Green innovation vs bilateral cooperation: Why we need a planetary vision for climate change

At every turn, the development of sustainable technologies has met walls. Intellectual property, trade wars, regulations, energy diplomacy, geopolitics: if we’re going to avoid a climate disaster, we need to cooperate on a far greater scale. I am optimistic we can do it, but we must overcome a lack of planetary vision from the public and private sectors alike for green innovation.

With the dust settling on COP26, there is a large consensus that country targets remain too piecemeal, and the pledges signed far from enough. New net-zero agreements made at United Nations climate talks are the right step towards the 2030 benchmark set in the Paris Agreement, but meeting targets remains encumbered by miscommunication and competition on a state level. It is clear that the current answers to decarbonisation present a fragmented and stratified approach to a universal problem.

The recent heads-of-state meeting between US and China make this point clear. Just under half of the world’s carbon emissions in 2019 came from the two countries but the ambitions outlined in the agreement remain more aspirational than hard-lined goals. This serves as a continued contrast to the European Union, UK, South Korea, and Canada, which have all passed emissions reduction targets into law.

Neither the US nor China have joined COP26’s commitments on coal power or electric vehicles, and President Xi Jinping has been reluctant to end the finance of overseas fossil fuels, cut methane emissions, or modernise the country’s agricultural industry. Proposals on clean power, green steel, or road transport also lack bilateral cooperation. Agreement to take action on methane and “phase down” coal usage by the end of this decade are the nearest things to mutual policy objectives.

However, any bilateral agreement between superpowers should be welcomed. Net zero emissions cannot be achieved if the two biggest emitters treat climate as a zero-sum game with the rest of the planet is collateral damage. The same goes for the private industries.

It has been proven easy to galvanize society around a single factor, such as reducing CO2 emissions which has driven the consumer electric vehicle revolution. But it is significantly harder to stress the same importance onto investors. A report published by RethinkX argues that we already have the technologies and the commercial know-how needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90% within 15 years. The only question is how to accelerate investment into green innovation.

This investment must come from influential stakeholders in public-private partnerships—from both heads of states and boardroom members. While taxpayer money will be crucial in the development of emerging climate technologies in the West, such as powering electric grids with batteries, adopting, commercialising, and implementing those innovations into emerging economies on a wide scale will rely on private enterprise. But without strong IP protections, private investment won’t be consolidated to tackle these issues at the pace or reach the world requires.

Scale remains the hurdle in climate diplomacy. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a crucial caveat in his COP26 commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070. Without the “transfer of climate finance and low-cost climate technologies,” he said, developing nations such as India would never be able to achieve their ambitious targets.

Annual energy investment amounts to just under 2 trillion USD a year: the problem is not that there is too little investment, but that investments are not being coordinated well enough. Emerging economies are missing out on zero-carbon power for a lack of directed investment capital, even as they will be the ones to be hit by the greatest consequences of climate change. While investors will need visibility into where their funds are being used, scientific necessity and international policy momentum must lead the conversation.

Presenting one solution, Mihar Sharma wrote for Bloomberg the need of a “climate Covax.” Following the crisis model of the Covax consortium that was conceived of during the pandemic, this organisation would focus on “ensuring that innovations in climate-sensitive sectors, especially those developed with the help of taxpayer money, could be licensed for use in the emerging world at scale.”

The planet was not given foresight in the design of institutions to encourage technology transfer in the pandemic. We do not have the same excuse for the climate crisis, and we need governments, industry leaders, policy experts, and universities all working together to find and fund solutions. There will be no one-size-fits-all approach to a climate ecosystem as complex as the world it affects.

At the start of the meeting, Biden told Xi they had a responsibility to make sure that the competition between their countries works to resolve conflict rather than create it. Now is the time to also remind governments of their responsibility to work together on shared interests of climate change to ensure that the world benefits from international competitive investment just as much.

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