THE BLOG

Green Race: The Next Space Race?

27/05/2015 12:04 BST | Updated 26/05/2016 10:59 BST

By Adriana Guerenabarrena - Energy Economist

Sahar Mansoor - MPhil in Environmental Policy University of Cambridge 2014

Image courtesy of Kittisak at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

During the Space Race, when the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. competed to put the first person on the Moon, they used computing technology no more powerful than a pocket calculator. While unperceivable at the time, the investment in rapid technological development from both countries led to many technological advances now widely used in civilian life, from ultrasound medical devices, to water and air filtration, LEDs in cancer treatment, GPS, and laptops. More recently, when India and China fiercely competed to see who could send a satellite to Mars, this technological competition led to the development of the most inexpensive Mars mission to date; costing only $73 million. To put that into context the European Space Agency's 2003 Mars Express Orbiter mission cost $386 million and the 2013 box office hit Gravity, with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, cost $110 million. it is evident that the Space Race is singlehandedly responsible for many lifesaving technologies that otherwise may not have been made. These developments demonstrate that the rewards of scientific research are far vaster than the people pursuing them can even imagine. Now, it is time for the Green Race.

As this year's UNFCCC Conference of the Parties approaches, it is time for countries to compete for the title of World's Greenest Country i.e compete in a Green Race. The Green Race involves investments in renewable energy, agriculture efficiency, emissions reduction, waste treatment, materials research, and education of engineers and other creative minds to solve future problems. This is not an act of charity: going green will push innovation and should be at the core of long-term economic interests for all countries.

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The Case for a Green Race

Going green has social, ethical and economic benefits. Economically, one could argue that green investments don't make sense in the short term, because of investor myopia: it is not that investors are irrational, but rather that it's hard to assess the long term benefits of green investments, whereas the costs are quite clear. If you were told that there's an investment that you can make today that will give you a big and certain amount of money next year, and then a very likely big and uncertain loss in 20 years -- you would probably take the risk because of the guaranteed short-term payoff. This is why we still invest in oil and coal. Therefore, what we need is something that makes green investments return certain and positive profit today. Better yet, something that makes them more profitable than any alternatives.

Now, how do we turn expensive technology into a profitable business today? The answer is in regulation. One example is patents; patents are a form of regulation that have turned quite expensive investments, like pharmaceutical R&D, into very profitable businesses. Similar regulatory developments can be used in a legally binding way in the framework agreements for climate change. Hence, from the UNFCCC's Conference of the Parties in Paris 2015 we would expect not just a 'legally binding instrument' that commits us to reducing emissions, but a legally binding regulatory framework that initiates the Green Race. This would involve, green taxation and freedoms for countries to be regulation innovators (thus putting them into a competition of who regulates the best to become a 'green superpower').

A 'legally binding instrument' to reduce emissions, which is what global leaders intend to achieve in Paris, is simpler than a brand new regulatory framework for a Green Race, but it is not enough, just as the Kyoto Protocol was not enough. For developing countries (which are responsible for about 59% of global emissions) the priority is to feed their populations and to keep growing, which relegates green investments to a less relevant place in the priorities list -- even if it is legally binding (who doesn't breach a few international laws from time to time, right?)... Unless being green makes them a lot of money through green innovation. This is why it is essential that any legally binding framework rewards green innovations and encourages green growth in all countries, not just the wealthy ones.

This sounds all very well, but if you live in a big, rich country, you might feel that climate change will not affect you very much - there's a lot of land to run to and your government will help you when times are tough. But now consider that when climate change gets worse, poor countries will not be able to produce the food you eat; and your city will receive immigrants and refugees from areas where life is no longer possible. So xenophobes, and people who like to eat, please form an orderly queue to sign the Green Race petition.

Conclusion

Climate change has consistently been shelved time and again in the policy realm, but the upcoming UNFCCC climate negotiations in Paris offers a great opportunity for all countries to strive to be green superpowers. The world needs to shift from an inconsistent environmental policy to one that fosters protection, innovation, and encourages stewardship towards our planet. Every country has exhibited leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship potential in the past and this spirit still exists, continuously waiting to solve the problems presented to us. Every day, people originate new ideas for a cleaner, greener and more efficient world. But innovation rarely happens in leaps and it never happens in isolation. "Going Green" has to be more than just a collection of individual actions; it has to be a new lifestyle. Collaboration and cooperation is the need of the hour - by government intervention, open dialogue, and creating the right economic incentives, individual countries, and the whole world, can experience huge gains from green innovation, similar to how everyone has benefited from the innovations of the Space Race. Right now the world needs a green leader to herald this new era. Going green is a social, environmental, and economic necessity lying at the heart of every country's security.