One of the most laughable views put forward during the ABC’s Q&A debate on climate change last week was Bjørn Lomborg’s oft-repeated contention that $100 billion should be spent a year on clean energy R&D, but that nothing should be let out of the laboratory for another 20-30 years.
Think about that for a moment. Lomborg is suggesting that $2-$3 trillion be spent on research without anyone being able to find out if the technology would really work or not? Aren’t scientists and researchers – and the rest of the world for that matter – a little more curious than that?
The coal, gas and nuclear power industries can be thankful that Lomborg wasn’t around when their technologies were under development. But the most frightening thing about Lomborg’s contention is that it is gaining wide currency; it was actually part of several submissions to the Clean Energy Finance Corp, arguing that the $10 billion it will muster be channeled to R&D rather than deployment, and appears to be the sub-plot to the ill-defined Coalition policy on emerging renewable technologies.
But around the same time as those views were being aired on ABC TV last Thursday, they were being slapped down by an in-depth report released by the International Energy Agency, the august and somewhat conservative organisation charged with ensuring the world has enough energy to go about its business and leisure.
The IEA has a better way of spending a few trillion dollars. It argues that spending $5 trillion on clean energy deployment between now and 2020 would save $4 trillion that would otherwise be spent on fossil fuels. And therein lies the objections of the fossil fuel industry – $4 trillion is an awful lot to be sacrificed in eight years by the Gina Rineharts and Clive Palmers of the world.
Still, if the IEA says this will result in a net cost of $1 trillion, it says it will be more than offset in savings by 2050 – particularly for those member countries who spend so much on imported fuels.
The IEA report, entitled The Energy Technology Perspectives 2012 2°C Scenario, for which it uses the acronym 2DS, is a sobering reminder of how far short the world is from meeting its stated political targets of avoiding the worst impact of global warming. To do this, and limit global warming to an average 2°C, the IEA says action is needed quickly, or by 2017 the world would have exhausted its “carbon budget”.
The IEA argues that the world needs to “rethink” its global energy system, not just for climate change issues, but also to ensure energy security and rebuild national and regional economies. And it argues that this is technically feasible, as long as emerging technologies are deployed quickly enough? Are emerging technologies making the necessary progress to play an important role in the future energy mix?
This table below shows what the IEA thinks is needed to be done to achieve those goals, and where the world is up to. It makes clear that the only technologies meeting or doing better than their targets are solar PV and wind – along with more established technologies such as biomass and hydro – and the principal reason for that is that policies in some countries have encouraged their deployment.
Below is the graph that most concerns the IEA. Even though the amount invested in renewable energy projects overtook that of fossil fuels for the first time in 2011, the past decade has shown a huge increase in fossil fuel deployment. The IEA says this needs to change rapidly, and emissions from the energy sector need to peak by 2015.
Below is where the IEA would like technology costs to be by 2020. It wants more effort on CCS, which it says is way behind planned timelines, an increased focus on energy efficiency, the dismantling of fossil fuel subsidies, which it says outranked renewable energy subsidies by a ration of nearly 6 to 1, and more effort on innovation and R&D.
One other point made by the IEA has particular relevance for Australia, both in terms of the current debate around complementary policies (renewable energy targets, feed in tariffs, clean energy finance corporation), and the whacky technology cost estimates included in the draft energy white paper.
“Government action is needed in a number of critical areas, such as effective and efficient policy design,” the IEA notes. “An increasing number of governments are adopting renewable energy policies; over 80 countries had renewable energy policies in place in 2011 (e.g. feed-in tariffs, tradable green certificates, tenders, tax incentives, grants etc).
“These policies must, however, be designed to effectively keep pace with technology cost reductions, to keep policy costs to governments moderate and maintain investors’ confidence , all while helping renewables to compete.”
In other words, without a proper understanding of the technology costs, there is no hope at all of crafting a suitable policy. And the task at hand, the IEA notes, is quite feasible – it just requires ambitious policies that prioritise the development and deployment of cleaner energy technologies at a scale and pace never seen before.