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A Responsibility to Innovate: The Ethics of Energy Innovation

14 Oct 2016

Dominic Roser Johannes Ackva

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The Paris Agreement was a historic step, with the world community proclaiming the goal to limit global warming to less than 2°C. Yet, as the recent G20 summit reminded us, national commitments for decarbonisation do not add up. This glaring gap between global ambition and cumulative commitments results in a significant probability of going above 2.4°C, up to 2.7°C. The gap is real. And – as Figure 1 illustrates – it is huge.

Figure 1: The ambition gap between global ambition and cumulative commitments.

As a climate ethicist and a climate policy expert deeply concerned with this state of affairs, we seek to show how an integrated analysis of the ethical responsibility and the political, economic, and technological challenge suggest a greater political emphasis on energy innovation.

The ethical imperative to promote deep global decarbonisation
The gap displayed in Figure 1 should terrify anyone concerned with the well-being of future generations. And, as Europeans who bear a particularly large responsibility for climate change mitigation – both due to our historical emission record and our economic capacity to address it – , we should feel a particular motivation to ramp up our efforts.

But how?

A common inclination is to “first clean up our own backyard” – in other words, to decarbonise Europe. However, even radical European decarbonisation is insufficient for Europe to live up to its climate responsibility. Furthermore, as Figure 2 illustrates, even if Europe completely decarbonised by 2030, this would need to happen thrice more to even have a 66% chance of staying below 2°C.


Figure 2: Four Europes less would close the ambition gap.

Thus, our ethical responsibility for curbing emissions should lead us to focus on those policies that best advance global decarbonisation and not merely European decarbonisation.

This point is underlined when considering that, in actual fact, it makes no difference for climate change victims where emissions are reduced. It only matters that they are reduced. Climate victims would even prefer Europe to contribute indirectly – for example, by funding research that makes new and cheap low-carbon energy sources available – to emission reductions in another country at another point in time, than to invest efforts in smaller but direct emission reductions at home today. If Europe is currently unwilling to make sufficient efforts for climate change, it is an ethical, and not merely an economic, imperative that this insufficient effort is at least deployed in the most efficient way. Moreover, in a world where energy demand is expected to double until 2050, with 90% of that growth in non-OECD countries, a focus on efficiency should include enabling global and deep decarbonisation, rather than only local and near-term decarbonisation.

How to live up to this imperative
If we are right that the central yardstick for evaluating European climate policy is its potential to facilitate global decarbonisation, we must turn to the question of which European energy policies are best able to achieve this.   

What drives decarbonisation? As we demonstrate in the longer form of this essay, the likeliest driver of decarbonisation – both across sectors and across countries – lies in the availability of cheap low-carbon technologies coupled with political will. While political will can, to some degree, be increased through international climate politics, the high cost of decarbonisation must be tackled by fostering technological innovation. Innovation is the core enabler of a type of global deep decarbonisation that is politically feasible in the real world.

The dramatic cost reduction of solar energy, partially driven by learning-by-doing and economies of scale, has greatly increased optimism on climate change. However, the cost reduction that we can achieve through deployment of solar and other existing renewables is insufficient. A recent MIT study estimates that deployment of renewables (in line with INDC projections) would reduce the cost of solar and wind in 2030 by 50% and 25%, respectively. This is impressive.

But: even with these impressive reductions, coal would still be cheaper in China in 2030.

And note that these cost reductions concern only the decarbonisation of electricity. This is the form of energy that is easiest to decarbonise. We are far less advanced in decarbonising transport or heating. We are also less advanced in finding ways to safely capture and store carbon, a technology without which the cost of climate change mitigation are expected to double.

And our carbon budget is rapidly used up.

In light of these massive challenges it is important that our optimism about the cost decline of renewables and our focus on short-term European decarbonisation goals does not distract us from an important truth: Without a significant increase in our attention to energy innovation, we are bound to fail on global deep decarbonisation. As the National Academy of Sciences recently put it: “Significantly reducing the cost and improving the performance of low-carbon energy resources appears both the most efficient ant the most likely path to providing options for making an affordable transition to a low-carbon global economy”.

This insight underlies Oxford Martin Commissioners Lord Stern’s and Lord Rees’s call for a “Global Apollo Programme”, a research programme to make low-carbon technologies cost competitive. It is also the rationale that underlies “Mission Innovation”, a recent commitment by 21 governments – including the UK, US, China, India, Germany and the European Union – to double their clean energy research budgets over the next five years to “accelerat[e] the clean energy revolution”.

This initiative puts the spotlight exactly where it is needed. The availability of cheap low-carbon technologies is the key to global decarbonisation, and energy innovation has so far been the neglected part of climate policy. Though one would not know it from listening to most public debates over climate policy, one of the most important contributions we – as concerned citizens and environmentalists – can make is to hold our governments accountable to live up to and strengthen their innovation commitments.

Let’s pay attention when our leaders cancel demonstration projects for carbon capture, when we underinvest in breakthroughs to decarbonise transport, and when renewable technologies not yet deployed at scale – such as tidal, airborne wind, and solar perovskites – need publicly funded research and support to reach commercial viability as soon as possible. After all, if and when these technologies become cheaply available, they will have impacts far beyond facilitating European decarbonisation. 

  • This blog is a shortened version of an essay originally published at Climate Diplomacy at adelphi, where Johannes Ackva is a project manager.”

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.