Bjørn Lomborg—one of the most controversial figures on the climate change scene—previewed his new film, “Cool It,” at the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, October 5, in Washington, D.C.  Directed by Ondi Timoner, “Cool It” is a documentary that begins by chronicling Lomborg’s early life and career in Denmark and ends by outlining his plan to mitigate the impacts of climate change. This may seem like a reversal of course for a self-proclaimed “skeptical environmentalist,” but Lomborg maintains he has always thought that climate change is a real and important issue. He said in my conversation with him after the screening that he felt climate change needed to be addressed, and that the film is a vehicle to articulate his solutions.

Bjørn Lomborg

Bjørn Lomborg - Wikimedia Creative Commons / Simon Wedege

Lomborg proposes a plan that relies on investment in research and development. The plan has a budget of $250 billion per year, set to equal an estimate of what the EU will spend to reach its two key climate policy goals: 1) reducing greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 2) simultaneously achieving a 20 percent renewable share in its overall energy supply. In this assessment of the EU 20/20/20 policy for the Copenhagen Consensus Center (a think-tank that Lomborg founded and now directs), the policy would yield only three cents of benefit for every Euro invested and decrease global temperature by just 0.05 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Rather, Lomborg argues, this money, equivalent to 1.3 percent of the EU’s GDP, should be invested in research and development.  He suggests that such an R&D fund be financed by a global carbon tax of $7 per metric ton. [For more on the economics of climate change, read the recent ReVolt post, “Climate Change and Its Cost – What Is at Stake?”]

In “Cool It,” Lomborg explains his plan to invest $100 billion a year on R&D of green energy technologies and $1 billion a year on R&D for geo-engineering. While the film spends most of its 89 minutes discussing new green energy technologies, it does highlight some geo-engineering proposals that plan to temporarily manipulate Earth’s climate to offset the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. [Geo-engineering will be the topic of a forthcoming ReVolt post.] After the R&D, there is $149 billion a year left in his budget, which Lomborg intends to spend on adaptive technologies (retroactive climate change management) and other pressing global issues, such as poverty, malnutrition, and clean drinking water.

During our conversation, Lomborg described his plan to invest in R&D until a cost-competitive technology to coal is developed. When the technology is mature enough to be implemented, everyone will switch over. While Lomborg admitted that it is possible that such a solution may not be found, he argued that it is much more likely that it will. He dismissed investing now in solar and wind power because they are too expensive, saying that funding projects today would only push the economy further into debt. So after all that talk about fixing the climate, he wants to wait on any concrete actions.

While funding for renewable energy R&D is essential on the road to a low-carbon energy economy, it should not be the only area of investment. “Cool It” does not mention the obvious corollary of Lomborg’s investment plan: by solely investing in R&D, there will be no funding for on-the-ground implementation of renewable energy. This effectively means that business will continue as usual for the foreseeable future until a magical breakthrough occurs—albeit with some research institutions having fatter wallets. Lomborg seems to have neglected that innovation does not happen only in laboratories and universities, but frequently in the private sector as well. Investing now in renewable energy systems, better transmission lines, and energy efficiency and conservation initiatives are just as critical as R&D to a sustainable future.

Renewable energy has a multitude of benefits beyond cutting emissions. Investment in deploying renewable energy technologies now will increase energy security, ignored in Lomborg’s climate plan. The U.S. Department of Defense has long advocated for a diverse energy portfolio so that the United States is not reliant on any one energy source and reduces its dependence on energy imports. Closely tied to the topic of energy security is the discussion of finite resources. There is a consensus in the scientific community that fossil fuel reserves are finite. At some point (though timeframes vary greatly), we will have to switch to other energy sources, particularly renewable sources, which do not have fuel constraints. Renewable energy will be at the core of the world’s energy future—the only question is when these technologies will be implemented.

Investing in renewable energy systems now will have a substantial impact on job creation as well as science education. Building and maintaining new renewable energy infrastructure will create “green-collar jobs.” These jobs require a skilled, educated workforce and cannot be outsourced. Renewable energy also plays a large and growing role in the advancement and promotion of science, math, and engineering. Lomborg is right to propose renewable energy R&D in order to assemble a strong knowledge base. But his plan is incomplete. Renewable energy education needs to be infused into various academic settings—K-12 classes, community college training courses, workforce development seminars—in addition to research at laboratories and universities.

Renewable energy investments can also have a significant positive impact in the developing world. According to the International Energy Agency, 1.5 billion people worldwide live with no electricity. In rural areas without access to the electric grid, renewable energy systems are often the simplest and most cost-effective solution to electrification. Rural electrification provides more than just lighting; it can tackle some of the other global problems that Lomborg’s plan prioritizes by, say, operating a pump that draws clean water from a well or charging a computer that children use at school.

Renewable energy can also greatly improve local health conditions. In developing countries, where the diesel generator is still the default electrification solution, installing small-scale solar photovoltaic systems and wind systems would decrease air quality-related health problems in localized areas. Energy production has direct health impacts in urban areas as well. For example, air pollution is a critical problem in Chinese cities, due largely to the burning of coal. A transition to wind and solar power would considerably improve air quality in China, a move that the Chinese government has recently endorsed.

With the many benefits of deploying renewable energy, I cannot get over Lomborg’s de facto inactivity. In spite of his attempt to deliver a balanced, multi-faceted solution, Lomborg’s plan is relatively simplistic: invest in renewable energy R&D until a silver bullet technology is found. I, for one, don’t want to play Russian roulette with our planet’s future. I strongly believe that simultaneous investment in project implementation, equipment manufacturing, science education, and job training programs—along with R&D—will be a more effective way forward. Many useful technologies have already been developed. Let’s start using them now.

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Bjørn Lomborg, Climate Change, Cool It, EU 20/20/20 policy, Green Technology, Heritage Foundation, low-carbon roadmap, Ondi Timoner, renewable energy investment, renewable energy R&D, research and development, Skeptical Environmentalist