Where we’re outlining how the negotiating process and agreement could bring us to a meaningful 2-degree Celsius framework for the COP21 agreement. And in this chapter I want to talk about the technology development that needs to underpin an agreement.
Of course we have many powerful technologies that we have already talked about, renewable energy, other low carbon energy sources, even advanced technologies like carbon capture and sequestration which are already deployed at a very small scale that can bring us forward and help to reduce carbon emissions. But as this whole course has shown and as the Deep Decarbonization Pathway Project has made very clear in detail for 15 major emitting countries, we will need improvements in low carbon energy and in energy utilization, in energy efficiency, in urban planning and design in order to be able to combine the economic development and growth that we aspire to, the population increases that are underway and the significant reductions of global carbon dioxide emissions.
How are we going to get those technological improvements? Sometimes it’s said and argued that technology comes from the business sector, it comes from inventors and entrepreneurs who see an idea, develop it. Maybe a team of scientists with a new discovery looking for profitability under patent protection. And that is a model for certain kinds of incremental technological changes. In our patent system, which is now a worldwide patent system, an inventor of a new useful technology or, or process can file their invention and have a exclusive right to use that new product for example or that new technology for a period of twenty years from the date of filing.
That’s like a temporary monopoly. It means if this is a really good idea, that the demand will be high, the inventor or the holder of the patent will be able to charge a monopoly price. The argument is that granting that monopoly price while distorting the market by reducing the use of that technology relati veto what a competitive market would allow is an important incentive for the invention in the first place. The monopoly profit that comes during the twenty years of the life of the patent is what gives the incentive in this vision to the invention in the first place.
No doubt some part of technology advances that way. But for the kind of massive changes of technology that we are going to need to achieve the 2-degree C limit, we’re going to need to have a faster pace of technological change and a more directed path of that change as well in order to overcome identifiable obstacles that are preventing for example the large deployment of electric vehicles more in, on a more speedy basis or the large deployment of carbon capture and sequestration, or are leaving the public with such high anxieties about nuclear energy that even though it’s a zero carbon energy source, in many countries there’s strong public resistance to the deployment of more nuclear power.
In order to get the technologies where they are going to need to be for their rapid scale up and worldwide dissemination, we’re going to need to target the technological change, not leave it to the market alone. The market will still play a role, private companies will still be looking for the profits that they can earn under patent protection for discoveries that they make. But we’re going to need to go farther in directed technological change. Do we know how to do that?
The answer is and I think it’s a surprise to many people, that is an absolutely normal way for technology to change, especially for important classes of technology. Throughout the centuries governments have been driving technological change.
There’s a famous book that many people know called Longitude which is a story of how the British government offered a prize for inventions that could help sailors and especially the British navy know the longitude of the ship, which was otherwise very difficult to do. And in order to direct technological innovation towards being able to determine the longitude a prize was given and that was an added incentive for invention. The outcome was a remarkably accurate clock that could be used to keep exquisitely precise time on ships despite all the rolling of the vessels and by knowing the time at the ship and knowing the time in London and knowing the declination of the sun, it was possible to measure longitude more precisely than had ever been done before.
It’s an early example of governments using their financial power to direct technological change. Well the 20th Century is absolutely filled with stunning examples, both led and very often they have been led by the military as well as for many, many kinds of civilian use or in some cases, originally for military purposes and, and then it turned out that the civilian use became an enormous part of the contribution or the, the predominant part.
Perhaps the, the most striking and famous of such cases in the Manhattan Project, which was the, the crash effort of the United States government to bring together the world’s leading nuclear physicists to develop an atomic bomb at a, in what was thought to be a race with Nazi Germany. And from a technological scientific point of view it, it’s an astounding historical experience, because in a few years atomic science, the ability to harness the new quantum mechanics, the remarkable innovations of technological advance in managing uranium based fuels and fuel processing all took hold and of course the atomic bomb was developed. It’s perhaps not the most heartening example from the point of view of, of military application when we’re talking about saving the world from our own destruction through human induced climate change, we obviously are looking at a peaceful imperative. But still the Manhattan Project tells us something very important about directed technological change, about the capacity to push a major technological advance in an extraordinarily short period of time, in that case, by recruiting some of the world’s greatest geniuses and under the pressures of war.
Well I grew up as a young boy in another such example of a massive government led effort. My childhood was spent listening to the radio or watching the television of one space shot after the next, from the earliest days of the Mercury mission that put an American astronaut into suborbital flight, chasing the Russians who had gotten into space first and then following President John F. Kennedy’s call to go to the moon to bring, to have a man travel safely to the moon and return safely to earth before the end of the 1960s.
And in really what is an absolutely astounding demonstration of what was the U.S. extraordinary engineering technological and scientific capability of that decade, from 1961 to 1969, a government led mission, led by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, succeeded in putting a man on the moon, Neil Armstrong and several others that followed and bringing the astronauts back safely to earth, all within a very short period of time, a little over eight years. It was a massive outlay. It required tremendous technological advances, but it was done within the course of a decade. The list is long.
One can include the internet itself which began as a project of the U.S. defense sector to find ways to protect computer information in the event of nuclear war. It aimed to allow computers to share information with each other. It became the global internet over time, but it was directed technological change, again, harnessing engineering brilliance and within a few decades it created a technology and an industry of such transformative power that it is felt in every sector of the world economy as our most fundamental technological driver of our time.
And with the advances of the internet, the computer industry pushed again by the U.S. and other governments through massive public-private partnerships. We’ve had advances in almost every other major area of science in human health and in biology. Of course the genetics revolution has been a partner and close part of the overall information revolution.
And it’s notable that once again the United States government set a goal in what became known as the Human Genome Project. Said, within 15 years we should sequence the entire three billion base pairs of a human genome. And they did it well before the end of the 15-year period. It was a public-private partnership. Private companies were involved. Public laboratories at U.S. universities, international universities. In the end there was a bit of a race to the finish line between the National Institutes of Health and a private company that said, we know how to do it better and faster and that competition was also exhilarating and made important breakthroughs in genomics sequencing.
And interestingly after the first human genome was sequenced at the cost of many billions of dollars and after a bit of experience, in 2001, the National Institutes of Health of the United States came together with leading scientists and said, what should our next goal be on the human genome? Now they were in 2001 and the cost of sequencing the genome at that point was estimated to be about $100 million dollars. Around the table the scientists said, let’s aim for a $1000 dollar sequencing protocol and system. One thousand dollars when you’re at a hundred million? They said, yes we can reduce the cost dramatically and if we succeed in doing so we’ll have enormous benefits for medicine, for personalized healthcare, for many biological discoveries, for many advances in other biomedical technologies.
And you know within 14 years that effort succeeded as well and the $1000-dollar per genome sequencing is now a reality. It didn’t just come through market forces, through patent protected rights. It came through a race towards that goal that was instigated by the National Institutes of Health, that was heavily funded by the U.S. government that said, benchmarks, timelines and scientific expertise in order to accomplish the goal. Well my list that you’re looking at on the screen is a long one. Fundamental particle physics, identifying the Higgs particle, one of the most important scientific discoveries of modern times about the nature of, of matter itself was a huge intergovernmental effort that cost billions of dollars and made a transcendent scientific finding as a result.
We live off of Moore’s law, that is the improvement of semiconductor capacity that’s allowed for a doubling of the number of transistors on an integrated circuit, roughly every two years since the late 1950s. That’s why our phones have computers more powerful than NASA had in the 1960s, why we’d had about a billion-fold reduction of the cost of process of storing and transmitting data. That didn’t just happen by itself. Of course private companies like Fairchild or Intel played an essential role. But there was a strategy to it, there was industry-wide road mapping.
There was a cooperative effort to set milestones and find technological solutions and create industry-wide standards to keep Moore’s law going decade after decade after decade, giving us the information revolution
All of this is to say we need the same kind of directed technological change for low carbon energy, as we have had in these other areas. It’s a proven process. It’s breathtaking in the creativity and the excitement and the advance that can be unleashed. It includes the public sector, the private sector, the foundation sector, all as partners in such an effort. It means setting goals and technological specifications. Setting milestones and timelines for technological advances. Of financing that comes from multiple directions, from the government, from the private sector, from philanthropists. And one final point that I would note is it is expensive.
These technological breakthroughs don’t come for free. We have to invest in them. But when we’re talking about a $90 trillion dollar world economy that could lose significant output value, not to mention loss of life on a large scale, we should be ready to undertake expensive investments in the order of hundreds of billions of dollars if necessary in order to make the breakthroughs in the coming years that will be necessary.
What are those areas going to be? Well Emmanuel Guerin has gone over them in detail. Let me just mention them very briefly again. We need to test the feasibility of large-scale carbon capture and sequestration. We need safer nuclear power and nuclear power that is perceived to be safer by the public and therefore publicly acceptable. And we need good solutions for the storage of intermittent wind and solar power and for regional grids that are heavily dependent on large penetrations of wind and solar and other intermittent renewable energy sources. We need high quality electric vehicles.
We have many already but we need them at lower cost and with an infrastructure that leads to very large-scale consumer acceptance, so that by the 2030s the entire light duty fleet of the world is electric vehicles. We need important breakthroughs in decarbonizing key industrial sectors which as we’ve noted in this course are some of the most recalcitrant in terms of getting the CO2 emissions down. Iron and steel, cement, petrochemicals, pulp and paper.
And we’re doing to need technological efforts on agriculture, land use and forestry to help support more biological storage of carbon dioxide and thereby shift the balance from the current direction of carbon emissions from the land use sector to carbon storage in the land use sector in the decades ahead. And technology can play an important role in that process.
These ideas should be incorporated in a quite fundamental way in the COP21 agreement because in that way we will overcome hurdles and also give confidence to the countries of the world that if they chart deep decarbonization pathways the means to accomplish those pathways will be at hand.