THE BLOG
02/06/2015 06:09 BST | Updated 01/06/2016 06:59 BST

We Need a Global Apollo Programme to Tackle Climate Change

In the past, governments faced with existential threats have called on their scientists and engineers to provide solutions. The same should be happening now with climate change. But, incredibly, only 1% of the world's R&D which governments pay for goes on the world's greatest scientific challenge. Instead, we urgently need a concerted, international effort of research and development - a Global Apollo Programme - to remedy this GAP.

Blindingly simple logic dictates the goal of this programme. Once carbon-free energy costs less to produce than energy from fossil fuels, the fossil fuels will just stay in the ground. So the target for the GAP is to reduce the cost of clean energy and to do it fast. Within 10 years base-load electricity from wind or sun is to become less costly than from coal throughout the world.

Is this feasible? There is an almost exact precedent in the history of semi-conductors, whose price has fallen steadily for 40 years. This is called Moore's Law, but if did not happen by magic. It happened largely through a major pre-competitive programme of research and development, financed chiefly by governments. This whole effort has been coordinated by an International Technology Roadmap Committee of the world's leading countries and companies. This committee has identified year by year the bottlenecks to further price reduction, and commissioned research to unblock those obstacles.

The GAP programme will work in just the same way. Member countries will agree to spend at least 0.02% of their annual GDP for 10 years on the programme - a total expenditure similar to the original moonshot. The money will be spent in each member country but within a framework developed by the Roadmap Committee, which will be co-located with the International Energy Agency in Paris.

The top priority will be to reduce the cost of storing electricity, so that power from the sun and wind can be available 24 hours a day. (Better electricity storage is also crucial if electricity is to replace petrol in cars.) Other priorities will include cheaper electricity generation from sun and wind, and better, 'smart' grids.

In 1931 Thomas Edison said "I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don't have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that!" How right he was - to wait that long would be disastrous. But fortunately solar electricity has extraordinary potential for price reduction, already partly realised, and most energy demand in the world in 2025 will be in sunny countries, or within economic range of cloudless deserts. Wind too has great unexploited potential, while better electricity storage will improve the economics of nuclear power as well. If all countries in the world joined the GAP, the R&D effort worldwide would more than double.

The GAP proposal was developed a year ago by the seven experts listed below. Since then it has been canvassed in every G7 country and in India and China. It has received enthusiastic support worldwide, and we hope that the world's leading nations will decide to join by the end of the year.

At the same time it is essential that serious binding targets on CO2 emissions are agreed at the major climate change conference in Paris in December. The GAP programme is not an alternative to those targets - it is one way of helping countries to meet those targets. The two approaches are inseparable complements.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said "Nothing astonishes man so much as common sense". It is surely common sense that governments should harness the power of the scientific community to solve the world's leading scientific problem. We hope they will agree to do this in a quite new way by the end of this year.

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Note: A Global Apollo Programme to tackle climate change is available at www.globalapolloprogramme.org. The authors are David King, John Browne, Richard Layard, Gus O'Donnell, Martin Rees, Nicholas Stern and Adair Turner.