President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris agreement on climate change is a serious foreign policy blunder.
On top of this, his proposed budget seriously endangers another international commitment: America’s “Mission Innovation” pledge, along with 21 other countries and the European Union, to double funding for energy innovation.
The two commitments are intimately linked. Meeting the goals in the Paris agreement will require the development of new clean energy technologies, in addition to rapid deployment of existing technologies. Yet researchers and entrepreneurs face numerous obstacles to developing and commercializing next-generation technologies. For instance, public funding for energy research and development lags that for other priorities, like health and space, and limited private capital for new clean energy technology ventures has become increasingly scarce.
That’s why the Mission Innovation pledge, signed at the Paris climate change conference, was such a big deal. Mission Innovation is an especially promising initiative to advance global clean energy innovation because of its political prominence and a membership that accounts for nearly all global energy R&D funding. A key part of this pledge was an agreement by all members to double their public clean energy research and development (R&D) budgets over five years.
This would be a boon for innovation. In a recent article in the journal Energy Research and Social Science, we estimated that Mission Innovation could help global levels of public R&D funding reach over $32 billion per year by 2021. And since the inaugural summit in San Francisco in 2016, ministers from around the world have made progress in standing up a multi-national secretariat, adding new members, and agreeing on a set of activities and goals.
But the world risks halting this newly-established momentum as the United States — the biggest funder of energy innovation worldwide — contemplates slashing domestic funding for energy R&D.
The Trump administration’s budget proposal would cut funding for some technologies, like renewable energy, by up to 70 percent. And it would also zero out funding for the staff that currently run Mission Innovation's operations out of the Department of Energy. It is currently unclear whether the U.S. will remain a member of the group. It is similarly unclear that Mission Innovation can achieve its original goal to double R&D without U.S. contributions. And with declining R&D budgets, the basis for Mission Innovation could quickly unravel.
Next week, members are meeting at the June 2017 Beijing Ministerial to make key decisions around the future of the initiative. But Mission Innovation does not have to stick to the priorities expressed at its conception. In particular, there are many ways that the group can improve the quality of energy R&D and even induce new quantities of private funds — without doubling the quantity of public funds.
First, member states should reframe the initiative away from its primary goal of doubling public R&D funding. This may continue to be one of many goals, and several countries are making admirable plans to fulfill their commitments. But without progress from the United States, Mission Innovation will likely fall woefully short of its target.
Rather than stake the initiative’s success on this figure, member states should elevate the importance of several other activities. These include facilitating information sharing, identifying innovation needs, spurring international collaborations, and attracting private sector participation. In fact, these were featured in Mission Innovation's launch statement, but overshadowed by the quantitative doubling target.
Ultimately, they can allow Mission Innovation to be an overarching framework for global energy innovation efforts, enabling opportunistic collaborations and accelerating domestic investment plans.
Member states should also make arrangements to provide a permanent, well-resourced home for Mission Innovation, given that the United States is unlikely to continue to support the secretariat.
In our ERSS article, we discuss several options for hosting Mission Innovation's secretariat. Ultimately, we recommend that member states share the financial cost of the staff and facilities, which is relatively small. This approach is the best way to keep all member states engaged and to reinforce the inclusive and bottom-up ethos that defines the initiative. It also would mean that no single country could undermine Mission Innovation's future.
Finally, member states in Beijing may be tempted to shun the United States as it begins to retreat from its prior position of climate leadership. We caution against this approach. Even if the United States does not contribute to Mission Innovation's quantitative doubling goal, it is still the epicenter of global energy innovation, has valuable institutional knowledge to share, and might reassert leadership if its domestic politics shift in subsequent elections. Therefore, member states should take the long view and engage America constructively in advancing Mission Innovation goals.
Allowing the United States to save face might require creative thinking. For example, member states might allow the United States to put forth a more politically tractable R&D doubling plan that focuses only on selected technologies, like nuclear power and carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration.
Importantly, Energy Secretary Perry will be attending Beijing. This suggests that the U.S. is open to supporting the initiative's goals.
For now, countries still have a window of opportunity to enable Mission Innovation to fulfill its promise and accelerate global energy innovation. In Beijing and in the near future, the United States will not play its customary role of shepherding support for clean energy innovation. But the stakes are too high for energy innovation to slip down countries’ agendas.
Sustained energy innovation is crucial to enabling a clean energy transition this century. With a secure foundation, Mission Innovation is well placed to reinvigorate innovation and reaffirm the role of technology and technologists in averting catastrophic climate change.
Daniel L. Sanchez is a postdoctoral research scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California. Varun Sivaram is the Douglas Dillon Fellow and acting director of the program on energy security and climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations.