President Dwight Eisenhower once argued you should never send a battalion to take a hill if a regiment is available. The same argument holds for overcoming global climate change. Unfortunately, international negotiators are intent on using inadequate carbon targets to cut emissions when more aggressive energy innovation policy is necessary.

Negotiators from nations around the world have been working for years with little progress to develop a treaty by the end of this year in Paris that puts the world on a path to deep carbon reductions. The odds of them coming up with a treaty with real teeth are small at best.


The reason is simple: No nation wants to be the one to bear the costs of committing to binding and aggressive carbon targets, since with current technology they often mean higher energy prices and reduced economic competitiveness. Few nations are willing to pay that price for the global good, rising temperatures or not.

Making matters worse, there is a very good chance that even the countries that do commit to carbon reductions won't be able to meet their targets. As advocates discovered during the first Kyoto Protocol, setting a target is far different from taking the difficult political steps to actually meet it. As long as clean energy costs more than dirty energy, countries will simply set less ambitious goals, change the goals when a new administration comes to power or ignore the goals outright when it comes time to raising energy prices.

As a result, the best negotiators are likely to come up with are weak, voluntary and unenforceable carbon targets that make for a nice press statement, but will do little toward dealing with a climate crisis knocking on our global doorstep.

Rather then trying to convince nations to impose the costs of more expensive clean energy on their citizens, it is time to raise the white flag on carbon targets and present a new approach that will actually help mitigate climate change: focusing on driving technological innovation to make clean energy affordable for all.

While solar and wind energy have fallen in price and can play niche roles, they still depend on government subsidies. And storage of this power for later use remains too costly. In addition, the upfront cost of new nuclear energy plants remains a barrier to widespread adoption. And the high cost and poor performance of batteries keeps electric vehicles largely confined to luxury car buyers. To be sure, modest improvements, coupled with modest government subsidies, will continue to allow clean energy to make modest progress. But modest progress won't cut it. We need breakthrough technological progress if we are to get the world to zero carbon. When technological innovation makes clean energy cheaper than dirty energy, the world will adopt it en masse.

While most climate advocates continue to place their bets on the failed carbon cap strategy, others will say that if we just tax carbon and dirty energy, the clean energy nirvana will be around the corner. But besides the fact that few nations have the political will to raise energy prices, higher prices on dirty energy will provide only a modest spur at best to clean energy innovation. Just look at the many nations in Europe where the de facto carbon tax (e.g., the gas tax) is over $450 per ton and yet electric vehicles remain scarce.

If the Paris negotiations are going to be more than symbolic, negotiators need to focus on how such an agreement can embrace a global clean energy innovation strategy. In particular, high-income and emerging economies should commit to investing at least 0.15 percent of national gross domestic product in clean energy research, development and demonstration. Doing so would provide a $75 billion boost to clean energy innovation, an Apollo-like investment on a global scale that could quickly advance technology development in areas such as energy storage, solar, wind and nuclear.

Climate advocates will point out that investing in clean energy innovation is uncertain compared to the apparent certainty of carbon targets. In fact, the opposite is true. Carbon targets are wishful thinking at best, because there is little certainty countries will set a target and magically cut carbon under current technological circumstances. Investing in climate innovation policy is likely to directly lower clean energy costs and thereby directly remove the biggest barrier to its wide-scale adoption.

In short, we don't need carbon targets to save the planet; we need clean energy innovation and research and development targets.

Atkinson is president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.