New international energy forum focuses on innovation
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Last month, energy ministers from around the world gathered in San Francisco for the annual Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM), which for the past seven years has focused on deploying existing clean energy technologies around the world. But for the first time, clean energy innovation was on the gathering’s agenda as well. In a parallel “Mission Innovation” Ministerial (MIM), twenty countries and the European Union — accounting for over 80 percent of the world’s public energy research and development (R&D) funding — committed to collectively double R&D funding to $30 billion by 2021.

The new MIM joins a crowded field of international compacts focused on inventing and scaling the next generation of clean energy technologies. But just as the CEM added a valuable forum to the thicket of international efforts to deploy clean energy — by elevating clean energy cooperation to the highest political levels — so too can the MIM raise the profile of innovation. That would improve the world’s chances of forestalling catastrophic climate change, which will require both clean energy deployment, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and innovation, to make deeper emission cuts possible tomorrow.

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Clean energy deployment and innovation have not always been able to share the stage. In 2009, the United States convened the CEM and focused its mandate squarely on deployment to signal its willingness to act on climate. At the time, the Obama administration was eager to shed the resentment of international partners (especially in Europe) who faulted U.S. policy inaction to curb its greenhouse gas emissions.

In particular, those partners had perceived the Bush administration’s emphasis on international cooperation in clean energy research and development (R&D) as a fig leaf covering its failure to make international climate commitments.

Over the next seven years, the CEM elevated clean energy deployment to the highest political levels, emerging as a practical complement to the cumbersome United Nations climate negotiation process. By bringing companies, investors, technical experts, and political leaders together, CEM made it possible to rapidly scale up existing clean energy solutions around the world.

For example, the CEM’s Global Lighting Challenge, a partnership among lighting manufacturers, retailers, building owners, and governments has already achieved installation of more than 100 million highly efficient LED bulbs, with commitments for 8 billion of its 10 billion goal in hand. Replacing 10 billion conventional bulbs with LEDs would be the equivalent of displacing 684 coal-fired plants.

Now that the United States has emerged as a leader on climate policy — most notably by helping conclude the Paris Agreement on climate change last year — the Obama administration can raise the profile of clean energy innovation without raising the eyebrows of its international partners. Doing so is badly overdue, despite the many existing international efforts to advance innovation.

For example, R&D collaborations facilitated by the International Energy Agency rarely receive high-level political attention to boost funding or attract private-sector partners. And although multinational technology initiatives that focus on a particular technology niche, like hydrogen fuel cells or advanced nuclear reactors, are higher in profile, they are limited in scope.

Fortunately, this year’s inaugural MIM suggests that countries will begin to prioritize innovation in a broad range of clean energy technologies on a par with deployment of existing solutions. Future MIM summits should borrow from the CEM playbook and bring together major players from the private and public sectors.

In particular, Bill Gates and 28 other wealthy investors — who dub themselves the “Breakthrough Energy Coalition” — have committed to invest in early-stage clean energy technology bets, focusing their efforts on countries participating in Mission Innovation. These headliners could entice institutional investors and major energy companies to attend the MIM, increasing prospects for an influx of private capital and industrial partnerships focused on innovation.

But accelerating innovation will also require the MIM to perform some functions that are distinct from the ways in which the CEM has supported clean energy deployment. Whereas replicating a successful example of a clean energy financing vehicle or policy around the world advances deployment, duplicating energy R&D in multiple countries may be an inefficient allocation of resources. So to more efficiently coordinate national R&D programs, the MIM must facilitate cooperation among countries to split up priorities and allocate research in line with a country’s research competencies.

In doing so, the MIM will have to walk a fine line between R&D cooperation and economic competition. Indeed, national economic gain is the primary driver of most countries’ R&D programs, so countries may not always be willing to give up certain research priorities to enable efficient resource allocation. What’s more, duplication of research can sometimes be healthy, encouraging competition and faster innovation.

But what MIM can do is map countries’ efforts and bring together representatives from national R&D funding bodies to discuss their respective priorities. By enabling frank dialogue, the MIM may nudge countries to focus on the R&D priorities that best cater to their competitive strengths, in the process resulting in a more efficient global R&D effort.

If it can do all of this, the MIM could share the stage with the CEM to drive parallel progress in clean energy innovation and deployment. The world needs more of both.

Varun Sivaram is the Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Graham Pugh was formerly the Director of the Department of Energy's Office of International Climate Change Policy and Technology.