The clean-energy moon­shot

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

In May 1961, Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy stirred Amer­ica and the world with these words: “

Just eight years later, NASA did just that – with as­tound­ing ben­e­fits for science, tech­nol­ogy, and the world econ­omy. Now, a group of lead­ing sci­en­tists, in­no­va­tors, and econ­o­mists has iden­ti­fied our era’s moon­shot: to re­place fos­sil fu­els with clean-energy tech­nolo­gies within this gen­er­a­tion.

Since a group of pol­icy lead­ers from the United King­dom ini­ti­ated the Global Apollo Pro­gramme to Com­bat Cli­mate Change ear­lier this year, I and many oth­ers have en­thu­si­as­ti­cally signed on. The pro­gramme, named af­ter the NASA moon mis­sion, is built on the idea of “di­rected tech­no­log­i­cal change.” In other words, through a con­scious ef­fort, backed by public funds, we can steer the de­vel­op­ment of the ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies needed to en­sure hu­man­ity’s safety and well­be­ing. At the top of the list is clean energy, which will en­able us to head off the global warm­ing caused by the com­bus­tion of mas­sive amounts of coal, oil, and gas world­wide.

The Deep De­car­bon­i­sa­tion Path­ways Pro­ject (DDPP) has demon­strated that a low-car­bon fu­ture is within reach, with huge ben­e­fits at a very mod­est cost. In the United States, for ex­am­ple, cut­ting emis­sions by 80% by 2050 is not only fea­si­ble; it would re­quire added out­lays of only around 1% of GDP per year. And the ben­e­fits – in­clud­ing a safer cli­mate, smarter in­fra­struc­ture, bet­ter ve­hi­cles, and cleaner air – would be mas­sive.

Path­ways to a low-car­bon fu­ture fo­cus on three main ac­tions: im­prov­ing energy ef­fi­ciency, pro­duc­ing elec­tric­ity from low-car­bon energy sources (such as so­lar and wind energy), and switch­ing from petroleum to low-car­bon energy for pow­er­ing ve­hi­cles (such as elec­tric or fuel-cell ve­hi­cles) and heat­ing build­ings. These are clear and achiev­able goals, and the public sec­tor should play a ma­jor role in ad­vanc­ing them.

Politi­cians need to end sub­si­dies for coal, oil, and gas, and start tax­ing emis­sions from their use. More­over, they must meet the need for new power lines to carry low-car­bon so­lar, wind, geo­ther­mal, and hy­dro­elec­tric power from re­mote ar­eas (and off­shore plat­forms) to pop­u­la­tion cen­tres.

But meet­ing these re­quire­ments pre­sup­poses ad­vances in tech­nolo­gies that will en­able low-car­bon energy sys­tems to com­pete with the al­ter­na­tives. That is where the Apollo Pro­gramme comes in, with its bold goal of re­duc­ing the cost of re­new­able energy to be­low that of coal, oil, and gas.

Of course, re­new­able energy is some­times al­ready cheaper than fos­sil fu­els – when the sun is shin­ing bright or the wind is blow­ing strong and con­sis­tently. The main chal­lenge with re­new­ables is energy stor­age, in two senses.

First, we need to store re­new­able energy for use in ve­hi­cles in a low-cost and ef­fi­cient way. While we al­ready have high-qual­ity elec­tric ve­hi­cles, they re­quire im­prove­ments in range and cost to be able to out­com­pete con­ven­tional ve­hi­cles. The high­est tech­no­log­i­cal pri­or­ity is to de­velop bat­ter­ies for trans­port that are cheaper, longer­last­ing, faster-charg­ing, and lighter.

Sec­ond, we need to store in­ter­mit­tent energy for times when the wind is not blow­ing, the sun is not shin­ing, and rivers are not flow­ing strongly enough to turn hy­dro­elec­tric tur­bines. Many energy-stor­age tech­nolo­gies are al­ready in use or in de­vel­op­ment. One ex­am­ple is pumped hy­dropower, in which ex­cess wind and so­lar energy is used to pump wa­ter up­hill into reser­voirs that can later pro­duce hy­dro­elec­tric power. Another is the con­ver­sion of re­new­able energy into hy­dro­gen (by split­ting wa­ter mol­e­cules) or a syn­thetic liq­uid fuel made with car­bon diox­ide from the air. Oth­ers in­clude com­pressed air and large-scale bat­tery stor­age.

Given the tril­lions of dol­lars of po­ten­tial losses from hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change, and the tril­lions of dol­lars in­vested an­nu­ally in global energy sys­tems, the world’s gov­ern­ments would be wise to in­vest tens of bil­lions of dol­lars each year in the re­search and de­vel­op­ment needed to achieve a low-car­bon energy fu­ture. With this in mind, more than one politi­cian should have al­ready fol­lowed in JFK’s foot­steps, step­ping for­ward to an­nounce this gen­er­a­tion’s crit­i­cal moon­shot, and to of­fer the public fi­nances needed to make it hap­pen.

So far, none has. In the US, for ex­am­ple, the gov­ern­ment al­lo­cates around $31 bln per year to bio­med­i­cal re­search (with great re­turns to health), and roughly $65 bln per year for mil­i­tary R&D, but only about $7 bln per year for non­de­fense energy, and, of that, less than $2 bln per year for re­new­able-energy R&D. This is a shock­ing lapse on two counts: first, the US and the world are los­ing time on de­car­bon­i­sa­tion; and, sec­ond, the US is squan­der­ing the chance to de­velop its own fu­ture high-tech in­dus­tries.

To­gether, the Apollo Pro­gramme and the DDPP point the world’s gov­ern­ments to­ward the agree­ment they should reach at the United Na­tions Cli­mate Change Con­fer­ence in Paris this De­cem­ber. First, gov­ern­ments should pledge to de­car­bonise their economies in or­der to keep global warm­ing be­low the ex­treme dan­ger zone of two de­grees Cel­sius. Sec­ond, they should prom­ise to un­veil, in the next cou­ple of years, na­tional “path­ways” to deep de­car­bon­i­sa­tion by 2050. And, third, they should join to­gether to fund the new global moon­shot for clean energy. The pooled fi­nanc­ing should start with a min­i­mum of $15 bln per year, and rise sharply there­after, as key, high-re­turn tech­nol­ogy break­throughs come into view.

As JFK showed, great progress be­gins with a great goal, one that is bold yet fea­si­ble. The goal to­day, backed by the Apollo Pro­gramme, is deep de­car­bon­i­sa­tion. It is time for world lead­ers to com­mit to the planet-sav­ing clean-energy moon­shot.

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