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$10.5 Trillion by 2030: The New “It” Number?

Should “$100 billion a year for the rest of the century” become the new “80 percent by 2050?” Should $10.5 trillion by 2030 join 450 parts per million as an “it” number of the global climate dialogue?

  Post-Copenhagen, it sure seems so.

After all the extraordinary chaos of the Copenhagen climate talks last month a good case can be made that a world climate discussion pervaded with targets and baselines and schedules for atmospheric carbon concentrations, carbon dioxide emission cuts, and global temperature change needs to pay attention to some other numbers as well--notably, numbers projecting the scale of the investment in technological change needed to get the work done.

 Even before the Copenhagen conclave, a number of commentators had begun to make the point. Ranging from the Canadian economists Isabel Galiana and Christopher Green to Jesse Jenkins and Devon Swezey of the Breakthrough Institute, these voices argued that the climate community’s heavy focus on schedules and regulatory targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions has tended to crowd out adequate consideration of the means--technological and economic--for achieving such goals. Galiana and Green calculated that emissions reductions consistent with minimizing the rise in global temperature could be achieved by investing $100 billion a year for the rest of the century in global energy R&D, testing, demonstration, and infrastructure, while Jenkins and Swezey pointed to a $10.5 trillion by 2030 figure estimated by the International Energy Agency, the world energy watchdog.

Now these numbers appear even more salient. Coming out of the climate talks it seems that technology breakthroughs and tech transfer are going to move much closer to the center of the debate. In this respect, the gross shortcomings of the Copenhagen convention dealt a serious blow to the notion that a single all-inclusive United Nations process could succeed primarily by binding hundreds of varied nations to a scientifically justifiable but politically and economically challenging regulatory regime of scheduled greenhouse gas emissions cuts. At the same time, as I wrote last week, the 11th-hour dealings that President Obama led to salvage something from the meeting (along with his remarks as he left the convention hall) offered real hope because they suggested that progress can actually be made through direct, practical dealings and that technology innovation may be one of the areas within which to make it.

In view of that, it seems even more important than it did for the world climate community to locate, and take seriously, authoritative numbers that make apparent the scale needed for credible long-term spending on energy R&D, technology, and infrastructure.

Which is where $10.5 trillion by 2030 comes in. Ten and one-half trillion dollars is the additional global investment in low-carbon energy technologies and energy efficiency between now and 2030 needed to set the world on a sustainable development path that limits the long-term concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million and global temperature rise to around 2°C above pre-industrial levels, according to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook—2009. A challenge to both the private and public sectors, to developed as well as developing countries, this figure highlights the fact that regardless of what regulatory international gas reduction targets the world establishes, the actual work of reducing carbon emissions will “a technological problem,” as TIME’s Bryan Walsh writes. Or to put it another way, the figure $10.5 trillion by 2030 declares objectively and indelibly that battle against climate change requires remaking the world energy system with new technologies, many of which don’t exist, or don’t exist cheaply enough, and that we’d better get to work on that in earnest.

In sum, the global climate community needs to add another number to its agenda. To avoid truly disruptive world temperature increases requires getting atmospheric carbon dioxide stabilized at 450 parts per million, but to get to 450 will require $10.5 trillion.