Of the writing of many reports there is no end, and many a server is stuffed with unread pdfs. But every once in a while a report comes along that gets noticed. The planetary boundaries report was one, and a useful new idea. The New Climate Economy was also bound to be much cited, for better or worse.
Here’s another that comes with ‘IMPORTANT’ stamped on it: A Global Apollo Programme to Combat Climate Change’. There are a couple of reasons to pay attention. The first is the list of authors – former chief scientific advisors, heads of Royal Societies, Richard Layard, Adair Turner and Nicolas Stern. If you’re not a Lord, or at least a Sir, you don’t get a look in. This many distinguished heads, from such a range of disciplines, ought to have something worth hearing.
It’s also notable for being written in plain English, making it accessible to a wide international audience. Good for them.
So what’s the message?
The report argues that global climate action is inadequate. All the pledges to cut emissions made so far will do little to prevent dangerous climate change. We need to do something more.
There is one big technological challenge that, if solved, could prove the gamechanger for the climate: making clean energy cheaper than fossil energy. If that happened, you wouldn’t need a ‘keep it in the ground’ campaign. The transition would work itself out.
The economics of renewable energy are improving all the time, but that point of crossover needs to be accelerated. In particular, more research is needed around storage, so that renewable energy can maintain a base load. That would truly allow coal and gas power stations to be switched off.
How do we bring that forward? The report suggests for a ‘Global Apollo Programme’. Drawing on the story of the huge R&D project that put humans on the moon, the authors call for more public funds for research around renewable energy, led by an international commission. “The target will be that new-build base-load energy from renewable sources becomes cheaper than new-build coal in sunny parts of the world by 2020, and worldwide from 2025.”
They may have put their finger on something here. Many previous technological breakthroughs were supported by international research projects, including semiconductors. Despite being a major threat, climate change hasn’t catalysed that kind of cooperative. Globally, renewable energy receives just under 2% of public funds spent on research and development. That’s less than half of the public funds spent researching consumer electronics.
The authors argue that governments have prioritised private sector investment, and focused on encouraging markets for renewable energy, rather than the research side. That’s led to billions being poured into subsidies, with a relative trickle into research – thirty times more of taxpayers money is spent on subsidies than on R&D. If subsidies to fossil fuels were redirected, this wouldn’t even cost anything extra.
I won’t go into the full proposal for what the research programme might focus on or the details of how it would be structured. You can read that for yourself in the report. For now, the Global Apollo Programme has raised what looks like an important oversight. It won’t be enough to stop climate change on its own. It’s not that simple. But it does offer a part of the solution that people might rally around, based on what seems like a straightforward proposition. Shouldn’t we be spending more on “the biggest scientific challenge of the 21st century?”
The idea has been discussed by G7 energy ministers, and will be considered at the next G7 summit, ahead of this year’s climate talks. I suspect we may be hearing more about the Global Apollo Programme.