The Paris climate talks focused attention on the climate issue, increased international understanding of the nature and extent of the problem and will have a profound impact going forward. The climate deal made by 195 countries shows that the transition to a renewable and sustainable economy has become a priority worldwide. Globally, nations volunteered greenhouse gas reduction targets in anticipation of the Paris meetings and COP21 served to codify what many local, state, provincial and regional governments are already doing. Now that the talks are over, the spotlight will hopefully shift from talks and promises to real-world solutions for addressing climate change.
One of the best ways to meet the commitments laid out in the climate deal and reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be to gradually replace fossil fuels with other forms of energy that are renewable and do not damage the environment. To do this, we need to dramatically increase investment in basic and applied renewable energy research. The goal of this work is to make renewable energy commercially viable. We need breakthroughs in solar cell and energy storage technology that make renewable energy less expensive and more convenient than it is today. The batteries in electric cars need a range of 1,000 miles rather than a few hundred. Home energy storage systems and solar cells must become smaller and less expensive. The technology must be so attractive that it drives fossil fuels from the marketplace.
One of the most significant moments for clean energy in the past few weeks was announced even before the Paris talks began: Bill Gates, along with more than 20 other billionaires, established the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a private sector group committed to investing in renewable energy technologies. Promising more than a billion dollars of investment, this is the largest clean energy fund ever created. According to Coalition investor and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “progress towards a sustainable energy system is too slow and the current system doesn’t encourage the kind of innovation that will get us there faster.” I couldn’t agree more.
While the private sector has the resources and cash to invest in renewable energy technologies, it can’t do it alone. Joining Gates’ effort, twenty countries, including major carbon emitters like the U.S., India and China, pledged to double their investment in renewable energy technology by 2020. This public-private partnership “will be a critical step toward limiting global warming,” the White House said.
Public-private partnerships have been around since the start of the U.S. and exist at all levels of government. Basic science and technology has historically been funded by the U.S. government and taken place in national and university laboratories. When the technologies matured, some were released for commercial use. Perhaps the best example is the personal computer, which has shrunk significantly in size since the 1970s and has dramatically increased in computing power. A product used by billions of people worldwide began as an investment by the U.S. federal government, in order to develop better missile guidance systems for the U.S. Department of Defense and smaller on-board computers for NASA’s space program.
Local government interest in sourcing renewable energy in the U.S. is clear. Many cities, including New York City, have made pledges to increase their renewable energy use and this week San Diego became the largest American city to legally commit to 100 percent renewable energy.