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Tackling climate change: the technology is there but adoption is slow

The world has all the technology it needs to completely switch to renewable energy, but adoption remains slow, said delegates at a Science|Business conference in Barcelona

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The world has all the technology it needs to completely switch to renewable energy, said Dietmar Tourbier, technology leader at GE Global R&D. But this tremendous feat is achievable only if societies hurry up in adopting them.

One major problem is that the price of these technologies has not come down far enough yet and governments haven’t done enough to make them cheaper.

And despite sustained commitments the EU can do more to implement effective policies for sustainable growth.  “Brussels must switch from declarations to implementation,” said MEP Carlos Zorrinho. 

With only one week left until the start of the COP21 climate conference in Paris, research, business and policy leaders gathered in Barcelona at the 2015 Science Business Annual Summit, to debate climate change.

At the Summit, the Science|Business Network released The Barcelona Climate Declaration, a document urging European decision makers to take bolder steps in to fund and implement innovation for switching to a carbon-free economy.

The declaration recognises that climate change is a major threat to humanity, and it is set to inflict irreversible impact on citizens and nature, as the world has already burned two-thirds of all the fossil fuels needed to heat the planet past the limit of safety.

Transitioning to a carbon-free economy is a complex process, and there are no miraculous or quick solutions to this problem, said Tuula Teeri, president of Aalto University, Finland.

Moving technologies from lab to implementation requires input from many research fields; from transportation to grid design and management, to sociology and economics.  Tackling climate change is not possible without “multidisciplinarity and smarter implementation,” Teeri said.

Delegates agreed that this requires urgent action, but many countries delay action due to an unfounded fear that is economic growth cannot be sustainable.

Mario Calderini, professor at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy,  and senior advisor to the Italian minister for research and innovation policies, said that sustainability and economic growth are not incompatible.

“Countries will have to move past this myth and integrate sustainability and economic growth into one strategic goal, as investments in sustainable technologies are contributing to economic growth,” Calderini stressed.

Better weathermen needed

Soon “there will be more data than there are stars in the universe,” said Adina Braha-Honciuc, government affairs manager at Microsoft Europe.

It sounds overwhelming, and currently we have no great strategy for how to turn a data deluge to renewables’ advantage, said Tourbier.

He thinks the viability of wind turbines and solar panels would improve significantly with better forecasting. The lack of this skill is the “single most important thing holding renewable energy adoption back,” he said.

Integrating wind and solar generation into electricity networks while ensuring a stable supply is hard: the grid still struggles to cope with fluctuating loads. Being able to predict consumption peaks and valleys with the help of big data analysis can make consumption more efficient which, in turn, can reduce the need for expensive energy storage.

Tourbier threw down a challenge to companies to look at how the financial sector is using data to predict stock movements and learn how to “use some of these models for forecasting energy production and consumption patterns.”

Making sure consumers care enough

Climate change matters to all citizens, but in Europe, not many are taking active steps towards reducing their own individual carbon footprint. Even though they are aware of the impact of climate change, citizens don’t know much about the technologies they can use to reduce their own contribution.

Companies across the Atlantic are already seeking to exploit the power of consumers in these matters. The largest solar power company in the US, Solar City, is coordinating with its customers in an attempt to convince policy makers in Washington DC that consumers want more flexibility to control the cost of energy and to use alternative energy sources.

With enough information, consumers can be educated to adapt their behavior and energy consumption patterns to meet the challenges raised by climate change.

Also, “citizen science will play a huge role in tackling climate change,” said Calderini, while businesses will have to think harder about their social responsibility. “The real challenge is to integrate sustainability and business strategy,” he added.

Where’s the research money going?

Besides the technological and implementation hassles, Europe has to invest more in research and innovation in the energy sector. The European Commission recently cut the budget for its flagship research programme, Horizon 2020, and redirected the money to the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI).

While some of the research budget has been repurposed to finance Juncker’s investment plan, “nothing really happens with it,” said Calderini. “Where is all this money going,” heasked.

On top of that, EU Member States have been trimming their research and development budgets, putting even more pressure on EU programmes. For example, the Finnish government has cut its budget for research and innovation, while universities and researchers are left to, “adapt to sudden changes in funding patterns,” said Teeri.

“We need to hold Member States accountable for their investment choices in research and innovation,” said Tourbier.
Both Teeri and Calderini suggested that under Horizon 2020, the EU should launch more challenge-based research prizes, just like the US has been doing for a long time now -  which has proved to be very efficient. Also, Horizon 2020 funding recipients should be able to adapt their projects without any bureaucratic hassle. “Research does not work on rigid deadlines,” said Zorrinho.
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Related subjects: Climate change, COP21, ACES 2015

Research Strategies The next Framework Programme
In October 2016, the Science|Network of universities, companies and innovation organisations gathered in Brussels to debate the future of EU R&D programmes. The result: A profusion of ideas, recommendations and warnings for the future of EU research and innovation.