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An opportunity for Canadian leadership on climate change

by Alan Bernstein Nov 18 / 16

The election of Donald Trump in the US last week was unexpected (at least to me) and it will take some time before we know the consequences for policy on a wide variety of issues.

alan-bernstein-portrait-2015-250x357One of the most important areas for the world is the future of the battle against climate change. Trump has called climate change “a hoax,” and threatened to withdraw the US from the landmark Paris Agreement signed by over 100 countries, including Canada, a year ago.

This new period of uncertainty calls for even greater clarity and focus from the international community. While energy conservation and greater energy efficiency is important, the growth in the earth’s population, as well as economic development in China and the developing world, means that the demand for energy will at least double over the next few decades. Ultimately, the solution to climate change requires disruptive new technologies that do not result in the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the earth’s atmosphere.

Fortunately, Canada is in an excellent position to lead these efforts. Our country is respected as an honest international broker. Under Prime Minister Trudeau we have emerged as a leader in the battle against global warming. And just as important, Canada possesses a strong and highly credible research community

My experience at CIFAR has shown that the scientific community in Canada and around the world stands ready to work together to address global challenges, whether it is child well being or climate change and renewable energy. CIFAR’s program in Bio-Inspired Solar Energy includes scientists and engineers from eight countries and as many disciplines. Program fellows are working together to figure out how to ‘hack photosynthesis;’ that is, they want to learn from Nature how photosynthesis, the process by which plants and algae convert energy from the sun into the movement of electrons, works and use that knowledge to develop disruptive new technologies for harvesting and storing solar energy.

But it will take more than one program to solve this problem. Climate change is a global challenge that requires a global approach. Even if the US abides by its Paris commitments, public spending on research into renewable energy is simply too low and too fragmented to achieve even the modest commitments made at the Paris Climate Change Conference. Research spending stands at about US$6.5 billion a year, or less than 2 per cent of global public research and development spending, according to data from the International Energy Agency.

What’s needed now is an integrated global energy initiative that brings together the world’s best scientists, engineers and innovators to develop cost-effective and robust forms of renewable energy for both the developed and developing worlds.

During last year’s Paris meeting, two initiatives were announced aimed at increasing funding for clean tech research and innovation: Mission Innovation and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

Mission Innovation is made up of a group of 21 countries, including Canada, that have committed to doubling spending and working together to accelerate the development of robust forms of renewable energy. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition is a group of private investors led by Bill Gates who have committed US$2 billion to invest in innovative ideas resulting from publicly funded research in renewable energy capture and storage.

At the beginning of October, CIFAR pulled together a preeminent group of scientists, including many CIFAR fellows and a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, from a dozen countries, and published a Commentary in Nature, urging Canada and its Mission Innovation partners to agree on a set of Grand Challenges in Renewable Energy. These Grand Challenges would then drive an integrated and strategic global agenda to fund the science and innovation required to develop the disruptive new technologies required to harvest, store and transmit energy. As Bill Gates has noted, the public and private sectors have important but complementary roles to play. Only governments can support longer term high-risk research; private investors have the know-how and the resources needed to take the breakthrough science that organizations like CIFAR supports, and turn it into companies that make products for the marketplace.

There is arguably no more important and no more complex challenge today than climate change. The current political uncertainty in the United States provides an opportunity for Canada to do what it has always done best: to serve as an honest broker that brings countries and other players together to work for a common cause. Now is the time for Canada to provide the leadership needed to reach consensus amongst national governments, the private sector and the global scientific community on the scientific and technical challenges that must be addressed to solve climate change.