renewables are to fully displace carbon-emitting fossil fuels. Today's fastest-growing storage technology, lithium-ion batteries, may not be well-suited for the long-duration role. Pumped hydroelectric storage has long played this role, but it is geographically limited. New options that might be advanced through international collaboration, like flow batteries, gravity-based systems, and compressed air storage, are likely to be needed. 

Next-generation electrolyzers that can cost-effectively produce clean hydrogen using zero-carbon electricity sources are a second priority item for the ministers. Clean hydrogen will be essential to decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors such as heavy industry and transportation. However, electrolyzers are currently expensive. A year ago, IEA executive director Fatih Birol emphasized the value of international cooperation to bring down costs. Hydrogen is where solar power was ten years ago, but it needs to accelerate even faster in the next ten. According to BloombergNEF, today’s global electrolyzer capacity of 200 MW must grow to 3000 GW by 2050 to meet clean hydrogen demands. IEA estimates that every month from January 2030 onwards, three new hydrogen-based industrial plants must be built. While these targets seem daunting, international cooperation—through knowledge sharing and technical assistance—will help the world meet them. The energy ministers should ensure that all of their nations have a hydrogen strategy as well as specific electrolyzer capacity targets to provide clear long-term investments signals for clean hydrogen. Only 11 out of the 21 countries participating in next week’s ministerial meeting have such targets today. The ministers could also establish an international hydrogen innovation hub for countries to partner on research and development projects. 

Finally, the ministers assembled by Chile should expand their existing carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) initiative to include carbon removal. Carbon removal—sometimes called “negative emissions technologies”—refers to a suite of technologies and practices that remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere for subsequent use or storage, rather than capturing the gas before it is emitted. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that “[a]ll pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C … project the use of carbon dioxide removal on the order of 100 [gigatons]—1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) over the 21st century.” That is an enormous scale, and no carbon removal technologies have yet been deployed at any level even close to it. Technological approaches to carbon removal are immature and expensive. The ministers might consider doubling Elon Musk’s recently-announced $100 million prize for demonstrating a solution that can scale to one million tons of carbon dioxide removal per year.

Moving the world onto a net-zero emissions pathway requires strong and credible policy actions from governments and greater international collaboration. Next week’s meeting is an opportunity for leaders around the world to put clean energy innovation at the core of their climate and energy policy agenda and set new priorities for it.