Daniel S. Cohan—
After reaffirming the Paris Agreement on his first day in office, President Biden in November 2021 issued a national strategy for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That strategy envisioned building a clean energy future on the same three pillars espoused in Confronting Climate Gridlock—energy efficiency, clean electricity, and electrification along with other clean fuels.
The strategy provided a roadmap for achieving the United States’ enhanced commitment to cut emissions in half by 2030 and aim for net-zero by 2050. Other countries and the European Union pledged similar targets ahead of a summit in Glasgow that updated the Paris Agreement. Net-zero targets now cover most of the world’s emissions, but expert evaluations find most of the targets to be poorly designed and unlikely to be achieved.
That has left a yawning gap between increasingly ambitious pledges and still inadequate policies to back them up. When the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, even the pledges would have let temperatures soar far beyond the “well below 2 degrees Celsius” warming limit that it set. Now, countries have pledged nearly enough cuts to achieve that target, but have enacted only enough policies to hold warming to around 2.7℃ in 2100. Temperatures would keep rising well beyond then, with net-zero nowhere in sight.
That’s not to say that climate policy has been all talk and no action. Policies enacted since the Paris Agreement have shaved roughly 0.9℃ off of temperature projections. Carbon taxes and emissions trading systems have proliferated to cover more than 20% of emissions worldwide. That includes the national emission trading system that China implemented in 2021, while the European Union strengthened its own system.
Carbon pricing may be the favored approach of economists, but even a Democratic-led Congress failed to enact it. Instead, Congress chose to subsidize clean technologies rather than tax or cap emissions from dirty ones. The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 provides more incentives than ever before for virtually every clean energy technology discussed in the book—solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, batteries, carbon capture, electric vehicles, heat pumps, and more.
The subsidy “carrots” are so generous and numerous, and so devoid of penalty “sticks” beyond a methane fee, that I’ve likened them to a carrot cake buffet. They also carry a different flavor from carrots of the past, favoring environmental justice and domestic manufacturing rather than uniformly rewarding each product. The exclusion of imports from tax credits for electric vehicles has rankled officials in Asia and in Europe, who fear their own manufacturers will be left out.
The European Union is crafting its own subsidies for domestically produced electric vehicles and clean energy. This could mark the start of an arms race of nationalist subsidies, far different from experts’ visions of cooperative climate clubs.
Whether propelled by cooperation or competition, or by Europe’s newfound urgency to wean itself from Russian oil and gas, what matters most is that clean technologies be deployed more rapidly than ever before. A core lesson of my book is that two forces are needed to drive progress—a technology “push” to develop and improve new technologies, and a demand “pull” to accelerate their adoption. Together, these forces create a virtuous cycle of learning-by-doing, as growing deployments drive down costs, stimulating further deployments. We can be agnostic to the means of diplomacy and policy, so long as they foster that push and pull to drive learning-by-doing in the end.
While the Inflation Reduction Act and other measures are providing powerful demand pulls, technology pushes are receiving unprecedented support. The bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 authorized $67 billion in funding for clean energy industries and climate research. That includes doubling the budget of the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, which funds research and development into the most cutting-edge energy technologies. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy has announced a series of Earthshots to drive down the costs of clean hydrogen, geothermal electricity, offshore wind, long-duration storage, industrial heat, and carbon capture. If these initiatives achieve anywhere near the success of the SunShot Initiative and actions worldwide that drove down the cost of solar by more than 90%, they could revolutionize the options available for clean energy.
All of this leaves me newly hopeful two years after Confronting Climate Gridlock first went to press. The rate of emissions and the pace of warming remain as intense as ever. But we’re starting to see the policies and diplomacy, albeit in different forms than once envisioned, that can provide the pushes and pulls needed to propel emerging technologies and unlock a clean energy future.
Daniel S. Cohan is an atmospheric scientist and associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and the recipient of a National Science Foundation CAREER award. Cohan is the author of Confronting Climate Gridlock: How Diplomacy, Technology, and Policy Can Unlock a Clean Energy Future, out in paperback in February 2023.