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Chapter 11: Accelerating INnovation

This book argues that the most important contribution of solar to climate change is in the wrong but useful model it provides for other low-carbon technologies we will need.  The solar model is wrong in that it doesn’t apply to all low-carbon technologies and also because there will always be technological idiosyncrasies that require adaptation of the model to guide the efforts deployed to catalyze innovation in them.  Solar’s model is useful in that, as described in Chapter 1, the technology has been successful; its evolution can be accurately traced, as shown in Chapters 2-8; and general findings can be ascertained (Chapter 9) and applied to other analogous technologies (Chapter 10). 


Having described the evolution of solar and developed general findings, I conclude with three points:


  1. We know how to accelerate innovation for technologies analogous to PV

    • Understanding the evolution of PV provides lessons for scaling up analogous technologies.  There is nothing inevitable about the rapid development and widespread adoption of low-carbon technologies.  Rather, intentional policy and purposive investment will be needed and sustained over many years.  Government actions can play the role of a catalyst for each of the nine innovation accelerators (​continuous R&D, public procurement, trained workforce, codify knowledge, disruptive production, robust markets, knowledge spillovers, global mobility, and political economy). 

  2. We need to develop other models for different types of technologies:

    • The scale of the climate challenge requires massive adoption of low-carbon technologies beyond those that are analogous to solar.  Consequently, we will need other innovation models, as well as other accelerators, for those technology types not analogous with solar (Type-2, Type-3, and Type-4 as outlined in Chapter 10). ​

  3. We need to fit those models in the appropriate national context by considering the distinct attributes of that national innovation system:

    • Distinct innovation capabilities in each country mean that some of these models are better suited for some innovation environments over others.  The combinations of the inherently global aspects of low-carbon innovation, and insights from the National Innovation System (NIS) literature, makes clear that innovation models will function well in places with the proper institutions and capacity to make them function well​. We need different innovation models for different technologies—but we also need to fit the right innovation models with a country’s distinct national innovation system. 


These implications are followed by a chart summarizing the nine ways to accelerate innovation and eight reasons to be optimistic about addressing the challenges of climate change.

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  1. Low-carbon technologies have continued to progress, improve, and become cheaper. The accumulation of improvements is making the transition to a cheap, clean, and reliable energy system far more feasible than it was just a few years ago.

  2.  International cooperation on climate change is stronger than it has been since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997.  Just over three years ago, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change did not exist. Now nearly 200 countries have signed on. While the national plans to date do not put us on a pathway to avoiding temperatures above 2 degrees, we are in far better shape with the Paris Agreement in place than without. 

  3. Countries and local governments are learning from the experience of other governments in climate-related policy more generally. Over two decades of diverse policies and initiatives have now been tried: research funding, tax credits, demonstration projects, feed-in tariffs, renewable portfolio standards, building codes, cap and trade systems, and hybrid policies.    The opportunities for policy learning in climate change are higher than they have ever been. 

  4. The determination to address a problem has overcome challenges involved with international cooperation, long time-horizons, and powerful affected interests.  The phase out of lead in gasoline, reduction of acid rain, and repairing the ozone hole are successes we can learn from.  None are quite as difficult as climate change, but like the model of PV for technology, it is much easier to learn from small successes than from large failures.

  5. Communities have strong incentives to adapt to a changing climate.  Innovation in adaptation is not only possible, but its development, through successful adaptation models, will also enhance communities’ abilities to make them more resilient to climatic changes.

  6.  Substantial co-benefits result from reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as such as cleaner air, energy cost savings, energy security, and increased employment.  

  7. Low-carbon economies need not involve sacrifice.  There are an increasing number of examples of cities and countries with much less energy-intensive economies, but high quality of life—for example in terms of health, education, and income.  

  8. People in their 20s and 30s have high stakes in the outcomes of what society does on climate change. As a teacher, it is heartening to see their engagement, whether as activists, technologists or in an array of roles that they are inventing for themselves.

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