Agreeing To Agree on Energy Research and Development
Virtually everyone who studies climate and energy issues agrees that
federal energy R&D is woefully underfunded. So why did a recent
white paper recommending an increased emphasis on energy innovation and
R&D, by scholars at three think tanks representing a range of
ideologies, provoke significant criticism from a number of clean energy
written jointly by scholars at Brookings, AEI, and the Breakthrough
Institute was criticized by a range of analysts, including CAP’s Joe Romm, Grist’s David Roberts, CFR’s Michael Levi and Harvard’s Rob Stavins (in addition to a plenty of favorable reactions.)
Much of the criticism centered less around its substance than on the
perception that the paper promoted its recommendations as a viable
alternative to a price on carbon. The very title of the paper claims
its approach can “deliver clean, cheap energy, economic productivity and
national prosperity”, however I invite you to decide for yourself whether it frames itself as a comprehensive alternative.
This recent back-and-forth takes place in the context of an ongoing debate
over the relative merits of R&D and technological innovation vs.
carbon pricing and deployment of existing technologies (in which the
Breakthrough Institute figures prominently). Plenty of commentators
have weighed in (including Bill Gates), and there are lots of interesting sub-issues to consider. (My personal favorite is the value of deployment in the innovation process.)
Yet, this ongoing debate obscures substantial agreement between
parties. There is a basic consensus amongst academics and policy
analysts that addressing our climate and energy challenges will require
both increased R&D and a price on carbon. Ours is both a technological challenge and a deployment challenge.
Harvard’s Rob Stavins, one of the foremost intellectuals in the climate policy field sums this up nicely:
It has long been recognized that although carbon-pricing
will be necessary, it will not be sufficient. Economists and other
policy analysts have noted that policies intended to foster
climate-friendly technology research and development (R&D) will
also be necessary, but likewise will not be sufficient on their own.
Carbon pricing and R&D are well understood to be complementary. For one thing, a price on carbon would have substantial impact on the pace of technological innovation.
And yet the bulk of the recommendations in “Post-Partisan Power” are
valuable contributions to the energy debate. The authors clearly
understand the importance of fostering innovation. Brookings’ Mark Muro, in particular, is a leading advocate for a cluster-based perspective on energy innovation.
While it would be a shame for the release of this paper to dampen the
chances of putting a price on carbon, so too would it be a shame to let
broad agreement on the importance of energy innovation go to waste.
Policymakers need to recognize the challenge, opportunity and
necessity of energy innovation. If “Post-Partisan Power” helps further
that recognition, it will have been a success.