GOP “Innovation Agenda” Won’t Stop Climate Change

"Innovation" by itself can't stop climate change. It takes limits on carbon pollution. And that requires government action.

For the most part, Republican leaders’ response to rising public concern about climate change is just denial and derision. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced the Green New Deal resolution to set ambitious clean energy goals and to start debate on action—on specific legislation—to reach those goals. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has brought the resolution up for a vote just as a stunt to vote it down—to try to strangle the debate on real action before it begins.

A few GOP Senators and Congressmen seem to realize, however, that total denial no longer works. So we see some, such as Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) and Reps. John Shimkus (R-IL), Fred Upton (R-MI), and Greg Walden (R-OR), proposing we rely solely on “American innovation” to solve the climate problem. Yesterday Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) proposed his own innovation and R&D agenda—a five-year New Manhattan Project.

This innovation and R&D response, by itself, will not meet the crisis we face.

We have waited more than 50 years—since President Johnson first called in 1965 for legislation to curb climate-changing carbon dioxide—to put limits on the pollution that we can now see is driving us to a planetary catastrophe. The time for R&D and innovation alone is over.

Now we need a much more ambitious clean energy and climate action agenda. That starts with legislation that puts us on the pathway to 100% clean energy and net-zero climate pollution by 2050, if not before. And the central element of effective climate legislation is establishing firm limits on the pollution driving climate change. Limits that tell polluters they can no longer use the atmosphere as a free sewer, and that take away the unfair competitive advantage of dirty fuels. 

Renewable energy (like wind and solar), energy efficiency (like light bulbs and appliances that suck less power) and building and transportation electrification are the most powerful tools we have to reach that goal. See how they do most of the work, in this chart from NRDC’s America’s Clean Energy Frontier: The Pathway to a Safer Climate Future.

An R&D agenda can be a powerful supplement to the pollution limits at the center of an effective bill. Targeted to the right technologies, government support for innovation can help bring down the costs and accelerate the pace of transitioning to clean energy.

The Department of Energy’s successes in bringing down the costs of solar, wind, batteries, and many other technologies stand as proof. 

But clean energy competes at a disastrous disadvantage as long as coal, natural gas, and oil can be burned with no regard for their climate-changing and health-destroying impacts. We must level out the hidden costs behind dirty energy sources in order for clean energy to play on a level field—and that requires policy intervention, not just innovation.

Calls for investment, invention and innovation and for new Manhattan Projects are not effective responses to the climate crisis by themselves, precisely because they do not address dirty energy’s unfair competitive advantage from permission to pollute without limit and for free.

Coupled with pollution limits that drive us to net-zero emissions, we need robust programs to develop and deploy clean energy technologies. Some version of Sen. Alexander’s proposal to double energy R&D should be a part of that. 

Of the items on Alexander’s list, energy efficiency, solar, battery storage, green buildings, and electric vehicles are the fast-track to delivering carbon reductions. 

There’s one place where Sen. Alexander mentioned NRDC by name, and here we need to set the record straight. We agree on the need to further bring down the costs of carbon capture and storage (CCS)—but not to enable more use of coal. We’ve never said, as the Senator suggests, that “after conservation, coal with carbon capture is the best option for clean energy.” 

As I’ve made clear here, in NRDC’s view the right thing to do, for both the wallet and the planet, is to build out wind, solar, and efficiency and to phase out coal-fired power plants.

No one is building new coal-fired power plants, and power companies are busy retiring their old ones, because they are uncompetitive dinosaurs, beaten in the marketplace every day by cheaper alternatives including wind, solar, and energy efficiency. 

The Trump EPA is busy trying to roll back current Clean Air Act standards that say that if despite the economics anyone chooses to build a new coal-fired power plant, it needs to be equipped with the best technology, which is carbon capture and storage. We’ve told the Trump EPA that it can’t ditch that requirement, because CCS is, in the language of the Clean Air Act, adequately demonstrated as the best system of emission reduction for a new coal plant. But NRDC doesn’t recommend anyone build a new coal plant, with or without CCS.

Where we do need carbon capture and storage is for fossil fuel-burning plants that are not going to be quickly replaced. Most old coal plants are getting retired in the U.S., but there are too many natural gas plants, and too many industrial facilities, that are projected to keep releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide for decades more. If these plants are not replaced, they will have to be equipped with CCS. It’s the only way to avoid climate catastrophe.

And if we want to avoid centuries of suffering for our descendants because of the carbon dioxide we have already loaded into the atmosphere, we will need both natural systems and technology to draw it out of the air and store it safely where the sun don’t shine.  We need CCS as part of that. 

Getting the cost of CCS down is thus essential. But not to enable use of more coal, oil, or gas. 

And like other technologies, CCS will not be deployed at the necessary scale and speed until we decisively limit carbon pollution in the first place.

In short, limits on carbon dioxide pollution are the cornerstone of fighting climate change, and energy efficiency and renewables are the principal technologies we need. An R&D and innovation agenda, by itself, will not stop disastrous climate change.