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Despite Funding Boost, We’re Spending Too Little on Energy R&D

A leaked UN climate report suggests we’re spending far too little on clean energy.
January 17, 2014

Yesterday Congress passed a spending bill that will undo the damage done to energy R&D by automatic spending cuts, and in some cases funding actually increases substantially, such as funding for nuclear research (see this breakdown). This is good news for the development of new energy technology.

Unfortunately, the spending still falls short of what many experts think is needed to solve today’s energy challenges, particularly climate change (see “Technology Is Moving Too Slowly to Make Climate-Change Target”). According to several groups–environmental ones but also groups of business leaders–energy R&D should be triple what it is now to sustain the pipeline of innovations needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The lack of spending on climate change was highlighted this week in a draft of a United Nations report that was leaked to news organizations such as Reuters.

According to the leaked report, the share of the total energy supply that comes from low carbon energy sources such as nuclear and solar needs to triple or quadruple to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, a temperature some scientists think would be relatively manageable, Bloomberg reported.

We’re nowhere close to being on a trajectory for achieving that. Instead we’re going backwards. The use of fossil fuels is growing faster than renewables, and the share of nuclear power—a low carbon source of electricity—is reportedly shrinking. Governments around the world are actually spending more on subsidizing fossil fuels than on shifting to low-carbon sources of energy, the New York Times reported (see “The Enduring Technology of Coal”).

The answer is certainly not to immediately end all subsidies for fossil fuels. That would be disastrous, especially for poor that depend heavily on cheap electricity and fuel. But those subsidies need to be decreased on a predictable time scale, and new technologies need to be developed quickly to provide affordable alternatives. 

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