Many policies focus on solving global warming by investing in solar and wind, but over the coming quarter-century, these technologies will contribute only marginally to the solution. Moreover, they are not competitive now and will be mostly inefficient for at least 25 years.
The International Energy Agency estimates that just 0.5 percent of the world’s energy comes from solar and wind, and even with the Paris agreement, this will increase to only 2.4 percent by 2040. It also estimates that the world is spending about $90 billion on solar and wind subsidies this year, and that even by 2040, they will still need about the same support. That’s not sustainable.
Fixing climate change will require what philanthropist Bill Gates calls an “energy miracle“: a massive increase in research and development, by far the most effective way to find new breakthrough technologies cheap enough to outcompete fossil fuels. If that happens, we will have fixed global warming, because everyone will switch to cheaper energy sources.
Green energy innovation initiatives launched at the Paris Treaty talks by Gates, other business leaders and about 20 governments are an excellent start. Gates is investing $2 billion in the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, and President Obama and fellow leaders have promised to double global green energy R&D to $30 billion annually in 2021.
But this is only a start. A panel of Nobel laureates for the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate project found that we should not just double research funding but increase it more than six times over, to $100 billion a year.
We must also bear in mind that global warming is not the planet’s only challenge. We often hear that it is the defining issue of our time, but it is no such thing. By the 2070s, the IPCC — the U.N. climate change panel — estimates that warming will cost between 0.2 and 2 percent of global GDP. This is certainly a problem, but not the end of world.
Speaking of climate change in catastrophic terms easily makes us ignore bigger problems, including malnutrition, tuberculosis, malaria and corruption. The World Health Organization estimates that climate change since the 1970s causes about 140,000 additional deaths each year, and toward the middle of the century will kill 250,000 people annually, mostly in poor countries. This pales in comparison with much deadlier environmental problems such as indoor air pollution, claiming 4.3 million lives annually, outdoor air pollution killing 3.7 million and lack of water and sanitation killing 760,000. Outside of environment, the problems are even bigger: Poverty arguably kills 18 million each year.
Every dollar spent on climate change could instead help save many more people from these more tractable problems. The current approach to subsidize solar and wind arguably saves one life across the century for every $4 million spent — the same expenditure on vaccinations could save 4,000 lives. Each person — and the next president — needs to decide his or her legacy.
The next president must focus on the smartest solutions for all the world’s many ills, not just those that get the most attention. In facing climate change, he or she needs the courage to forgo subsidizing politically popular solar and wind, and to focus on green research that will help much more to solve the problem.