Innovate First, Regulate Later
Why technology policy—not carbon caps—is our best hope for fighting climate change.
With a bang in Copenhagen and a whimper in the US Senate, the 20-year effort to deal with global warming by capping emissions and putting a price on carbon has come to an end. In the wake of the crash, climate advocates have advanced a range of ideas about how to move forward. Some suggest that a scaled-back version of cap-and-trade, focused only on the utility sector, might work. Others say we need a carbon tax that refunds all its revenue to the public. Still others insist that we must build a stronger political movement to overcome the opposition of climate skeptics and fossil fuel interests.
Unfortunately, most of these strategies only dress up the failed solutions of the last several decades in new clothing. In order to move beyond these unsuccessful strategies, climate advocates must come to terms with why those efforts have failed. Doing so requires abandoning many deeply held assumptions that have informed climate policy and advocacy for decades.
To start, we must acknowledge that current technology is insufficient to significantly reduce emissions. Today's low-carbon technologies are simply too expensive and too difficult to scale; they do not yet represent a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Wind energy, the cheapest renewable technology, still costs 50 percent more than coal or gas, according to the US Energy Information Agency.
Because low-carbon technologies cost so much more, no political economy in the world has been willing to raise fossil energy prices high enough to make renewable energy cost-competitive at any scale that matters. In his scrupulously researched new book, The Climate Fix, the political scientist Roger Pielke, Jr., our colleague and a senior fellow at the Breakthrough Institute, calls the unwillingness of governments to sacrifice economic growth for global warming the "iron law of climate policy."
The iron law tells us that the basic math of global emissions will only become more unforgiving. As countries like China and India develop, they will demand ever-greater supplies of cheap energy. Global energy use will likely double or triple over the next 50 years, even if we use energy much more efficiently. If developing countries can't get energy from cheap low-carbon sources, they will get it from fossil fuels.