Climate breakthrough: Tech becomes central

Saturday’s approval of a landmark climate accord involving 195 countries is rightly being heralded as historic.

One good reason is that the world’s rich and poor nations—virtually all of them—came together in Paris as never before to establish  a comprehensive framework for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. At last, all countries have acknowledged the reality of global warming and agreed to some form of action to slow it. That’s huge.

And yet, there’s another historic dimension to the Paris convergence: For the first time, the insufficiency of existing technologies to curb global warming and the need to invest heavily in radically more effective new ones has emerged as a central—not peripheral—principle of the global climate community.

At Paris, global warming was recognized to a significant degree as an advanced technology challenge. The shift was highlighted on the eve of the Paris meeting by the dramatic announcement by Bill Gates, some of the world’s wealthiest investors, President Barack Obama, and a dozen nations of new commitments to double key nations’ funding for basic energy research in the next five years and pour 28 billionaires’ private investment capital into taking clean-energy ideas out of the lab and into the marketplace.

Beyond that, the Paris discussions—and the statements from Obama and other leaders—were frank about the fact that even if all the new emissions pledges are met (a doubtful proposition) they will still fall far short of meeting the Paris agreement’s ambitious temperature target of limiting “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.” On this front the new agreement seems to acknowledge the limitations of current technology by seeming to allude to the need to develop untried “negative emissions” technologies for sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

In so doing, the Paris accord—along with the multinational Mission Innovation R&D initiative and the billionaires’ investment pledge—mark a new degree of consensus around the recognition that the world does not now possess anywhere near the technologies needed to achieve deep reductions in carbon emissions. Technology development to make clean energy cheap and massively scalable is now a core tenet of a truly promising international commitment.

That’s a true breakthrough of a historic meeting.