To avoid the worst effects of climate change, global greenhouse gas emissions should fall at a faster rate than they have increased for more than a century. Essentially, economies must take a dime turn and then move rapidly toward a carbon-free future. In the US, the Biden-Harris administration has re-committed the country to this goal and recently announced plans for major investments in clean energy infrastructure and research. To be successful, they must use their most powerful tool to extend the benefits of each investment: technological innovation.
As my research on technological innovation shows, government policies can drive rapid progress. Examples of solar energy, wind energy, and lithium-ion batteries show how the process works. All three technologies improved at exponential rates along with rapidly growing markets. These trends were triggered by government policies in a handful of countries that fueled global innovation activity and competition for market share, sparking the creativity of companies and researchers to solve tough problems while creating new ones. businesses and jobs. Innovations occurred from early technology concept to adoption at scale, in engineering and science labs, in manufacturing plants, and on construction sites.
“The choice was not between government intervention and competitive markets; the two together drove progress. ”
Importantly, these examples demonstrated that the choice was not between government intervention and competitive markets; the two together drove progress. Intentionally employing this combined effect is the government’s best bet to accelerate the progress of climate change in the future. Lessons from Renewable Energy and Batteries This is how the process for solar power developed. Starting in the 1970s and continuing to the present, countries such as Japan, Germany, the US, and China began offering incentives for solar energy. Policies varied, but all created financial incentives for power project developers to build solar power facilities. In response, private companies around the world innovated to compete for market share. They improved manufacturing to waste less material and built larger plants to increase productivity.
The costs of solar (photovoltaic) energy and lithium-ion batteries have plummeted.
Government funding for research was also critical, with the United States making the largest overall contribution. The research discoveries informed new solar cell materials and panel designs that were more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. The resulting exponential trends in solar power market expansion and cost reduction exceeded the projections of many experts. These trends were reflected in wind power and, a little later, in lithium-ion batteries for electric cars and other energy storage applications. The details of each technology’s process are different, but in all three cases, government policy was a spark for rapid advancement. Innovation is still needed. Previous developments in solar power, wind power, and batteries are encouraging. But other technologies are needed for a clean energy transition, including those that can help fully decarbonize heating, electricity, industry, and transportation. Progress must be faster and more complete (covering all energy services) than has happened before. In a decarbonized future scenario, almost all cars are electric and charged with carbon-free electricity. In every city in the US, residents use clean-energy public transportation to commute most days, simply because it‘s convenient. People walk and bike on safe and pleasant routes. Goods are delivered in electric vans, and people and goods are transported longer distances by planes, railways, ships and trucks, all on carbon-free fuels. It’s easier for homes and office buildings to opt out of energy efficiency upgrades and electrified heating than it is to opt out. Heavy industry runs on low carbon fuels and captures carbon dioxide before it is released. Getting there quickly requires innovation in physical technologies and infrastructure, such as very low-cost batteries, carbon-free jet fuel, and rugged electrical grids, but also in software and business models. Better software could help predict and manage deficiencies and excesses in variable renewable energy. New business models are needed to enable a more integrated energy system, where excess renewable electricity is used to produce carbon-free fuels, such as hydrogen, and electrified industrial processes can be switched on and off, acting as storage for the power grid. for rapid progress There is no single guide to government policy-driven technological innovation, as the process works best when policies are tailored to the innovation challenge at hand.
“Progress must be faster and more complete (covering all energy services) than has happened before. ”
For some innovation challenges, greater emphasis should be placed on research to promote a range of technology options, for example for low-carbon jet fuels. Other policies may incentivize the private sector to demonstrate a new approach to scale, such as schemes for managing electric vehicle charging and using their batteries (perhaps even when they are “removed” from cars) as energy storage for the power grid. As technologies advance, stimulating market adoption becomes critical, as we saw in the last two decades for solar and wind power. At the same time, regulating emitters can foster innovation in mature industries and is absolutely essential to ensure sufficient emission reductions throughout the economy. Beyond driving better technology performance, well-designed innovation policies will create opportunities for local economic growth and high-quality jobs. In addition, the policy may be intended to leverage experience in the oil, coal, and natural gas industries and create new job opportunities as fossil fuel use declines. In this way, the US can find its counterparts from the Danish company Orsted ORSTED, + 2.69%, which leveraged its fossil fuel expertise in offshore drilling to become a world leader in offshore wind. It’s easy to get stuck thinking in linear terms, but technology tends to change exponentially. Left to its own devices, technological change will not necessarily solve climate change, especially not in the limited time we have left to act. But my research on the evolution of technology suggests that government policy can help drive this powerful process toward rapid progress and beneficial results. Jessika E. Trancik is Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. It has received funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Science Foundation, and the US Department of Energy This comment was originally posted by The Conversation. Technological innovation gives the government leverage to reduce emissions quickly. Here’s How MarketWatch’s Coverage of Climate Change Government Can Leverage Private Spending to Fight Climate Change, Says Yellen, the Largest US Oil Lobbyist Backing Carbon Pricing Instead of Regulation More strict Diane Coyle: It’s about time economists give nature what it deserves Mariana Mazzucato: From vaccines to moon shots, governments can succeed if they focus on accomplishing the mission