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Dear Republicans: Innovation isn't climate policy

Dear Republicans: Innovation isn't climate policy
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For the first time in recent memory, congressional Republicans claim to have a climate strategy, with House Republicans rolling out proposals to encourage low-carbon innovation, including legislation to support technologies like nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage. Similarly, prominent GOP Sens. including John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Mitt Romney (R-Utah), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are pushing for an innovation-focused policy response to the threats of climate change. 

But while innovation is a critically important complement to a climate strategy, it is not nearly enough. The United States needs policies aimed at producing a carbon-neutral economy. 

Innovation is not climate policy. It’s Super Bowl week, so let’s think of energy technologies as football players. Team Fossil Fuels has historically been dominant: the United States gets roughly 80 percent of its energy from coal, oil and natural gas.

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Meanwhile, Team Carbon Free is the scrappy underdog: thanks to remarkable cost reductions in solar energy, wind energy, and batteries, Team Carbon Free is quickly catching up to Team Fossil Fuels.

With continued policy support and the emergence of additional carbon-free options, it’s not difficult to imagine energy markets with carbon-free technologies winning as much they lose against carbon-emitting alternatives.

That’s where the analogy breaks down: two evenly matched teams make for a better game on Sunday, but not a viable climate strategy. Climate change is caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, so halting temperature increases requires getting to net-zero emissions.

That means, eventually, Team Carbon Free needs to win more often than the New England Patriots. Team Carbon Free must win every time. 

Over the centuries, we’ve seen dazzling innovations in energy technologies, causing shifts in energy fuels from wood and other biomass to coal, and from coal to oil and natural gas, and, more recently, to renewables. But we haven’t stopped using the older fuels.

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Instead, with rare exceptions, we use the newer fuels to satisfy new demands and continue to use the “antiquated” fuels as much as ever. That’s why the significant progress of Team Carbon Free in recent years has not led to reduced global emissions.

Consider an analysis by the Department of Energy that asked each clean energy program within the agency for “stretch” technology goals and assumed all would be successfully achieved. Even in that wildly optimistic scenario, U.S. emissions are projected to fall by less than one-third over the next few decades. This amounts to completing a series of Hail Marys and still ending up nowhere near the end zone. 

Rather than banking on technological breakthroughs, we need a game plan that works backward from a winning outcome — climate policies that align the incentives of producers, consumers, and investors with a future carbon-neutral economy.

There’s good news for the Republicans turning their attention to climate change. Some of the strongest climate policies, like emissions pricing and market-based performance standards, can rapidly reduce emissions within a robustly growing economy.

Combining innovation and climate policies will enable even cheaper and faster emissions reductions. And only this combination of policies will give the United States the leverage it needs to lead an international coalition to address the threats of climate change.

A few Congressional Republicans have bucked this trend of focusing only on innovation. Congressmen Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Rooney (R-Fla.) have proposed plans to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions across the economy.

These proposals are not comprehensive climate strategies, but they are serious climate policies that would dramatically cut emissions while accelerating low-carbon innovation in the private sector. 

The Republican-sponsored innovation proposals deserve serious consideration. But where will these policies lead us? By themselves, they will not drive down U.S. emissions, and they provide no basis to demand climate action from the rest of the world. 

“The first step toward creating an improved future is developing the ability to envision it,” said Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy. To create a vision for a successful global response to climate change, the GOP should join Democrats in drafting climate policies.

Noah Kaufman is an economist and research scholar at the Columbia University SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy. Previously he worked at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, World Resources Institute, and NERA Economic Consulting.