05 August 2010

A Turn to Technology?

Perhaps there are some signs that a technology-centered approach to decarbonization is gaining momentum.  First, from the international negotiations:
U.S. companies are lobbying at UN climate talks in Bonn for incentives to spur technologies that could slow the pace of carbon emissions, abandoning a push to encourage a cap on gas emissions, a business lobby group said.

The U.S. Council for International Business, whose members include General Electric Co. and Coca-Cola Co., said rules to cap CO2 emissions are unlikely soon, Norine Kennedy, vice president of energy and environmental affairs, said in an interview today. Instead, they want incentives encouraging technologies they’re promoting.

“The center of the action is technology,” she said at the United Nations climate talks. “There’s broad agreement that we won’t get to the mitigation targets without technology.”
Vincent Carroll of The Denver Post had a smart column yesterday as well:
Here's why cap and trade failed: because of legitimate fears about its costs to consumers, inevitable damage to energy-intensive businesses, and a growing recognition that it wouldn't even spur the technological innovation needed to sharply reduce the use of fossil fuels. Groundbreaking advances in clean energy aren't exactly cascading out of Europe, after all, where energy is far more expensive and a cap-and-trade policy has been in place since 2005.

Congressional supporters of cap-and-trade now have made four runs at passing legislation in recent years, failing each time. If they can't succeed when Democrats enjoy overwhelming majorities, when will they find the votes? Sure, the public supports the idea of combating climate change — in the abstract. But support melts away when even a modest price — in one poll, $175 a year per household — is linked to a plan.

Maybe it's time for environmentalists and their political allies to consider a new strategy, one that might not only win votes in Congress but actually do some good. For a small fraction of the cost of the destructive cap-and-trade plan, this nation could concentrate on what the Breakthrough Institute's Michael Shellenberger describes as "closing the price and technology gap between clean energy and fossil fuels" through greater federal support for research and innovation.

Bill Gates is among those who have adopted this approach to slashing clean-energy costs, explaining that we'll need a technological revolution to reduce carbon emissions to the levels sought by the anti-warming warriors. Gates and the American Energy Innovation Council would peg research spending at $16 billion a year, or three times the present level.

Fiscal conservatives might still balk at such spending, of course, given the magnitude of the federal deficit. And I wouldn't necessarily blame them. But at least the debate over clean energy and climate policy would have returned back to Earth after residing for too long in the land of wishful thinking and economic folly.
But what is really needed is no simply invocations about the importance of technology, but also realistic proposals to pay for such investments, ideally through a low tax on carbon or fossil fuels.