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A Technology Strategy for Global Warming—National Policy

Related Bio: David G. Victor, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
January 28, 2000
Council on Foreign Relations

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[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

Context of the Discussion

The purpose of Session Four of the Study Group on "A Technology Strategy for Global Warming" was to evaluate the role of U.S. national policy in abetting the problem of global warming through increased investment in basic research, the subject of chapter 4 of David Victor’s book.

The chapter pinpoints three actions that the U.S. government might take to combat global warming domestically: price signals (e.g., a carbon tax), investment in applied research, and investment in basic research. Price signals can spur increases in applied research, but they may have little impact on basic energy research. While investment in energy related in R&D in general has increased dramatically over the past few years, investment in energy related basic research has declined. Yet the social rate of return on basic energy investment is high.

The chapter grappled extensively with the problem of realistically quantifying the amount of money that the government currently spends on basic energy research. Because basic research is hard to define, and because the difference between energy and the basic sciences at large is amorphous, the numbers are difficult to pinpoint.

This complication aside, the chapter argues, there is much room for improving energy technologies. For this reason, it is in the U.S. government’s interest to double funding in basic energy research gradually over time, increasing it at 7% per year.

General Comments, Questions, and Concerns

Editorial Critiques:

One participant suggested that the chapter should group basic and applied research and distinguish those categories from diffusion. Another underlined the specific importance of university-based research.

A few participants echoed the critique that the chapter lacks concrete examples and expressed their uneasiness with the numbers cited in the study—one figure reproduced in the chapter reflects a huge drop in energy research in Europe as a whole but a far gentler drop in France. This seems unlikely to a few participants. Another participant pointed out that until a strict assessment of the current expenditures is made, it is hard to be plausible about gradually doubling investment by increasing it by 7% per year.

Models for how the increased investment might be implemented:

The intensification of the world’s forests is an optimal model for the large amount of value that can be added by basic research, one participant pointed out, and queried whether decarbonization could follow a similar template.

The National Institute of Health (NIH), to which the government devotes a considerable amount of money for basic research, is cited repeatedly in the chapter as an admirable example for investment in energy. However, a few participants pointed out that the chapter should minimize its emphasis upon NIH, both because the institute contains many flaws and because it is far easier to mobilize political support for the NIH. Whereas there is strong consensus regarding the fundamental need for medical research, energy is a topic that is far more divisive and controversial.

Drawbacks to investing:

One participant explained that while he agreed with the general goal of increasing investment, the proposed rate of 7% per year is too high—it runs the risk of generating a lot of mediocre research.

A few participants echoed the point that merely increasing investment in research does not guarantee the quality of the results—for this reason basic research is highly risky. Moreover, not all energy research is directed toward decarbonization.

This statement led the group to wonder if there is a human limitation to the number of qualified individuals and worthy projects that an increased investment would support. No consensus emerged. The revised chapter will include indicators of "proposal pressure" and explore whether the 7% rate of funding increase that the chapter advocates would be feasible.

Alternatives to Domestic Increases in Investment:

While the chapter pushes hard for government investment, the group did not overlook the importance of private sector funding, exemplified by the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles program. Some members of the group pointed out that enormous pools of private capital are being mobilized and invested in energy projects. Additionally, the spillover effect to energy from investment in information technology is huge, as some new energy technologies are heavily based on computers and information management (e.g. electric power grids).

One participant emphasized the need to research the design of international institutions, asking whether it would be possible to create incentives within the government to reward fundamental research. We need a culture of international project teams aimed at these issues, and the current environmental field suffers from an ineffectual/inadequate political base. His conclusion was that it is more important to implement change in international institutions than change in our energy budget.

Proposed changes to the chapter:

  • More examples,
  • Clearer definition of basic research, including separating energy from basic science,
  • The articulation of a specific political strategy.

While the book’s purpose is largely to evaluate the problem of global warming from an international perspective, this chapter argues (and the group agreed) that a clear domestic strategy and a visible national commitment to the problem is essential in order to facilitate progress in the international arena.

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