G-20 governments have announced hundreds of billions in stimulus packages since the world was hit by the financial crisis. Fortunately, most of the stimulus packages contain a chapter on environmental technologies, ranging from green cars to energy efficiency measures and carbon capture & storage. Altogether a total of $430 billion has been earmarked for environmental technologies, a sector that has to breathe innovation if we are to escape the fossil fuel age.
Problem is that there has been very little coordination between the countries, even though the challenges are global in nature. Cars today, for example, are pretty much the same worldwide, as they will be in the future. Renewable electricity generators all face the same geographical restrictions and problems of intermittence. And although they may not experience the same climate, all cities face similar challenges in terms of mobility, albeit to differing degrees. In addition, the carbon credit market is already an international market, though limited to the signatories of the Kyoto Protocol, and will no doubt remain so in the future.
At a meeting in Brussels in June, a group of leading European academics and business executives urged governments to change the situation and better coordinate R&D, green technology and other innovation-related programmes included in their national economic-stimulus packages. They even called for a “Bretton Woods on innovation”. ‘In 1944’, they noted in a declaration, ‘the world’s economic leaders met at a resort in New Hampshire called Bretton Woods, and initiated a new economic order. Now, in the age of the knowledge economy, we believe that a new effort at global collaboration is needed.’
A model for such cooperation does exist. Only a few years ago the European Union, the United States, China, India, Brazil, Russia, South Korea and Japan agreed to cooperate to the tune of 10 billion euros over 40 years in researching thermo-nuclear fusion by means of the ITER project. This complex international organization is responsible for managing the researchers, intellectual property and research programmes in multiple research centers throughout the world. Interestingly, although each country has its own research avenues they are all working towards the same goal: to develop a unique prototype to be used initially as a demonstration reactor that will ultimately lead to the building of commercial reactors. It’s possible to contemplate the possibility of other, similar projects for the energy supply of tomorrow, or for tomorrow’s mobility.
ITER of course has such a high budget that it is impossible for a single country to cover it. Efforts to develop the low-carbon technologies of tomorrow are not on the same scale as ITER. Yet it is an area that impacts on the whole world given that the climate challenge is global. ‘It is wasteful for every country to re-invent the wheel’, says the declaration, calling on countries to share best practices and to encourage economic research, regular comparisons and reviews of related efforts, as well as enhanced mobility of researchers and ideas.
This would certainly help in avoiding the waste of financial resources at a time when they could be better used for common priorities. When it comes down to it, everyone is reliant on the same energy services: mobility, heating, cooling, lighting, mechanical force, etcetera. So it’s not such a bad idea to sit at a table and discuss how to best tackle these issues, Bretton Woods style.
Hughes Belin is an independent journalist on energy matters. This column originally appeared on the European Energy Review.