Technology to tackle climate change but how best to invest in innovation?

While UK and US policy advisors now seem to agree that technological advances will be the key weapon in the fight to curb climate change there is still some way to go before a consensus is reached on how best to encourage them.

At the Environment Agency’s Deeper, Wider, Greener conference this week the Bush administration’s senior environmental advisor, James L Connaughton, went head to head with Professor Michael Grubb, chief economist for the Carbon Trust.

The two broadly agreed that technological advances would both play a key role if we were to face up to the challenges of climate change.

Mr Connaughton said we could learn from history and human success at tackling previous environmental crises.

Giving the example of high levels of air pollution in the 1970s and the successful reduction since he claimed you could apply a similar model to every ecological problem and how it had been dealt with.

Starting with environmental degradation, we tended to recognised the harm, he said, accepted it needed to be addressed and then resolved the issue.

On the prickly question over the American refusal to sign up to the Kyoto agreement he argued that voluntary targets could be equally effective and claimed the US was also passing laws that would reduce its carbon emissions.

“There’s been a false dichotomy about this notion of mandatory versus voluntary, every country relies on a combination of the two,” he told delegates.

“We’re able to make substantial progress under the banner of the treaties we’re participating in.

“If we move with reasonable ambition in a modest way we can achieve much more .”

But at the end of the day, it would be a broad portfolio of technologies that would turn the tide on carbon emissions, he claimed, whether they be fuel efficiency measures or cleaner fuels.

“The rate of progress is proportionate to the rate of investment in new technology,” he said.

And, he made it clear, the US is investing more than most.

Professor Grubb highlighted the impending crisis of a surge in CO2 as the industrialised West struggles to control its emissions and the developing world produces ever increasing amounts to fuel the rapidly growing economies.

“If the industrial nations can’t get theirs to decline pretty sharply, and the developing countries follow suit, then we’re in very deep trouble indeed,” he said.

There were two very dangerous schools of thought at the moment which could lead to apathy on climate change, he claimed, one in the developing world which said ‘if these big, rich countries can’t do it, how are we supposed to do it and why should we bother?’ the other which went along the lines of ‘what’s the point in us doing anything and harming our economy if the rest of the world’s countries are going to continue to grow their emissions anyway’.

The industrialised countries were more likely to come up with low-carbon innovations and they needed to look at ways to share these to help developing countries leapfrog dirty technologies and avoid repeating past mistakes.

But a long-term solution would need a broad multi-faceted approach, he claimed.

“Technology is important, it’s crucial and I think it’s the answer,” said Prof Grubb.

“I fully agree with the US on that. The question is how one develops technologies on the scale needed in the remaining time frame.

“This is something that needs a lot of different solutions simultaneously.”

“I know of no sane person who thinks we’re going to do this just by building nuclear, wind, or whatever takes your fancy, or just by improving energy efficiency. We need to do both.

“For all the international chatter, really we’re now in the era when implementation is the only thing that matters.”

He said legislation and treaties could make huge advances and a cap-and-trade carbon economy would bring to bear the juggernaut of market forces.

While Kyoto had focused the world’s attention on the issues and UK tax incentives such as the Climate Change Levy had led to dramatic improvements in energy efficiency, it was the European Emissions Trading System (ETS) which he singled out for praise.

The professor said he wouldn’t have bet a penny on the prospects of the system before it came into force, but it was likely to play a major role in addressing the continent’s sizeable share of emissions.

“it’s an astonishing feat of European architecture,” he said.

“This is the scale of effort we need to be looking at.

“National targets help to give a sense of direction but the results need to be bankable to industry.”

By Sam Bond

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