For the past 20 years the orthodox response to the threat of climate change has been focused on the search for a global agreement to reduce emissions. Such an approach is entirely logical and rational. Climate change is a global risk and so everyone should be involved in the response.
The only problem is that the approach has failed. The Paris conference in 2015 brought people together and collected a range of loose promises from almost every country in the world. Those promises in aggregate were inadequate, and some have already been forgotten as regimes have changed, not least in the US. Many countries are taking action to mitigate climate change, but these actions don’t add up to an answer. Potential global solutions such as a universal carbon tax remain off the agenda.
There has been some progress. The production of renewable energy has become cheaper, thanks mainly to the Chinese, and energy is being used more efficiently. But the advances have been slow. The result is that hydrocarbons continue to provide 80 per cent of global energy supplies and will still be supplying some 74 per cent in 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.
Meanwhile, emissions continue to rise and the latest estimates from the International Energy Agency predict they will rise again this year. As the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reminds us, the clock is ticking and we are getting ever closer to the moment when the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere reaches a level likely, in the view of the scientists, to produce fundamental changes in the world’s climate.
In these circumstances we need a different approach. We cannot afford to wait for an age of collective rationality to dawn and for the sceptics in world governments to change their minds.
What is the alternative? The best hope for limiting emissions comes from the application of science to the energy market. That means finding sources of energy that can be made available to all the world’s citizens, at a price they can afford, enabling them to switch away from the carbon-intensive fuels such as coal that are the main source of the problem. If politics cannot solve climate change, perhaps science and economics can do better.
New techniques to store renewable electricity would be a great advance making sustainable power available worldwide. Dramatic gains in the efficiency of energy consumption may also be within reach. And there could be other answers to be found if we looked.
We cannot wait for universal agreement to implement this Plan B. A coalition of the willing would be more effective and would avoid the delays caused if we wait for the slowest movers. If this means that some countries are simply passengers taking a free ride, so what? The end result matters much more than who pays for it, or whether the answer comes from the University of Cambridge or Tsinghua in China.
Such a plan needs money and the sources of funds should be as broad as possible — from governments, foundations and even investors who are prepared to take a risk in the hope of a return. If someone makes money from finding the answer, who cares?
Some years ago a group of scientists launched the Global Apollo Programme to Combat Climate Change at the London School of Economics — a concept designed in the belief that science could produce answers to a clear challenge just as happened in the 1960s space programme in the US. This initiative needs to be made global. It should begin with an open-minded approach and a willingness to fund work which offers the prospect of practical answers.
Politics may have failed, but rationality has not. If one approach does not work, the logic is to try another.
The writer is an energy commentator for the FT and chair of the Kings Policy Institute at King’s College London