A global green innovation mission

Technology is our route to a clean and abundant future for all

Hi, it's Chris from the Tony Blair Institute. To coincide with our new paper on accelerating cleantech, in this edition my colleague Benedict looks at how technology is central to winning the fight of our times: averting the climate crisis.

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Pessimism is generally a poor guide to the future. But faced with the existential risk of climate change and continued political and policy failure, there is some justification to the deflation that many feel today. However, the technological revolution we are living through today should present a renewed sense of optimism, rather than cause for concern.

It speaks to our broader sense of ingenuity – and if clean tech is pursued with the intensity and freedom that it should granted, we should be hopeful about our future. If it is neglected or held back, we risk a debilitating attrition that will compound our challenges. It is therefore time that we embrace a global green innovation mission, and, in doing so, ensure that the future is still in our hands.

This is the fight of our times. The sluggishness of our institutions in dealing with our most pressing need has resulted in sense of grief for what we have already lost. But in its destruction, it is creating anguished new political movements whose aims are to stop us from decimating more.

Primary among these is the Green New Deal, which as a bedrock concept of the left around the world today, has been broadly positive as convening idea.

But as a lack of action from leaders around the world has rightly fuelled anger, the consequences have too often been increasingly bad and unrealistic policy choices. The worst excesses of these are either a belief in degrowth, or on the other end of the spectrum, denial.

The former is not viable as very few will willingly erode their standards of living by any significant margin, while countries trying to break out of poverty are not going to bend their development curve down by choice.

A reappraisal of our conception of growth is perhaps warranted, but when the argument extends to population growth, it often ends on shaky ground. At its worst, it ends in antinatalism.

It is a vision that needs to be rejected.

There is no generous interpretation of the latter today. Faced with mounting evidence, perhaps a new form of Pascal’s wager is needed – i.e. that a rational person should act as if climate change does exist to avoid potentially catastrophic losses.

But if this puts too much stock in reason, there is also a lesson for the moderate parts of politics which too often appeals to this idea.

Because having doggedly pursued ideas such as a Carbon Tax, which are prima facie good policy, and met very little response, it is time to change tack.

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The innovation option

This new strategy needs to unashamedly optimistic in its ambition. It needs to corral people around a hopeful vision that believes we can still shape our own future – and that we can create a thriving and abundant world.

But this sense of optimism is not complacent; it is conditional. The choices that each of us make are critical to the path we take, as are the policy choices made by nations today.

We have seen signs of progress in cleantech over recent years, but now is the time to accelerate our efforts.

The growth of renewables has been one such sign. The unit costs of solar and onshore wind, for example, have dropped by 89% and 70% respectively over the last decade, making them far more competitive than fossil fuels.

The economics of these technologies now mean that they are forecast to meet 56% of world electricity demand by 2050. Making coal history as soon as possible should be a realisable ambition, with the next major frontier for this energy transition to occur being in Asia.

Advances in battery technology – spurred by the demand in mobile phones and portable electronics – are another sign, having provided a starting point for batteries for electric vehicles.

Lithium-ion battery costs declined by nearly 90% between 2010 and 2020, while the 2020 Tesla Model S can travel almost 350 miles on a single charge. This is a trillion dollar market, which is developing at scale.

Carbon capture tech is also accelerating towards a point that is economically viable – Prometheus Fuels recently announced the world’s lowest CO2 capture cost of $36 per ton.

Lastly, food is another sign – albeit more early at this stage – with breakthroughs in alternative proteins and cultured meats offering huge potential benefits.

The Israeli-based company Future Meat Technologies has, for example, driven the cost of producing a chicken breast made from cultured cells down from $300,000 in 2013 to $7.50 today.

When animal agriculture accounts for around 12% of global emissions and 40% of the world’s land use, such innovations could be some of the most important ones we are witnessing today.

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A way forward

If we can celebrate some successes, we should be cognisant that there is still a long way to go. A new cleantech 2.0 investment wave is underway and we need it to pay off.

From long-duration energy storage to net-zero buildings, these new frontiers of technology will be essential to reducing emissions and carbon capture.

But as last year’s International Energy Agency Clean Energy Report laid out, “roughly half of the reductions that the world needs to swiftly achieve net-zero emissions in the coming decades must come from technologies that have not yet reached the market today.”

To turbo charge this process, entrepreneurship must therefore be supported by policy-makers.

Ambitious new targets set by countries including the US, UK, Japan and South Korea are welcome, but there needs to be a concerted investment push and a willingness to begin to take bigger bets in high-risk areas.

The US is beginning to step up on this issue, with President Biden’s International Climate Finance Plan upping the country’s investment in cleantech where efforts in recent years had been led by China.

The country contributed to around a quarter of global spend in this area in 2019. Along with the US, France, Japan and Germany, together these nations are responsible for 70% of R&D investment in new energy technologies.

The UK typically only spends a fraction of what other similar countries do. In 2019, for example, the country spent less than a fifth of that invested by the US, while it trailed behind investments by France and Germany.

The commitment from the US therefore needs to be matched by others and reverse a stagnancy in global R&D in cleantech, which has improved little since 2012. Upping these levels is therefore critical, but it cannot be done in a haphazard way.

As we set out in our latest paper, leaders need a framework that looks at how to standardise, scale and support their growth. Countries need to be far bolder in their ventures, taking bets on new areas of research, while also having a far greater ambition in how they work together on potentially humanity-defining tech such as nuclear fusion.

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Time to act

Our global green innovation mission should be concentrated on developing the technology we need for to avert the climate crisis.

Some may feel that this is a Panglossian hedge that gambles with our future. But as the successes in renewables shows, when developed at scale, we can provide clean energy at low cost.

We need to reduce emissions, both in terms of supply and demand and how they connect.

We need to increase carbon removal.

And we need to build the ability to do more for less.

This is both a complex systems design question and a collective action one. It means it’s both the hardest and most important challenge we face today.

Solving it requires an optimistic but realistic vision for climate that convinces both those sceptical of the science and those sceptical that technology provides the path to a brighter future.

This is going to be about good policy, but also politics. But as is often the case in politics, even if there is seemingly agreement on the ends, it is often in the means where the most vicious battles lie.

Progressives must therefore work aggressively on a new global coalition that can deliver climate innovation at scale, so that we can deliver cheap and clean energy for the world.

It is the fight of our times, and one we must begin today.

Read the full report