Why we shouldn’t wait for a magic pill to cure our climate woes

PillsLast week, on Radio 4’s Today programme, I was asked to critique the well known and controversial environmental commentator, Bjørn Lomborg. According to his theory, we should all do as Japan has recently done, and give up on greenhouse gas reduction targets and, instead, invest heavily in low carbon R&D. Doing so would be much cheaper, he argues, and would have a greater global impact as it would make low carbon technology so affordable it would naturally displace fossil fuel alternatives.

Miracle cures are always on the horizon but we have technology we need now
I argued that our approach to combating climate change can’t dismiss greenhouse gas reduction targets and should be similar to the approach taken to deal with type 1 diabetes, something I’ve lived with for over 20 years. Yes, money needs to be directed into R&D for new treatments and possibly even cures, but it shouldn’t prevent getting on and managing blood sugars now through existing treatments such as insulin, exercise and diet control. Indeed, throughout the past 20 years, ongoing research in this area has led to a number of technical developments that have enabled me to monitor and control my blood sugars better. I now have an insulin pump, which allows me to control the insulin dose I am given at any one time and I have my eyes regularly checked with state of the art screening methods. But, essentially, I have to do the same things: regularly test my blood sugar, take insulin and exercise.

Since I was diagnosed there have been constant promises of miracle treatments or even cures, but they always seem to be ten years away. If I had waited for them to emerge before taking action to manage my blood sugars, I wouldn’t doing very well now.

Similarly, there are a number of reasons why we shouldn’t hold out for new technology to emerge before we take action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the technologies we need already exist and, just like exercise and good diet, are things we should be doing anyway as they have wider benefits. Climate change targets in the UK have led to the insulation of millions of lofts and cavity walls, making homes more comfortable and cheaper to heat.

Three reasons why we can’t wait for costs to fall
Lomborg in particular questions the effectiveness of renewables in reducing emissions and says we shouldn’t pursue them until the costs have fallen. But the idea that we can wait for low carbon technology costs to fall before we deploy them is wrong. And here are three reasons why:

1. The need to learn by doing. Many large scale renewable projects cannot just be ‘plugged in’ and are very site specific. Perfecting wind turbines for offshore wind projects for example only gets us some of the way. Constructing foundations in deep water for example requires learning by doing. Building at scale also enables economies of scale: we can build less large offshore electricity cables for example by integrating lots of projects. Carbon capture and storage is another good example. We already have much of the individual technology needed, we just need to put the whole chain together and make it work.

2. The need to create a market for private sector investment. The public sector will only ever partially finance the necessary R&D. To attract private spending in R&D there needs to be a clear market opportunity for the technology, created by large scale deployment. Many technologies have been developed through technology forcing, where governments regulate a minimum standard, eg for low carbon housing or vehicle emissions, and then leave it to the private sector to compete, innovate  and produce the technology required to meet that standard.

3. The need to avoid high carbon lock-in Waiting to ‘plug-in’ low carbon technology might be impossible or at least significantly more expensive if we continue to build and operate a high carbon system. It ignores the natural replacement cycle of infrastructure. For example, in the UK, many old coal and gas power stations are due to close because of environmental legislation. This is a ripe time to replace them with renewable generation. Moving to a low carbon system requires forward planning, for example reinforcing local electricity networks to cope with more embedded generation and heat pumps; and this takes time. Building new fossil based generation, even if it is only meant to be a transition measure, also creates a massive political lobby against the new technology from vested interests and makes it harder to adopt.

Renewables are already delivering
In fact, renewable deployment has already delivered. The large scale deployment of renewable technology across Europe and the rest of world, supported by government subsidies and tax breaks, has already resulted in massive cost reductions in many technologies. Since 2009, the levelised costs of generation from onshore wind have fallen by 15 per cent, and those from solar PV by more than 50 per cent, while global average costs (excluding carbon) of coal and gas power generation have increased: the cost per MWh of new gas and coal-fired capacity has increased by 40 per cent in the past four years.

In some countries with high grid electricity charges or lots of sunshine, solar has now achieved ‘grid parity’ and is as cheap, if not cheaper, than buying electricity from the grid. In Brazil, onshore wind competes well with new gas-fired plants and other historically less expensive renewable sources, such as hydropower and bioenergy. In Australia, the best wind sites can compete without carbon pricing versus the generation costs of new coal and gas-fired plants. And in Turkey and New Zealand onshore wind has been competing well in the wholesale electricity market for years.

The challenge for policy makers is to design support mechanisms that follow this trend and ensure we don’t overpay as the cost of the technology falls.  The support given to renewable projects under the UK’s new low carbon contract system is doing this already, in that it is set to fall over time and the total amount of government support is being closely monitored and restricted.

Given the massive gains already made and the huge potential to develop and bring down the cost of new low carbon technologies, now is not the time to stop the treatment if we really want to combat climate change.

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