King targets UN for green energy ‘Apollo mission’


September 8, 2014

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On 25 May 1961, US president John F. Kennedy told Congress that the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

When astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin finally did so in 1969, it was the result of huge ambition, huge investment and detailed planning of the Apollo space programme.

Now, the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser Sir David King says he wants to do something similar: an ‘Apollo programme’ for renewable energy technology. King is seeking to set up a global $10bn a year clean tech fund to slash the cost of renewables.

He said he hoped the plan would take a big step forward at the UN Climate Summit in New York on 23 September.

The idea is to get governments around the world to put 0.2% of GDP into a fund for research, development and demonstration of low carbon energy projects. The aim is to ensure that, by 2025, renewable power should be cheaper than coal across the world.

This is not the first time King has raised this idea. In August 2013, he wrote about the idea in an opinion piece in the Financial Times, with a focus on the solar power sector.

Our main concern is that the idea currently only has in place one of the three pillars of the original Apollo mission. Its ambition is laudable, and we would certainly welcome initiatives to get more funding from both private and public sources into research and development in the renewables sector, and wind in particular. Lack of funding is a block to tech innovation.

So it has the huge ambition, but the investment and detailed plans still look some way off.

The investment has not yet been secured. King has visited 26 countries in a bid to secure investment since first proposing the idea of a fund, and he is optimistic that it would gain the support of the US and China — the UN’s two most influential players.

Meanwhile, detailed plans for how the fund would actually operate and drive down costs of renewables are not yet clear, at least outside of King’s negotiations. It is natural that countries would want clarity about these sorts of details before they put any money in.

We also have doubts about whether countries would want to put money into this kind of fund.

If China or the US wanted to set aside money to invest in the development of green energy technology then they could do so themselves. If they gave public money directly to companies within their own national borders then they could reap the benefit of technological innovation without having to share it far and wide.

It will be interesting to see whether King on securing investment at that UN meeting later this month, and what other plans he sets out.

But, even he he doesn’t, his plan still has value.

If it opens a debate about public funding for renewable energy research, that would be a good start. If it gets countries to actually invest more, then this Apollo mission would start to take flight.

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