The Apollo Programme for climate change

apolloOf the writing of many reports there is no end, and many a server is stuffed with unread pdfs. But every once in a while a report comes along that gets noticed. The planetary boundaries report was one, and a useful new idea. The New Climate Economy was also bound to be much cited, for better or worse.

Here’s another that comes with ‘IMPORTANT’ stamped on it: A Global Apollo Programme to Combat Climate Change’. There are a couple of reasons to pay attention. The first is the list of authors – former chief scientific advisors, heads of Royal Societies, Richard Layard, Adair Turner and Nicolas Stern. If you’re not a Lord, or at least a Sir, you don’t get a look in. This many distinguished heads, from such a range of disciplines, ought to have something worth hearing.

It’s also notable for being written in plain English, making it accessible to a wide international audience. Good for them.

So what’s the message?

The report argues that global climate action is inadequate. All the pledges to cut emissions made so far will do little to prevent dangerous climate change. We need to do something more.

energy-related-emissions

There is one big technological challenge that, if solved, could prove the gamechanger for the climate: making clean energy cheaper than fossil energy. If that happened, you wouldn’t need a ‘keep it in the ground’ campaign. The transition would work itself out.

The economics of renewable energy are improving all the time, but that point of crossover needs to be accelerated. In particular, more research is needed around storage, so that renewable energy can maintain a base load. That would truly allow coal and gas power stations to be switched off.

How do we bring that forward? The report suggests for a ‘Global Apollo Programme’. Drawing on the story of the huge R&D project that put humans on the moon, the authors call for more public funds for research around renewable energy, led by an international commission. “The target will be that new-build base-load energy from renewable sources becomes cheaper than new-build coal in sunny parts of the world by 2020, and worldwide from 2025.”

They may have put their finger on something here. Many previous technological breakthroughs were supported by international research projects, including semiconductors. Despite being a major threat, climate change hasn’t catalysed that kind of cooperative. Globally, renewable energy receives just under 2% of public funds spent on research and development. That’s less than half of the public funds spent researching consumer electronics.

The authors argue that governments have prioritised private sector investment, and focused on encouraging markets for renewable energy, rather than the research side. That’s led to billions being poured into subsidies, with a relative trickle into research – thirty times more of taxpayers money is spent on subsidies than on R&D. If subsidies to fossil fuels were redirected, this wouldn’t even cost anything extra.

I won’t go into the full proposal for what the research programme might focus on or the details of how it would be structured. You can read that for yourself in the report. For now, the Global Apollo Programme has raised what looks like an important oversight. It won’t be enough to stop climate change on its own. It’s not that simple. But it does offer a part of the solution that people might rally around, based on what seems like a straightforward proposition. Shouldn’t we be spending more on “the biggest scientific challenge of the 21st century?”

The idea has been discussed by G7 energy ministers, and will be considered at the next G7 summit, ahead of this year’s climate talks. I suspect we may be hearing more about the Global Apollo Programme.

4 Comments on “The Apollo Programme for climate change”

  1. DevonChap June 4, 2015 at 9:15 pm #

    Well this certainly sounds like the Apollo programme. A massive boondoggle for civil servants and scientists that achieves very little of lasting benefit. And we won’t even get golf on the Moon or Apollo 13 (great movie).

    Just spending more on something doesn’t mean that progress will be faster. Honestly how are you going to make solar prices fall any faster than this: http://rameznaam.com/2014/10/05/solar-wind-plunging-below-fossil-fuel-prices/welcome-to-the-terrordome/

    The report doesn’t say how the current ‘underfunding’ is slowing the development of solar or wind. They just look at the percentages and say ‘it’s too small’.

    Storage prices are falling rapidly too, Tesla’s new house batteries are just a small part of the evidence of that.

    The steep falls in the prices and rapid increase in efficiency from the current private sector lead R&D doesn’t give much scope for these billions to be spent productively.

    Either they crowd out private funding meaning that states (hence taxpayers) are paying for something they didn’t need to, or it will be wasted duplicating efforts the private sector is already making because of the profit motive.

    And let us not forget they are spending the $550 billion currently spent on fossil fuel subsidies, that is largely spent by places like Iran and Venezuela. We really expect them to hand that money over to a bunch of Cambridge dons?

    This is big government scientists, civil servants and economists wanting to be given great dollops of cash to play with to make themselves ever more important because the man from Whitehall knows best. Self interested tosh.

    • Jeremy Williams June 9, 2015 at 9:42 am #

      If the idea has a weakness, it’s that it looks a lot like big beasts of institutional science banging the drum for more public money, and therefore it’s easily dismissed. I’ll admit I rolled my eyes when I first heard about it. Another Big Important Project to Save the World.

      However, the Apollo Programme is the media friendly name. The proposal is actually based on the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, which is less well known. As that programme showed, it’s not just about throwing more money at something, but aligning research priorities and making sure that funding is directed at the most pressing problems. It’s industry-led, bringing together business and science to address common problems and clear bottlenecks. It works with the existing trends, which the report covers, to accelerate them and integrate them.

      The report spells out what some of the priorities might be – CSP, which is large scale and would benefit from government support to develop; smart grids, which again require wider cooperation and funding than the market can provide on its own; and the many different forms of energy storage. We don’t necessarily need more research on solar panels or batteries, where competition is driving innovation quite nicely already. It’s integrating it all smoothly into the grid that needs work.

      Yes, they want more money too. But there’s more to it than that and I wouldn’t have written about otherwise.

    • Jeremy Williams June 9, 2015 at 10:05 am #

      If the idea has a weakness, it’s that it looks a lot like big beasts of institutional science banging the drum for more public money, and therefore it’s easily dismissed. I’ll admit I rolled my eyes when I first heard about it. Another Big Important Project to Save the World.

      However, the Apollo Programme is the media friendly name. The proposal is actually based on the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, which is less well known. As that programme showed, it’s not just about throwing more money at something, but aligning research priorities and making sure that funding is directed at the most pressing problems. It’s industry-led, bringing together business and science to address common problems and clear bottlenecks. It works with the existing trends, which the report covers, to accelerate them and integrate them.

      The report spells out what some of the priorities might be – CSP, which is large scale and would benefit from government support to develop; smart grids, which again require wider cooperation and funding than the market can provide on its own; and the many different forms of energy storage. We don’t necessarily need more research on solar panels or batteries, where competition is driving innovation quite nicely already. It’s integrating it all smoothly into the grid that needs work.

      Yes, they want more money too, but there’s more to it than that.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Did we just get the Apollo project for energy? | Make Wealth History - November 30, 2015

    […] may remember a few months ago I wrote about the proposal for a ‘global Apollo project for climate change‘, a big push for R&D with the specific aim of making renewable energy cheaper. If you can […]

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