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Limiting global warming to less than the Paris Climate Agreement target of 2°C (3.6°F) hotter than pre-industrial temperatures will require a rapid global transition away from fossil fuels. That’s a point on which the scientific community strongly agrees.

If we start now, we need to cut global carbon pollution by about 5 percent per year to avoid burning through our remaining “carbon budget”. Since 2012, emissions have gone up about 1 percent per year on average. That was an improvement on the 3 percent rise per year from 2000 to 2011, but global carbon emissions rose by about 2.7 percent in 2018.

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In the USA, emissions had been falling by about 0.5 percent per year since 2000 and 1 percent per year since 2010, but they rose by about 2.5 percent in 2018. Basically, the U.S. is making some progress in decarbonizing, thanks primarily to wind, solar, and natural gas replacing more expensive coal power plants, but it’s not happening nearly fast enough to stay within our carbon budget.

That point was made especially clear when the IPCC published its special report on the difference between 1.5 and 2°C (2.7 and 3.6°F) and the Fourth National Climate Assessment report was published soon thereafter. Journalists asked numerous policymakers what they propose to do to address the problem, and surprisingly, many Senate Republicans accepted the scientists’ findings and the need for solutions. Their answers tended to share a common thread:

Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE): “You can’t legislate or regulate your way into the past. We have to innovate our way into the future”

Senator Mike Lee (R-UT): “No [carbon tax] … I think if we’re going to move away from fossil fuels, it’s got to be done through innovation”

Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC): “Both parties need to work together to deploy an innovative, market-driven strategy to combat the impacts of climate change”

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX): “The thing that people miss when they talk about the government imposing let’s say a carbon tax … they’re missing the fact that we have largely learned to innovate our way out of problems in the past … rather than more government regulation, what we need is more innovation”

Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO): “Innovation has a critical role”

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL): “I’ve never been supportive of carbon taxes in the past. I actually think to the extent that we want to truly limit carbon emissions, technology can get us there.”

Senator John Barrasso (R-WY): “Innovation, not new taxes or punishing global agreements, is the ultimate solution.”

In short, the Republican policymaker consensus includes opposition to climate regulations and carbon taxes, but support for “innovation”. But what exactly does “innovation” mean in this context? In an op-ed for the New York Times, Senator Barrasso, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, wrote about capturing carbon and using it to extract additional oil from an otherwise unproductive well. Of course, if our goal is to slow global warming, using captured carbon to extract more carbon-intensive fuels is rather counterproductive.

The flaws of tech breakthroughs without incentivization

Generally speaking, climate “innovation” refers to efforts to develop cleaner, cheaper energy technologies. In that context, innovation is great. It’s brought the average cost of onshore wind and utility-scale solar panel energy down 23 percent and 73 percent since 2010, respectively, and there are lots of cool new electric cars on the market. But there are two major flaws in the innovation argument.

The first flaw is that we need to capitalize on all the technologies we currently have to solve the climate problem. We have cheap wind and solar energy, cool electric cars, bicycles, subways, light rail, energy efficient appliances, smart electric grids, and so on. While innovation to make these technologies cheaper and more efficient and invent new ones would help, what we need most is deployment of clean technologies. For example, as cool as electric cars are, they still make up less than 2 percent of new auto sales in the U.S. Instead, more and more Americans are buying gas-guzzling SUVs.

And that brings us to the second flaw in the innovation argument: Innovation requires incentive. As Ellen Williams, former director of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy program, has said, “You have to have pull to get an innovative technology developed and adopted.”

For example, authors of a new study in the journal Energy Policy found that government policies like Renewable Portfolio Standards have played a critical role in the more than 99 percent reduction in solar panel costs over the past 40 years. Their concluding point: “Market-stimulating policies have played a central role in driving down the costs of [solar photovoltaic] modules.” Innovators needed incentives to continue improving solar panel technologies. There had to be market demand, and policies like renewable energy mandates generated it.

The same principle holds true for cars. At the end of 2018, U.S. gasoline prices averaged $2.27 per gallon – among the lowest in the world. As long as gasoline is incredibly cheap, Americans have little incentive to buy efficient innovative cars. In fact, that was the conclusion of a recent Congressional Budget Office report on ways to reduce the federal deficit, which noted:

Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases would diminish the potentially large long-run costs associated with climate change, but producers and consumers have little incentive to manufacture or purchase technologies that reduce those emissions. That lack of incentive results from the fact that the costs imposed by climate change are not reflected in current energy prices … [a carbon tax] would reduce U.S. emission of greenhouse gases and would do so in a cost-effective way.

Carbon pollution ‘externalities’

The crux of the issue is that carbon pollution is currently what economists call an “externality” – its costs aren’t reflected in market prices. Climate change imposes all kinds of costs on society, like increased damages from stronger hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts. Right now, taxpayers, and not carbon polluters, are footing the bill for those climate damages. Economists consider this sort of externality a basic market failure, and fixing it by putting a price on carbon pollution is straight out of Economics 101. According to a 2017 study in the journal World Development, we’re effectively subsidizing the fossil fuel industry (including via air pollution and other costs) to the tune of over $2,000 per year per American, about $680 of which is attributable to climate change.

Needed: Policy incentives to help fuel clean tech innovations. Click To Tweet

Quite simply, without a price on carbon and other pollutants, the market doesn’t reflect these costs. That means consumers lack the financial incentives to demand clean technologies, which in turn means that innovators lack the financial incentives to develop clean technologies. There is still some innovation, but much less than would happen if the externality were fixed and the market recognized the price of these pollutants.

Relying on “innovation” to solve the problem without implementing policies to incentivize innovators is just wishful thinking. As young climate activist Greta Thunberg put it in her TEDx talk, “the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”

We can’t just hope that innovators will invent silver-bullet solutions to climate change. Action in the form of government policies like regulations and/or pollution taxes is needed to stimulate the innovation that policymakers say they want to see.

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