Let's plan for human ingenuity in our fight against climate change

To anyone who followed the news from COP26, the UN climate summit in Glasgow, it is clear that the world needs to act quickly and decisively if we are to avoid climate disaster. This is especially clear to those affected by wildfires across the American West, flooding in New Jersey and Tennessee, as well as heatwaves in Portland. We must reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions radically.

A pressing question is, at what cost? For example, Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSunday shows - Spotlight shifts to omicron variant Barrasso calls Biden's agenda 'Alice in Wonderland' logic: 'He's the Mad Hatter' Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist MORE (R-Wyo.), is concerned that climate policy “will hurt American families.” Many people, like him, are worried that the costs of addressing climate change will slow down economic growth. Even youth climate activist Greta ThunbergGreta ThunbergLet's plan for human ingenuity in our fight against climate change Energy & Environment — Beyond COP26 Greta Thunberg dismisses COP26 pact: 'The real work continues outside these halls' MORE, in her powerful speech at Glasgow, suggests that “as we don’t have the technological solutions” needed, we will have to “fundamentally change our society,” implying inevitable sacrifice. Are these worries justified? Is this a good reason to slow down our response to this existential threat?

Maybe not. It turns out that when faced with challenges, people are creative and innovative. At the same time, we tend to underestimate how creative we are.

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As an engineering professor who studies climate solutions, for fifteen years I have been collecting and analyzing expert opinions and data-based forecasts on where technologies might go in the future. I have noticed that when it comes to technological change, people under-promise and over-perform. This means that fighting climate change may cost much less than we think. 

Look at what we’ve done in just the last decade, even without clear and compelling leadership in the fight against climate change. Energy from offshore wind — generated by giant turbines placed in the ocean — was increasing in price until 2014. Then, there was a sharp turn, with costs decreasing by more than 50 percent in just six years, surprising more than 85 percent of the experts in a large forecasting study. Offshore wind is on a path now to go below 3 cents a kWh by mid-century, making it fully competitive. Solar has had a six-fold decrease in costs since 2010, “below where even the most optimistic experts expected they would be in 2030,” according to Greg Nemet of University of Wisconsin. The cost of batteries for electric vehicles have fallen 88 percent in 10 years, below what 37 separate estimates put it in 2020, 2030 or even 2050.

And then, my favorite example of surprising technical change: In 1901, Wilbur Wright said to his brother Orville that “man would not fly for 50 years.”  Two years later, he was aloft in the airplane he and his brother had invented.

In my experience, this seems to be the norm. It seems it is much easier to think of ways that something will go wrong than that something entirely new might go right. Adding complexity, humans have a hard time reasoning about cumulative changes, leading us to underestimate how much a technology will grow, which in turn leads to pessimistic estimates of technological change.

This has policy implications. The classic example is the Clean Air Act, which has led to drastically reduced air pollution over the last 50 years. It turns out that the initial cost estimates were nearly always too high. Why? It comes back to ingenuity and innovation. Firms are creative when faced with challenges: They figure out all kinds of ways to make a profit given a new landscape. And, people invent new technologies and improve old ones. In fact, these business models and technologies don’t just make it easier to clean the air, they create “a whole bunch of economic opportunities for small business,” according to John Arensmeyer, CEO of Small Business Majority.

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So, individual states, the U.S. and the world can act boldly to eliminate carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, not 2050. This challenge will stimulate innovation and ingenuity, fueling growth, increasing quality of life, as well as putting the world to work. Not to say that it will be easy — going to the moon wasn’t easy; developing COVID-19 vaccines wasn’t easy. But since when has “easy” been the goal? 

We can fiddle around with incremental steps while the world is burning, or we can trust in human ingenuity and take flight into a future that is cooler, cleaner and better.

Erin Baker is a professor of industrial engineering at University of Massachusetts, Amherst and faculty director of The Energy Transition Institute.