Underplaying Climate Change? The Cleantech R&D Gap

The scientific journal Nature featured a loud addition to the climate debate last week by a team of UC-Boulder professors led by Roger Pielke, Jr, a noted climate and policy blogger at Prometheus.

The paper (pdf) argues that the Nobel Prize winning IPCC assumed too much “spontaneous” technological innovation in their studies of how to reduce the carbon intensity in the atmosphere. At the same time the rise of the developing world (read: China and India), and the coal power driving it, has fundamentally altered the baseline for emissions scenarios. Thus, they argue, more public policies are necessary to drive innovation in energy efficiency and decarbonization.

“Dangerous Assumptions,” as it is titled, has been covered extensively by the mainstream media as a warning about ‘underplaying’ climate change. The environmental press, however, has attacked it for blandly pushing technology investment without taking into account the current technologies that could be deployed to fight climate change. Joseph Romm, over at Grist, for example, calls for more deployments of existing technologies over more R&D.

What he, and a lot in the environmental movement miss, is that clean technologies, especially new energy tech, require a lot of development long after they are conceived or patented. Take the majority of industries that E2T follows–cellulosic ethanol, algae biodiesel, thin film solar PV–and it becomes clear that much of this technology still exists in journals and papers, not in the marketplace yet.

Saying that the next generation of solar concentrating power plants are available now is like saying that cellphone technology existed in 1983. Sure it did, but not in the right form to drive adoption.

The real question is: how should government funds be generated and directed to help get these technologies in their early stages to market? While a lot of Americans are uncomfortable with the government picking winners, how else can big money be directed to the right places?