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UN Climate Negotiations and the Race to the Top (of the Clean Energy Heap)

The ongoing failure of UN climate negotiations – which resume in Cancun later this month – is often characterized as consigning the world to a “race to the bottom” on emissions. It’s a popular characterization of a complex, messy process. Before this rhetoric starts again, however, we wanted to take a minute to remind folks about the other race, for the development of clean technology. This race is in fact a “race to the top,” and fortunately, it’s happening whether climate negotiations are successful or not.

First, let’s unpack what this “race to the bottom” characterization means a bit. As the argument goes, binding international agreements are needed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions. Views vary on these targets: some say we need to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2-equivalent gases at 450 parts per million; others say 350; and others identify the goal of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Whatever the target, the feeling is that without a binding international agreement, nations will each choose (or not choose) their own path to reducing emissions. If nations have this freedom, competitive pressures will lead some to pursue less stringent targets and policies than others to avoid limiting or displacing domestic industries. If some delay, then so will others – hence, a “race to the bottom.”

The logic to this argument is sound. International emissions reductions are a classic free-rider problem. But it’s difficult to see a viable solution without a Herculean effort to produce the next generation of affordable clean energy sources. A low-carbon energy supply is going to have to come from somewhere, and it’s clear that existing technology can get us a long way, but not all the way – not entirely, as others have argued. If negotiations are somehow successful, and binding, stringent international emissions targets are reached? Then a future supply of innovative technologies becomes critical to meet them. Of course, without a binding agreement, productive and affordable energy technology is also critical in the long run, to displace fossil fuels in industrialized nations and to enable higher quality of life in the developing world.

So the real race is to see who can become the market leader in inventing, manufacturing, and exporting the next wave of clean technology. As we’ve argued in the report we coauthored with the Breakthrough Institute, Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant, China, South Korea, and others have recognized the reality of this race, and are putting their money where their mouths are. Just recently, South Korea announced plans to pour more than $8 billion into offshore wind. And foreign firms are investing heavily in China’s cleantech sector, thanks to aggressive (and occasionally mercantilist) commitments from the central government. Meanwhile, public investment in advanced energy technology in the U.S. chugs along at a few billion per year – far from what’s needed.

Make no mistake, the climate negotiations can be an important tool in fostering a multilateral dialogue about the array of climate-related issues facing the international system, including emissions reductions, adaptation assistance for developing countries, and technology-transfer agreements for environmental and low-carbon technology. But as climate advocates turn their eyes to Cancun, they should keep in mind the other race – because the international consequences of that race are just as huge.

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