Opinion

opinion | Bjorn Lomborg

Make it cheaper to go green

Germany has committed to pay more than $110 billion in solar subsidies over the next 20 years.
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Germany has committed to pay more than $110 billion in solar subsidies over the next 20 years.

WITH LEADERS gathering in Paris later this month for a major climate summit, it is clear that our modern-day approach to climate change is backwards. We spend a massive amount of effort trying to make carbon too expensive and unappealing for the world to use. Instead, we need to make green energy much cheaper.

Our dependency on carbon-emitting fuels is overwhelming. The fact is that the world will not stop using fossil fuels for many decades. Despite all the excitement about green energy, globally we get a minuscule 0.4 percent of our energy from wind and solar panels.

According to the International Energy Agency, even with an optimistic scenario, we will get just 2.2 percent of our energy from solar and wind in 2040, and even then those industries will still need $77 billion in subsidies per year. In 2040, renewables will still on average be the most expensive option for all regions.

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We must acknowledge that fossil fuels will be part of the energy mix for a long time. That certainly doesn’t mean doing nothing. It means that we need to put a stronger focus on moving from coal to gas, since gas emits about half the greenhouse gases.

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Next we need to recognize that bad climate policies could easily cost much more than global warming damage will — while helping very little.

Consider Germany. It has committed to pay more than $110 billion in solar subsidies over the next 20 years, even though solar contributes only one percent of primary energy consumption. The net effect of these solar panels for the climate will be to delay global warming by a mere 37 hours by the end of the century.

Globally, we will spend $2.5 trillion on subsidies for wind and solar over the next 25 years — and they will still need subsidizing, according to the IEA. The impact will be a trivial reduction in temperature rise by 2100 of 0.03 degrees Fahrenheit. What if, instead of spending these trillions of dollars trying to push the deployment of inefficient solar and wind, we devoted ourselves to making green energy cheaper?

If we could make solar and wind cheaper than fossil fuels, we wouldn’t have to force (or subsidize) anyone to stop burning coal and oil. Everyone would shift to the cheaper and cleaner alternatives.

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This could take a decade or it could take four. But the truth is that, as long as we invest mostly in today’s inefficient technology that we know doesn’t work, we will not get much closer.

In 2009, the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate gathered 27 of the world’s top climate economists and three Nobel laureates. They found that the smartest long-term climate policy is to invest in green R&D in order to push down the price of green energy.

If we were willing to devote just 0.2 percent of global GDP to green-energy R&D, research shows that we could dramatically increase the chance of a breakthrough. This would be significantly cheaper — and much more effective— than our current approach. Economists have calculated the returns to society from focusing on green energy R&D as $11 on every dollar invested. This is 100 times more good than what comes from current subsidies to wind and solar.

A technology-led effort would have a much greater chance of actually tackling climate change. It would not just focus on solar and wind power, but also on a wide variety of other alternative-energy technologies. Moreover, it would also have a much greater chance of political success, since countries that fear signing on to costly emission targets are more likely to embrace the cheaper, smarter path of innovation.

We need to stop subsidizing inefficient technologies and trying to make fossil fuels too expensive to use. Instead, let’s fund the basic research that will make green energy too cheap to resist.

Bjorn Lomborg is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist’’ and “Cool It.’’

Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the amount of money Germany has committed to solar subsidies. It will pay more than $110 billion over the next 20 years.