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Climate Change Needs America’s Technology Leadership

May 23, 2016

In December 2015, the leaders of 195 nations gathered in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. They unanimously agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. They had a further ambition to limit the global temperature rise to just 1.5 degrees, if possible.

The Paris Agreement certainly feels historic.

But will it prove to be the turning point for how we address global climate change? And what will America’s role be in helping the world reach those targets?

We know reaching the targets won’t be easy. We must stop emitting carbon dioxide sometime soon after 2050. But over that same time, global energy demand is predicted to double as developing economies and their growing populations put more strain on energy systems, especially electrical grids.

“How do we double our energy system and eliminate carbon emissions from fossil fuels at a cost that is affordable?”

The answer: affordable zero-carbon technology. And here America has a distinctive leadership role to play, as well as a competitive advantage. America is the birthplace of the electrical grid itself, the modern renewable energy industry and many of the most important energy-efficient technologies. It also gave birth to nuclear energy and carbon scrubbing. We will need lower-cost and higher-performance versions of all of these technologies, and more, to completely zero out carbon. The good news: America has the companies, the technologists and the governance structures that can do this, and then export advanced zero-carbon technologies to the world.

Diversity of approach is critical. Already dozens of studies by the world’s energy experts have weighed in on this topic—from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations Sustainable Solutions Network to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. Their conclusion will be familiar to the leaders of any large business enterprise: We must have a strategy that avoids reliance on any one approach.

There are at least four strategies that together could eliminate fossil fuel carbon emissions in the electricity sector. Each carries significant challenges, but the fate of our planet depends on taking on these challenges and finding a diversified solution.

Make energy more efficient. Today, America uses about 60 percent less energy (including oil) per unit of economic output than it did in 1970. But electricity use per unit has improved much more slowly overall, in part reflecting increased electricity use in a modern economy. And, unfortunately, the estimate of doubling energy demands to 2050 already includes an assumption that the world will maintain and quicken the U.S. pace. America can lead by producing and exporting more efficient lighting, cooling and industrial equipment. Even so, as billions of people move into the global middle class, we can lower energy growth but we cannot bend the curve.

Generate electric power from carbon-free sources such as wind and solar energy. Great progress is being made in wind and solar energy, with more than $260 billion globally spent in 2015 on these sources. But because their annual output is much lower than equivalent nonrenewable energy sources, these sources still provide less than 5 percent of the planet’s electricity. And because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, sometimes for weeks, even cheap battery storage that can handle daily variations won’t allow renewables to solve the entire problem. But American industry, with the right incentives, can invent and deploy higher-performance, lower-cost wind and solar power as well as storage. Those improvements can put a bigger dent in the problem.

Directly scrub carbon dioxide out of fossil fuels in a process known as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Three low-carbon coal and gas plants are being built today in Texas and Mississippi which, along with an operating unit in Canada, can serve as world models. We need to build more and bring costs down, then export the technology to the developing world where coal is being ramped up rapidly in the electricity sector. And we need to apply that technology domestically to our own large gas and coal fleet.

Use nuclear energy to displace coal, oil and gas. Nuclear energy provides 11 percent of the world’s electricity and 20 percent in America, but current-generation technology is more expensive than fossil fuels, slow to build and carries safety risks that many people find unacceptable. Again, America is a hotbed of innovation, with more than two dozen entrepreneurial companies developing much less costly, quicker-to-build and safer reactors. We need the policies that will support demonstration, scale-up and export of the advanced nuclear technologies that prove out.

All of this will require American ingenuity and the right policy environment. A bipartisan consensus for advanced energy technology is emerging, despite partisan disagreement on the seriousness of climate change. If we can find places where our interests align, we cannot only help solve climate change but play to our strengths in the global economy.

Originally posted on A.T. Kearney’s America@250 site in partnership with The Wall Street Journal’s Custom Studios,

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