Energy Access and Cleantech

By Megan Nicholson and Matthew Stepp

Climate change is a global problem that requires a solution at scale with its extensive nature.

This is an unfortunate reality that is often overlooked in climate policy debates, which in the past few decades have been focused on national efforts to develop economic mechanisms to regulate carbon. Most analyses have found that regulation and policies that establish cap-and-trade systems or carbon prices tend to be expensive to maintain and difficult to control without dedicated international cooperation. But even the most ambitious carbon caps and regulations will have little long-term impacts if the effort is not practiced at a global scale.

We consider the severity of the climate situation in its report, The Logic Chain to an Effective Global Clean Energy Policy:

“By 2040, global population is expected to grow by 28 percent, and global per-capita GDP is expected to grow by 128 percent within the same time frame, which will lead to even more energy use. To achieve the necessary 80 percent reductions in GHG emissions by 2040, the carbon intensity of the economy would have to fall by 93 percent. In other words, the world would need to completely switch from petroleum-based fuels for transportation and heat, and immediately eliminate all coal and natural gas consumption, replacing it with nuclear energy or other renewable technologies.”

The problem is even more severe when one considers the need to globally address energy poverty. The International Energy Agency estimated that in 2009, 20 percent of the global population did not have access to electricity; over one billion of those without access live in Africa and South Asia. While some developed countries have committed to reducing emissions or subsidizing the cost of renewable energy, these policies cannot realistically be replicated in developing countries.

An impactful solution to climate change must take into account the inequity of denying developing countries – which are comparably more at risk to the effects of climate change – opportunities for economic growth and prosperity. An impactful solution to climate change must focus on providing all countries with access to cheap, clean, reliable energy. Clean energy should be a reality for all, not just those in developed countries that can afford to support its modest deployment. 

Meeting emissions targets in developed countries is not enough to mitigate global warming. Instead, governments and international organizations should focus investment and policy efforts on developing affordable next-generation clean energy technologies that can meet the world’s decarbonization needs.

As we write in the Logic Chain report, “In the short term, reducing the price of clean energy through subsidies can make clean energy competitive with fossil fuels, but only artificially as long as the subsidies are in place and only in states or nations offering the subsidy. Reducing the cost of clean energy, while also increasing performance is the only way that consumers and industries around the world will voluntarily adopt zero-carbon energy sources.”

Supporting energy innovation means securing investments for the national science base, creating policies that support prototyping and demonstration of clean technologies, and designing and implementing deployment policies that accelerate the commercialization of technologies that are cost and performance-competitive with fossil fuels. The innovation process is not simply linear, so fully supporting and facilitating innovation also means there must be flexibility within the ecosystem for failure, reform, continued learning, and improvement.

In forming an inclusive global energy innovation ecosystem, both developed and developing countries should leverage their competitive advantage to invest in or design policies that support innovation and enable technology breakthroughs that can be internationally shared. Collaborations between countries and international organizations will be necessary to advance such a cooperative innovation strategy, but the significance and urgency of climate change necessitates such coordination and commitment to developing competitive, alternative technologies as quickly as possible.

We created the Center for Clean Energy Innovation to directly pursue this effort – to create policy and investment support for innovation at the regional, national, and international level. CCEI is the only Washington, D.C.-based think tank to emphasize innovation policy as the key to the climate challenge. Its mission is to design, advocate, and advance innovation policy not only to confront climate change, but also to increase economic growth and energy access globally. 

To this end, CCEI will focus on policy “verticals,” (i.e. state, regional, national, and international policy ideas that create and support an improved energy innovation ecosystem, as well as policy “horizontals,” (i.e. R&D policy, smart deployment incentives, clean technology trade and advanced manufacturing). At its core, CCEI intends to represent energy innovation as an alternative to the mainstream climate mitigation policies of the past two decades, in an effort to provide cheap, clean energy access to populations worldwide.