OPINION: Governments Must Boost R&D To Halt Climate Change

At a time when new research breakthroughs are needed in renewable energy, R&D investment is lagging, writes Zubair Kazmi

To reverse the snowballing effects of climate change, we must move towards a zero-carbon emission economy at the very least— and as soon as possible. That is the resounding consensus throughout the scientific community.

To call this a daunting goal would be putting it mildly.

Still, scientific and technological breakthroughs have become the vanguards of the movement to reverse climate change trends, fueled by the research and development (R&D) machines that pour billions of dollars every year into improving the reliability of renewable energies.

It’s comforting to know that research is happening — that capable hands working quietly behind the scenes might still achieve the gargantuan task of saving our blue planet.

But the clock is ticking, and it’s time to ask—are these efforts being coordinated to achieve the necessary results, or are we missing out by allowing institutions and countries to work in silos? Is enough being done?

It’s been easier to tackle carbon emissions by focusing on individual sectors, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) breakdown credits half of all global greenhouse gas emissions to a combination of electricity and heat production (25%) combined with agriculture, forestry and other land use (24%).

It is clear where the focus of R&D funds would have the greatest impact. Yet at a time when our attention should be on research to deal with these numbers, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), government support of R&D has actually shrunk globally by 2.4% since 2010.

Despite the increase in PV installations throughout the world (led by countries like China, the US, India and Japan), relatively little new R&D is entering the market.

Despite the increase in PV installations throughout the world (led by countries like China, the US, India and Japan), relatively little new R&D is entering the market

R&D Magazine notes that the little R&D funds that are being invested in clean energy are going towards tweaking efficiency, as opposed to exploring new technologies—leaving R&D investment for solar and wind at only an expected 1.5% increase globally in 2018.

Overall, the magazine’s research put industrial energy R&D spending at a forecasted $21.4 billion globally — in comparison, Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) was at $228.3 billion, automotive R&D at $99.8 billion, and aerospace/defense at $30.5 billion.

These investments might seem significant, but are they significant enough? According to two guys who’ve spent many millions of dollars on the issue, they’re not.

When Google shut down its RE<C project – whose aim it was to improve the efficiency of existing renewable-energy products – engineers Ross Koningstein and David Fork were in for a wakeup call. After shutting the project down because it wouldn’t achieve its goal in time, the two penned an essay in which they wrote, “trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.”

Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach

Different approaches are found through R&D. The Earth Institute at Columbia University outlines how billionaires like Bill Gates of Microsoft, Jack Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and others have been investing to accelerate the leap from lab to market.

Fewer people are better positioned than these tech industry titans to recognise that while great ideas are made in the lab, great products are made in the market—and that tackling climate change while promoting prosperity and equality will require accelerated transitions. Most notably, these people have joined 25 of the world’s other billionaires in the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, investing billions of dollars into R&D of new energy technologies.

The governmental answer to this was Mission Innovation (MI), launched in 2015, that saw 23 of the world’s biggest countries and the European Union band together with the goal of doubling governmental clean energy R&D investment by 2020. The underwhelming numbers cited throughout this article are thus doubly concerning, given that they don’t point to the R&D boom MI was supposed to inspire.

The incremental progress of different technologies, countries, states and even individual houses are good – it’s heartening to see wind turbines where before there was nothing, and new solar panels gleaming on top of roofs. For commercially available solar panels to have efficiency ratings exceeding 20% is a huge success.

But to truly fix our problem, we need new approaches. And for this, we must push our governments and institutions to unite in their development, considerably boost their efforts and pool their research in recognition of the severity of our problem.

Zubair Kazmi is senior business development manager at PowerHub, a renewable energy tech platform.

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