Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why Nothing Can Replace Innovation

Huffington Post


After retiring from Microsoft, and devoting his energy to steering the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, trusted with Warren Buffet's fortune as well, Bill Gates applied his understanding of technology to the problem of human impact on global climate change.

In his blog on Huffington Post, Bill Gates made clear the scope and magnitude of what confronts humanity in the next few decades, in this century, and in the coming millenium.

While most people focussed on the question of reducing green house gases using conventional means, Bill Gates observed that conventional means simply cannot solve the problem due to the magnitude of what's ahead.

Given the nature of consumption, of traditional industrial society, conventional technologies cannot reduce green house gases production without reducing a society's standard of living. It is the reason he stated for the importance of innovation. New processes must be invented to produce the same standard of living without producing green house gases.

Without innovation, the world can, at best, delay the inevitable, by reducing, recycling, and reusing. No matter how efficient we are at using conventional technologies, they will always produce green house gases that impact global climate change. Given the population of the world today, any emission, when mulitiplied by the increasingly developed world with an increasing population, will impact on global climate. Human impact on the world is unavoidable. We can only choose HOW we impact on the world.

Yes, we need to improve efficiency, but more importantly, we need innovation that will change existing processes. Without innovation, we cannot collectively escape the inevitable rise in global temperatures, in sea levels, and the eventual exhausted resources leaving future generations poorer, living below the standard of living that we enjoy today, in the developed world.


People often present two timeframes that we should have as goals for CO2 reduction - 30% (off of some baseline) by 2025 and 80% by 2050.

I believe the key one to achieve is 80% by 2050.

But we tend to focus on the first one since it is much more concrete.

We don't distinguish properly between things that put you on a path to making the 80% goal by 2050 and things that don't really help.

To make the 80% goal by 2050 we are going to have to reduce emissions from transportation and electrical production in participating countries down to zero.

You will still have emissions from other activities including domestic animals, making fertilizer, and decay processes.

There will still be countries that are too poor to participate.

If the goal is to get the transportation and electrical sectors down to zero emissions you clearly need innovation that leads to entirely new approaches to generating power.

Should society spend a lot of time trying to insulate houses and telling people to turn off lights or should it spend time on accelerating innovation?

If addressing climate change only requires us to get to the 2025 goal, then efficiency would be the key thing.

But you can never insulate your way to anything close to zero no matter what advocates of resource efficiency say. You can never reduce consumerism to anything close to zero.

Because 2025 is too soon for innovation to be completed and widely deployed, behavior change still matters.

Still, the amount of CO2 avoided by these kinds of modest reduction efforts will not be the key to what happens with climate change in the long run.

In fact it is doubtful that any such efforts in the rich countries will even offset the increase coming from richer lifestyles in places like China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, etc.

Innovation in transportation and electricity will be the key factor.

One of the reasons I bring this up is that I hear a lot of climate change experts focus totally on 2025 or talk about how great it is that there is so much low hanging fruit that will make a difference.

This mostly focuses on saving a little bit of energy, which by itself is simply not enough. The need to get to zero emissions in key sectors almost never gets mentioned. The danger is people will think they just need to do a little bit and things will be fine.

If CO2 reduction is important, we need to make it clear to people what really matters - getting to zero.

With that kind of clarity, people will understand the need to get to zero and begin to grasp the scope and scale of innovation that is needed.

However all the talk about renewable portfolios, efficiency, and cap and trade tends to obscure the specific things that need to be done.

To achieve the kinds of innovations that will be required I think a distributed system of R&D with economic rewards for innovators and strong government encouragement is the key. There just isn't enough work going on today to get us to where we need to go.

My point is not to denigrate efficiency. Slowing the growth of CO2 ppm is of course a good thing. And there are of course lots of cheap, and in many cases self-funding efficiency gains to be made.

We should at the least fix market barriers and dysfunctions that prevent these gains from being realized. That's just being smart.

But it's not enough to slow the growth of CO2 given the strength of demand driven by the poor who need to get access energy. And, we have to actually stop it at some point.

No amount of insulation will get us there, only innovating our way to essentially 0-carbon energy technology will do it. If we focus on just efficiency to the exclusion of innovation, or imagine that we can worry about efficiency first and worry about energy innovation later, we won't get there.

The world is distracted from what counts on this issue in a big way.

No comments:

Post a Comment