Lack Of Innovation Could Doom Battle To Trim Carbon Emissions


Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Photovoltaic solar power field at Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee

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Representatives of world governments will meet in Paris this December to discuss a global strategy for combating climate change.

But the outlook doesn't appear promising, according to a recent assessment by the International Energy Agency.

It claims "not one" of the new technologies being tracked as possible solutions to the problem is meeting its development targets.

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While wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars are becoming a more familiar sight worldwide, their combined effects still represent too little potential effect.

Both private investors and government officials are pursuing an overly-cautious strategy in the battle against climate change, argues Eduardo Porter in a recent New York Times think piece.

Development of renewable-energy technologies isn't proceeding fast enough, he says. Neither is expected growth in nuclear power, or promised advances in carbon-capture technology for fossil-fuel power plants.

wind farm

wind farm

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It seems to be, as the saying goes, because no one wants to put their money where their mouth is.

In 2014, global investments in renewable energy fell for the fourth year in a row, to $250 billion.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., cheap shale oil and natural gas are keeping fossil-fuel prices down, which discourages private investors from funding alternatives.

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And even with recent advances, those alternative energy sources still have a long way to go.

Drops in the cost of cells have brought solar power close to parity with fossil fuels in some parts of the country.

Yet solar only accounts for about 1 percent of the world's electricity-generating capacity.

Nuclear power plant, by Flickr user Paul J Everett (Used under CC License)

Nuclear power plant, by Flickr user Paul J Everett (Used under CC License)

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That's largely because it's still costly, still a long way from having the capacity to account for more of the world's energy needs, and intermittent, according to an MIT report cited by Porter.

However, technologies that could help alleviate some of those issues are reportedly stuck in the lab, potential funding for their commercialization subject to the ups and downs of the fossil-fuel market.

Despite a stated commitment to reducing carbon emissions, Porter suggests that the Obama Administration is also taking limited action.

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"Spending on solar RD&D [research, development, and demonstration] has been low relative to spending on other energy technologies," the MIT report said.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy's overall RD&D budget of roughly $5 billion remains roughly the same as it was half a decade ago.

That represents about 2 percent of the total Federal research and development budget--reportedly putting the U.S. well behind other countries.

Coal, by Flicker user oatsy40 (Used Under CC License)

Coal, by Flicker user oatsy40 (Used Under CC License)

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China now apparently spends as much as one fifth of its government research budget on energy, much of it directed to lowering carbon dioxide emissions.

But the U.S. political fallout after Solyndra defaulted on $528 million of government loans has dampened enthusiasm for further investment.

In addition, many Congressional Republicans still deny the existence of man-made climate change, and refuse to fund efforts that would retard it.

Instead, the Obama Administration plans to use its regulatory power to force advances in renewable energy.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan would dramatically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants if adopted.

First though, it must weather challenges from corporate interests and politicians from coal-producing states.

If only such a public-private coalition could express similar zeal for renewable energy.

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