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Satellite orbits the Earth. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.
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2 June 2015 7:30

Analysis: Climate change ‘Apollo Programme’ raises both hope and questions

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

02.06.2015 | 7:30am
International policyAnalysis: Climate change ‘Apollo Programme’ raises both hope and questions

If only clean energy was less costly than coal, oil or gas, then global energy use could rapidly become zero-carbon and fossil fuels would be left underground.

To get there, the world needs a major publicly-funded research initiative, on a similar scale to the 1960s US Apollo programme, which, in today’s money, cost around $15 billion a year over the course of a decade. Spending the equivalent – around 0.02% of global GDP – to develop renewables, smart grids and energy storage could make zero-carbon baseload electricity cheaper than coal within 10 years.

That’s the idea behind the Global Apollo Programme to Combat Climate Change, launched today by the London School of Economics. Heavyweight supporters include: Sir David Attenborough; Sir David King, UK special representative on climate change and former UK chief scientist; Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society; Lord John Browne, former head of BP; and Lord Gus O’Donnell, former head of the UK civil service.

The story is the front page splash for  The Independent, under the headline “Radical plan to put coal out of business”.  The Financial Times says “$150 billion need to save the world from climate change”.  The Guardian and BBC News also have the story.

Cheaper than coal

The deceptively simple goal of the initiative is to make clean energy cheaper than coal in sunny parts of the world by 2020, and worldwide by 2025.

The Global Apollo Programme wants countries to commit 0.02% of GDP towards its aim, the “greatest scientific challenge facing the world”. This would more than double the $6 billion per year in public research money that currently goes towards renewable energy. If all countries of the world participated, around $15 billion per year would be available – around the same as was spent on the US moonshot effort.

The allocation of research funds would remain in the hands of participating governments. Any breakthroughs would remain patent-protected by “those who made the discoveries”. Efforts would be coordinated by a global ‘roadmap committee’ that would set milestones towards the end goal. This arrangement would be modelled on the microchip world’s International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors.

Speaking at a press event, Sir David Attenborough said:

“Reading this report gave me huge excitement – and I’ll tell you why. I’ve been involved in the problem of the despoliation of the natural world for a long time. Nearly all the reports you get are gloom and doom. Prophets of doom who say ‘don’t do this, don’t do that, stop fracking, stop burning carbon’. The exciting thing about this report is it is a positive report that says ‘do this, improve this, it can be done’. That is the excitement I get from reading this, that at last, somebody is saying here is a way in which we can do things.”

This optimistic view extended to the entire panel of big-name supporters. King told journalists the project had received wide support. He said:

“How much support are we getting? As I’ve travelled around the world, I’d say considerable interest has been expressed from a very wide range of countries. I would say there’s not a country that isn’t interested in the outcome of the programme. But [the EU, US, Japan, Korea, Mexico, UAE, India and China] have shown particular interest.”

The plan will also be on the agenda at the G7 meeting on 7 June, King says. He hopes the full membership of the initiative will be announced in November, prior to the UN climate talks at Paris in December. For now, there appear to have been no firm financial commitments.

The UK, say the project’s proponents, is already spending the requisite 0.02% of GDP on publicly-funded clean energy research – around £350 million per year. The problem is that this spending is “uncoordinated”, says King. Carbon Brief asked the initiative which other countries were falling short of the recommended spending level, since they say there is a global shortfall. It was unable to provide a country-by-country breakdown.

King held out the prospect of the new engines of global growth in GDP – and emissions – taking part in the initiative. He said:

“It’s very clear that no country that is developing or is emerging is going to go down a pathway that is going to cost them GDP development. We need to take on board the Asia-Pacific region’s demand for growth and at the same time shift that growth into renewable energy. And that’s really the essence of this programme.

“This programme is a key part of delivering what Modi wants to deliver for Indiaâ?¦ In China as well, this programme is going to play a key role in delivering.”


So much for the climate hope. What of the questions? The first relates to the target itself, helpfully clarified by Lord Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. He said:

“The bar that we’ve set ourselves is to get [clean energy] below the cost of coal, as conventionally priced. That is a tough bar.”

It’s also much more complicated than it first appears. Data cited by the Global Apollo Programme’s own report shows that in some countries, some renewables are already cheaper than coal. Even utility firms are starting to recognise this, with companies in some US states procuring wind instead of coal or gas because it is cheapest.

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 At 07.01.46

Costs of new electricity generating capacity by type and by region. Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, cited by the Global Apollo Programme report.

That’s before you get into the debate about fossil fuel subsidies and the true cost of polluting coal or gas-fired power, which in theory make some renewables cheaper than coal or gas across much of Europe. Still, there is room for the initiative to push down the costs of renewables so that they are cheaper than coal globally, even where it doesn’t pay the full costs of its pollution.

There’s also the question of why the Global Apollo Programme aims only at renewables, energy storage and smart grids. It acknowledges that carbon capture and storage (CCS), nuclear energy and energy efficiency will be important, too, but brushes them off as already receiving “a high level of research effort”.

This is despite CCS falling way behind expected trajectories of development, a general failure to replace – let alone expand – the world’s aging nuclear fleet and energy efficiency being the perennial afterthought in energy policy and climate discussions.

Another, perhaps more serious problem is that the price of coal is a moving target. If the initiative were successful and renewables took an ever-growing share of electricity generation, it is likely that demand for coal, and its cost, would start to fall. This means the initiative could be working towards an ever-tougher target that keeps on falling.

Did the panel consider this issue? Lord Adair Turner, former chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, told Carbon Brief:

“Although we’re saying carbon prices are insufficient, and we’ve got to do this [research effort] as well, it’s also true [that the research] is insufficient and we need carbon prices as well.”

It’s not quite clear how this squares with the stated aim to make renewables cheaper than “conventionally-priced coal”.

King was at pains to make clear that the initiative was a part of a greater whole. He said:

“The Global Apollo Programme is one part of that action [needed towards Paris and beyond]. It’s not intended to be all the actionâ?¦ I don’t want it left that we haven’t got other problems to deal with, not least, social and political problems [such as] incumbency and inertia.”

This leads us to the final question, and the largest of all: what of the hundreds of existing coal- and gas-fired power stations around the world today? Even if the initiative is successful beyond all expectations, many gigawatts of new coal plant will be added over the next decade until clean energy becomes so cheap that coal can’t compete. This would add to large existing capacities.

The Global Apollo Programme’s suggestion that making clean energy cheaper than coal will be enough to keep fossil fuels in the ground, recalls a 14 April article from Bloomberg titled “Fossil fuels just lost the race against renewables”. The article said more clean energy generating capacity was added globally in 2013 than fossil capacity. This was the “beginning of the end” for dirty energy, it said.

Neither making clean energy cheaper than new coal, nor adding more new clean energy capacity than fossil fuels will dent the large existing fleet of dirty power plants. Indeed, even as renewables keep breaking records their global share of power output has barely changed in a quarter-century, as Carbon Brief showed last year and the chart below illustrates.

Screen -shot -2014-08-28-at -122121_600x 194

Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014. Chart by Carbon Brief.

An annex to the Global Apollo Programme report admits that its own goal to make clean energy cheaper than new coal will be insufficient. It says:

“This reinforces the need for renewables to expand beyond just contributing to additional capacity. They have to displace a significant fraction of the existing fossil fuel-based capacity. This requires more radical falls in their cost of production.”

As David Attenborough says, the world is pretty short of positive initiatives and can-do attitudes on climate. Is this new initiative going to solve the world’s climate change conundrum or keep fossil fuels in the ground? No. Will it help? Maybe.

Main image: Satellite orbits the Earth.

Update 3 June: We added a direct quote on research on nuclear, efficiency and CCS. We also added that the initiative was unable to provide a breakdown of country spending on clean energy as a share of GDP.

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