Climate Change Solutions Require Technological Revolution

Published December 1, 2005

For more than a decade, the environmental community has increasingly used the climate change issue to criticize the way we have achieved our quality of life in the United States and has advocated severe restrictions on energy use. Their attack, if successful, will lead to a diminished standard of living by lessening our means of producing goods, energy, homes, roads, and all the necessary infrastructure that protect us from forces that could otherwise cause us harm.

Constructive Dialogue

The business community typically has responded by talking about the lack of sufficient science in the climate change debate and about the adverse effect current proposals to address climate change will have on jobs and our gross domestic product. While all these arguments are correct, they are also defensive–one might further characterize them as weakly made, given the dramatic claims of environmentalists that if we do not mend our ways our wonderful world will come to a terrible end.

What is needed instead is a constructive dialog, and this means being honest with ourselves about the inevitable, growing need for energy and an understanding that if we choose to limit greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), we will have to begin developing vast amounts of non-carbon-based energy resources.

Such an undertaking will require massive technological innovation, and this will require an enormous commitment of funds, labor, and human ingenuity, possibly costing trillions of dollars over the long term. This is a worthwhile pursuit, however, for even if serious climate impacts caused by human activity do not arise, we will be developing new products; realizing revolutions in science and engineering; ensuring the availability of many new, clean energy technologies needed throughout the world; and producing additional wealth for our citizens.

In this forward-looking vision, the United States and its global partners need to undertake this equivalent of an Energy Marshall Plan because the global economy is expanding, energy consumption is growing by leaps and bounds, and emissions of GHGs such as CO2 are on the rise. By 2010, GHG emissions produced by transitional economies such as India and China will surpass those of Europe and the United States combined.

Kyoto a Failure

Currently available fixes cannot solve this problem. The Kyoto Protocol, which imposes targeted constraints on allowable emissions and has been hailed as a major international policymaking development, is in fact a failure. GHG emissions will continue rising. Unfortunately, there is little agreement on what to do about this trend of growing energy use and increasing GHG emissions. Some believe revising the protocol to create more stringent control requirements will increase progress toward GHG emission reductions. There is little likelihood, however, that a more restrictive treaty can be ratified. Under the protocol, many nations have failed to achieve their reduction targets, and what little has been achieved has been economically costly.

Even if tighter targets were agreed upon, the technology needed to make a serious dent in global emissions while providing for growing energy needs and expanding national economies is largely unavailable. In addition, the infrastructure and financing needed for truly massive global innovation and deployment of clean energy technologies does not yet exist, nor are there adequate governance structures in many developing nations to grow and protect the markets into which these technologies must be placed.

Frankness, Pragmatism Needed

To address these issues, debate about climate change must be integrated into a more encompassing global dialogue–one that concurrently considers global energy and security needs, allows for world economic expansion, and provides for manifold other societal needs such as poverty reduction, sanitation, and overall environmental protection.

What is needed now is a frank discussion with our international partners about how, over the long term, to produce massive amounts of new, carbon-free energy. The good news is that, acting both independently and in public-private partnerships with government and academia, business and industry throughout the world are working to create markets for clean energy technologies and realize innovative energy technology concepts. Business and industry already have spent hundreds of billions of dollars toward this end, and where realistic global marketplace opportunities arise, they will commit many billions more.

The recently established Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development affords one pathway toward such development. A pragmatic, global, long-term commitment to develop clean and innovative technologies will have to pursue many possible avenues of opportunity. Should one or even several fail, others are sure to succeed, as the history of technological innovation proves.

It is unlikely that a person who lived a century ago would have imagined that today most Americans would have electricity, that we would all be driving cars, and that global energy expansion would allow us to rely on factories in China and India to supply consumer goods. Instead of embracing fear-mongering and a climate of mistrust, demands for energy limitations, and a poorer future for us and the rest of the world, we should view the current time as a chance to create a better future powered by new, clean energy resources and technologies developed and globally deployed by the United States and its partners.

William L. Kovacs ([email protected]) is vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Environment, Technology & Regulatory Affairs Division.