Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Global Apollo: Can it Shoot the Moon?

The UK's special climate envoy, David King, and six other eminent British scientists, economists, and businessmen presented a report today that could offer dramatic support for efforts to reach a major climate agreement in Paris in December. They call their proposal 'Global Apollo' because it attempts to mirror the cost--$150 billion over 10years--and scope of the Apollo moon launch program--and because they hope to capture the can-do spirit of that heroic mission. The goal? To eliminate new coal-powered energy projects by making renewable energy "cheaper than coal in sunny parts of the world by 2020, and worldwide by 2025," according to analysts at The Carbon Brief . To achieve this ambitious goal the program hopes to gather government funding for new research in such areas as renewable energy storage and 'smart' grid design. From initial reports it was not clear whether the program intended to engage in implementation of enhanced sustainable technologies, or whether that enormous capital outlay would still need to come from national budgets, private capital, or the still underfunded Green Climate Fund.

Announcement of the report coincides with the Bonn Climate Change Conference, which opened yesterday under the auspices of the UNFCCC process with nearly 200 nations represented. The Bonn meeting is a technical one, streamlining documents from February's Geneva meeting in the hope of creating a workable agenda for Paris in December. Because it is easy for the massive bureaucratic process that is the UNFCCC to lose itself in details, the highly-publicized, media-friendly announcement--A Global Climate Moon-shot! the End of Big Coal!--provides a welcome surge, and gives the proposal some momentum in advance of next week's G-7 summit in Berlin, where the report will be formally presented, and funding requested. The UK, home base to the report's researchers and sponsors, has already announced financial support--intended to comprise .02% of GPD for the G-7 countries--but only if the other wealthy nations follow suit.

Still, questions remain whether this initiative can achieve all that its grandiose name and premise are promising. Deflecting new coal-based energy projects into solar and wind--by 2020!--would be a feat, especially given India's rapid exploitation of its coal resources, but even so, it fails to address the existing infrastructure for burning increasing quantities of the biggest carbon polluter for many decades to come. Carbon capture technologies are not part of Global Apollo, but perhaps they should be. Likewise the questions of how to implement rapidly at appropriate scale need to be addressed: the assumption is that Global Apollo's research will lead to price advantages for renewables, but even where this may already be true, market forces have not automatically responded with replacement renewables. Furthermore, interventions that decrease demand for coal without adjusting its price with carbon taxing may lower the price of coal and negate any price advantages for solar. By itself, Global Apollo is clearly not the whole solution, but in concert with other assistance programs and market adjustments, its research goals could certainly make an important contribution to the overall solution.

In political terms it will be really interesting to gauge the response to this proposal by the G-7 world leaders next week. The analogy to moon exploration puts an interesting light on what is a large, specific demand for climate funding. While not a panacea, this proposal--which is co-authored by Lord Stern and the Grantham Institute, one of the strongest voices in climate economics--represents exactly the kind of structural initiative that needs to be taking shape now, in advance of the Paris conference. Vague well-meaning promises need to turn into concrete, billion-dollar programs, and fast. Global Apollo is a welcome entrant into this arena.

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