Governments pledge $20B for clean energy R&D at Paris climate talks

Two major initiatives to bring innovation to bear on climate change were unveiled in Paris. Twenty countries pledged to double spending in energy R&D over five years and private investors promised patient backing for spinouts based on this research

Bill Gates, Barack Obama and François Hollande at Paris climate talks

Twenty countries pledged to double funding in clean energy research to a total of $20 billion over five years, as 28 billionaire philanthropists from ten countries announced a coalition to make long-term investments in early-stage technology resulting from this effort, at the opening of the climate change conference in Paris this week.

The countries in the ‘Mission Innovation’ initiative represent 75 per cent of the global carbon-dioxide emissions from the electricity sector. The group includes some of the biggest emitters in the world – Brazil, China, India, the US among others – as well as some of the biggest renewable energy advocates, such as Denmark and Germany. Seven EU countries are involved, with more welcome to join.

“While significant progress has been made in cost reduction and deployment of clean energy technologies, the pace of innovation and the scale of transformation is falling far short of what is required,” the group said.

The government initiative will be complemented by the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of high net worth individuals led by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, which will put money into high-risk clean energy companies.

The investors, include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, billionaires George Soros and Saudi Prince Alaweed bin Talal, and Jack Ma of China’s internet giant Alibaba. The University of California, represented by its chief investment officer, also joined the network.

The two announcements were timed to provide a running start for the two-week UN Climate Control Conference, COP-21, which convened in Paris on Monday. Negotiators from 195 countries and green groups aim to agree a deal that will reduce carbon emissions and limit global warming to 2C.

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition says it will focus on “early stage companies that have the potential of an energy future that produces near zero carbon emissions and provides everyone with affordable, reliable energy.” 

According to a paper released by Gates, the significant time lag between invention and market helps explain why the energy industry tends to invest less in research, development and deployment than other big industries, such as pharma and IT. 

“The existing system of basic research, clean energy investment, regulatory frameworks, and subsidies fails to sufficiently mobilise investment in truly transformative energy solutions for the future. We can’t wait for the system to change through normal cycles,” the Coalition says.

The investment network set up by the Coalition will be limited to focusing on projects in countries that are part of Mission Innovation.

The European Commission is not a member of Mission Innovation, but researchers and innovators attached to the Science|Business Network in November called on it to double its climate research budget too.

Do more, faster

Reaction to the initiatives was warm but many urged governments to go even further.

“Mission Innovation is a wonderful, symbolic announcement that a number of key countries and high profile individuals want to support the innovations that will enable mankind to address the challenges of man-made climate change. I applaud the initiative,” said Richard Templer, director of innovation in Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute.

“However, we need to be realistic that $20 billion is relatively only about 0.025 per cent of global GDP. The Global Apollo programme, a ten year project to make renewable energy cheaper than fossil fuels, hopes to raise $150 billion.

“Bit by bit leaders are putting together enough money to make a difference, but we need to do more and faster,” Templer said.

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a lobby organisation based in Washington DC, said the world should be investing upwards of $100 billion per year in clean energy R&D, or about 0.15 per cent of global GDP.

"Right out of the gate, this announcement gives a major boost to the Paris talks," said Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the environmental research body, the World Resources Institute in Washington DC. “Experience has shown that returns from public investment in research are high, and even higher when combined with the private sector.” 

The countries taking part in Mission Innovation are: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, the UK, and the US.

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Related subjects: COP21