The International Energy Agency (IEA) has updated its Energy Technology Research, Development and Demonstration (RD&D) Budget Database. The database illustrates trends in public research spending across different energy technologies in IEA member countries going back to 1977.
The update shows a continuing trend in renewables: research expenditure for them has not changed or fallen since the 2015 Paris Agreement. One of the core decisions adopted in the Paris Agreement was for its signees to engage in a period of ambition raising and capacity building from 2016-2020. This was demonstrated when twenty world leaders, including Barack Obama and David Cameron, made a promise to double their countries’ green energy research and development by 2020. The IEA data show that spending, when expressed as a proportion of GDP and compared in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, has stagnated or fallen. The UK government currently spends around 0.02% of its GDP on green energy research. This is below the average 0.03% that rich OECD countries publicly spend. The UK places sixth in IEA member countries for gross public expenditure on green energy research.
The Copenhagen Consensus – a project that lists development priorities and strategies for advancing global welfare – found that research expenditure was among the more cost-effective ways to fight climate change. Research is urgently needed to develop renewable energy systems that can fully replace baseload generation from fossil fuels because the problem of renewable energy intermittency has not yet been solved. For this reason, it is likely that carbon reduction commitments are likely to stifle economic development. The link between research spending and economic development might already be seen: UK employment in renewable energy fell 30% between 2014 and 2017, and investment in it halved between 2015 and 2017, according to a report from Prospect.
Shortfalls in research expenditure stand in contrast with an evolving rhetoric in sustainability. Governments like the UK’s that recognise a climate emergency must adopt science-backed strategies to fight climate change. For now, a key component of these strategies is a huge increase in research expenditure if Paris Agreement targets hope to be achieved.
Sources: The Guardian, iea.org
Nick Fedson MEng MSc
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