As the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris came to a close in December 2015, foreign ministers from around the world raised their arms in triumph. Indeed, there was more to celebrate in Paris than at any prior climate summit. Before the conference, over 180 countries had submitted detailed plans to curb their greenhouse gas emissions. And after two weeks of intense negotiation, 195 countries agreed to submit new, stronger plans every five years.
But without major advances in clean energy technology, the Paris agreement might lead countries to offer only modest improvements in their future climate plans. That will not be enough. Even if they fulfill their existing pledges, the earth will likely warm by some 2.7 to 3.5 degrees Celsius—risking planetary catastrophe. And cutting emissions much more is a political nonstarter, especially in developing countries such as India, where policymakers must choose between powering economic growth and phasing out dirty fossil fuels. As long as this tradeoff persists, diplomats will come to climate conferences with their hands tied.
It was only on the sidelines of the summit, in fact, that Paris delivered good news on the technology front. Bill Gates unveiled the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of more than two dozen wealthy sponsors that plan to pool investments in early stage clean energy technology companies. And U.S. President Barack Obama announced Mission Innovation, an agreement among 20 countries—including the world’s top three emitters, China, the United States, and India—to double public funding for clean energy R & D to $20 billion annually by 2020. Washington will make or break this pledge, since over half of the target will come from doubling the U.S. government’s current $6.4 billion yearly budget.
Fighting climate change successfully will certainly require sensible government policies to level the economic playing field between clean and dirty energy, such as putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions. But it will also require policies that encourage investment in new clean energy technology, which even a level playing field may not