On Monday leaders of the top 20 carbon-emitting countries, including the United States, joined 28 private investors, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in announcing plans to accelerate research and investment in “clean energy” solutions.
While it’s a welcome move, those who advocate that Gates and others show leadership by not investing in – or divesting from – fossil fuels need to not pin all their hopes on innovation.
“There are two sides of the equation; both are very important,” said Bruce Herbert, one of a number of activists in Seattle who support the Gates Divest movement. Herbert is also CEO of Newground Social Investment, a firm that advises clients on how to do socially responsible investing.
“We need to find new alternatives. We can’t just stop using fossil fuels and sit in darkness.”
Yet while nobody would argue we should abandon the search for better energy solutions, one major change that advocates are pushing for doesn’t depend on innovation. It’s the idea that the price of fossil fuels should reflect their actual cost.
In an interview with Humanosphere, former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, a senior adviser to the Gates Divest advocacy campaign, said, “When you look at the depth of the subsidies – whether favorable tax treatment, failure to account for health effects, massive amounts of military spending to defend sources of oil; if you factored all that into the price of oil, it would cost a lot more.”
McGinn, who Humanosphere spoke to in September about the divest movement, sees the announcement by Gates and others at the Paris climate talks as evidence of how far the climate movement has come, with countries and billionaires stepping up to say it should be a priority.
“One of the reasons I’ve been attracted to (the divestment movement), is we have to change our minds about what’s possible,” McGinn said. “That’s why divestment matters so much. It’s people of influence, philanthropies, cities, high net worth individuals, and political leaders saying, ‘No, we’re not going to invest in these anymore; that’s not our future.’ ”
The Gates-backed renewable energy R&D announcement coincided with the start of the 12-day Climate Change Conference in Paris, in an apparent bid to sweeten the pot for nations concerned about the high cost of meeting their fossil fuel emissions targets.
The public sector initiative, Mission Innovation, includes a commitment by each of the 20 countries to double their clean energy research and development investment over the next five years. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition, meanwhile, includes a commitment by private investors to support early-stage technology coming out of the Mission Innovation countries, to commercialize and deploy them worldwide. On his blog, Gates says the goal is as much to make progress toward a clean energy future as it is to turn a profit.
The coalition plans to invest in multiple sectors including electricity generation and storage, transportation, industrial use, agriculture and energy-system efficiency.
Focusing on the economic upside of clean energy investment may be one way to get the public and private sectors to rally around changes to the global energy system. But even if such technologies are successfully developed, getting widespread market adoption may take both a carrot and a stick.
Pledges by countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions currently fall far short of the goal to circumvent climate change. Jeffrey D. Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, recently led the development of a detailed roadmap, the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, showing that a transition to a low-carbon global economy is possible. Just barely.
In discussing the project with The New York Times, Sachs admitted, “The arithmetic is really brutal.”
The decarbonization researchers didn’t include in their models any of the hoped-for energy miracles that Gates and others are banking on. Nor did they assume that developed countries would be willing to change their way of life or that poor countries would stop striving to reach higher standards of living.