We can’t wait for a magic solution to climate change

Spending money on low-carbon technology today isn’t a waste – it’s what will make future breakthroughs possible.

Judging the true environmental cost of any technology is incredibly difficult. Materials, manufacturing, distribution, lifetime usage ­– all these things add up. So it’s fair to question whether items that claim to be environmentally friendly really make a direct contribution to attempts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s the latest approach being taken by controversial Danish writer Bjørn Lomborg in an attempt to challenge mainstream thinking on climate change. Lomborg, who has a PhD in political science, has spent much of the last 15 years arguing with climate scientists on the extent to which global temperatures are likely to rise due to greenhouse gas emissions, most notably in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist.

His more recent ideas have focused around our responses to the problem of man-made global warming (which he agrees exists), and he has argued against spending vast sums of money on technologies that are not yet effective or cheap enough to have a substantial impact, most recently taking on the topic of electric vehicles.

Some of his basic points are hard to argue with: current mitigation efforts in the West are costly and ineffective; most future emissions will come from the developing world; wind turbines and solar panels are still too expensive; and electric cars still have too great an impact on the environment.

The Engineer would also, unsurprisingly, be in favour of increasing research into new technologies, as Lomborg suggests. But none of these points add up to a convincing argument that we shouldn’t be buying environmental technology now. The idea that we can or should just wait for scientists to invent better ways of producing clean energy or powering vehicles misunderstands the way technology is developed, rolled out and taken up (and ignores much of the role of engineers).

Technology doesn’t go straight from a lab to our homes, roads or power stations. It must be optimised, scaled up, manufactured and, crucially, paid for. We can’t wait for a university spin-out firm to suddenly start mass-producing the ideal electric vehicle. We need the existing automotive supply chain to bring their considerable expertise to the problem of manufacturing every component in the most efficient and cost-effective way. People must see owning an EV as a practical solution for their needs, which requires both education and a decent charging infrastructure. And none of this will happen unless at least some people start buying electric cars now.

Solar panels have already seen a dramatic fall in price in recent years, not because a scientist suddenly came up with a new design for solar energy collection but because Chinese firms in particular developed better manufacturing methods. And it’s hard to see how or why they would have done it without subsidies to encourage the creation of a market for solar in the first place.

Lomborg is right that renewable energy won’t really become widespread until it is cost competitive with fossil fuels. Yet the hydrocarbon industry has received heavy subsidies for years, which have helped it to become a source of cheap power. So why shouldn’t renewables receive government support if we agree that they need to be part of the solution to cutting emissions?

There’s almost always an argument for making subsidies better targeted and more effective, and it’s easy for governments to make a mess of them, as the recent debacle over UK solar feed-in tariffs shows. But technological breakthroughs on their own are unlikely to be be enough to displace established marketplaces.

There’s another underlying point in all this. Lomborg says it won’t matter if the West spends lots of money on reducing its emissions if developing countries increase theirs. Indeed, if the UK scrapped its carbon cutting efforts all together it would probably make very little direct impact on global temperatures.

However, as the countries who have benefited the most from fossil fuel-powered industrialisation – and the one’s who hold most of the world’s wealth – developed nations have a responsibility to create the solutions to prevent runaway climate change. If we don’t do it, then how can we ask the rest of the world to act on our behalf?