The global Apollo Programme is not just an inspiring clean tech vision, it is good politics -governments would be wise to embrace it
Could the Apollo Programme and its vision for low cost clean energy challenge the Northern Powerhouse for Chancellor George Osborne's affections?
It is an important question, given the project's ability to meet its goal of bringing down renewable energy costs to below that of coal power depends to a large extent on the ability to secure the $15bn a year needed to make its R&D programme a reality. It may also yet result in a surprising answer.
Osborne is often characterised as a pollutocrat bogeyman by green campaigners, but while it is true he is anything but an instinctive environmentalist his approach to climate change issues is more complex than his 'frack, baby, frack' reputation suggests. For an insight into how the Apollo Programme might yet appeal to the Chancellor, we need look no further than the initiative he seemingly cannot appear in public without mentioning: the Northern Powerhouse.
Osborne's obsession with the Northern Powerhouse provides three important insights into the Chancellor's character and priorities. Firstly, he has a genuine interest in and passion for science and engineering. He may look slightly uncomfortable in his ubiquitous high-vis jackets, but those close to him have often noted his interest in technologies such as graphene is deeply held. Secondly, and we already knew this, he is a political operator to his cuticles. The plan to direct devolved powers and investment towards the UK's northern cities is a transparent effort to extend Conservative electoral success in northern rural seats into suburban and urban Labour marginals, through the promise of good jobs and improved infrastructure.
Thirdly, he knows the value of a catchy soundbite and ad nauseum message discipline. The Northern Powerhouse (like the government's long term economic plan) remains a frustratingly amorphous and ever-evolving mixture of infrastructure investment and political reform. But in hammering home his commitment to this vague concept Osborne underlines his interest in the world beyond London and allows himself to take credit for pretty much any positive economic development north of Birmingham.
You do not have to be one of the eminent peers of the realm behind the Apollo Programme to see how it could tick precisely the same boxes for Number 11.
The project's primary goal is better funding and co-ordination for genuinely fascinating work on solar cells, wind turbine designs, smart grids, and energy storage. Anyone who has the vaguest interest in science and engineering cannot fail to be excited by the prospect of organic solar cells or bladeless wind turbines. There is even likely to be a role for Osborne's beloved graphene.
Politically, we've already seen some modest indications the Prime Minister could seek to revive his green agenda during this parliament and increased spending on R&D offers a route to doing so that is likely to be far less controversial with Conservative backbenchers than the still vexed topic of clean energy subsidies and wind farms (in fact, those who say we should delay action to curb emissions until clean energy costs are lower would struggle to find a credible argument against a R&D project where the stated goal is reducing the costs of clean energy).
Moreover, poll after poll has shown strong public support for clean technologies and at least one of the Labour frontrunners, Liz Kendall, has hinted action on climate change should be a key component of the opposition's pitch. There is an opportunity for Osborne to once again park his tanks on Labour's lawn while underlining one of the more centrist aspects of the government's agenda. As Ben Goldsmith argued this week in The Spectator there is currently a perfect opportunity for the Conservative Party to rebuild its green credentials - it just has to make the decision to seize it.
Finally, the Apollo Programme has a nice ring to it. The reference to the space race, the revival of Sixties technological optimism, the highlighting of the current underfunding of clean tech R&D - as Lord Layard observed yesterday, "it's almost inconceivable that we're only spending two per cent of R&D on the world's biggest technological problem, but that's how it is" - all combine to make this a relatively easy sell to a public that is already overwhelmingly in favour of clean energy.
There are plenty of other benefits that would arise from the Apollo Programme. As the team of peers behind the proposal have made clear, it requires a relatively small investment - just 0.02 per cent of global GDP - and there is compelling evidence to suggest it would quickly pay for itself through lower future energy and health costs.
In addition, much of the necessary R&D is already underway through various public and private sector programmes, what is required are more co-ordination and funding. As with the Northern Powerhouse, why not bring together the various existing policies, and catapult centres, and investments under an inspiring new banner?
Bolstering R&D spending is also an avowedly pro-business agenda. As Professor Mariana Mazzucato argues in her influential recent book The Entrepreneurial State it is state funding and programmes that have been at the root of the bulk of the technological breakthroughs in recent years that have later been exploited by the private sector. She also argues the state is getting a pretty raw deal from this arrangement, taking on the risk of R&D and watching companies reap the rewards and then seek to minimise their tax bills. But whether the government wants to try and take on that complex challenge or not it is pretty clear properly funded clean tech R&D can and will leverage private sector investment and jobs.
Finally, the chances of success (against the narrow goal of producing renewable power at a lower cost than coal, not the overarching goal of avoiding dangerous climate change) are extremely high. Solar costs have plummeted and wind energy costs are on a similar downward trajectory. In many parts of the world, renewables already undercut the cost of grid power. If you are going to back a horse, why not pick the one that is coming up fast on the rails?
The challenge, as always, is where does the money come from? And it is here that the one big risk attached to the Apollo Programme emerges. As a climate hawk, I'd argue the fact two per cent of global R&D spending goes on clean energy is a disgrace. We can find the cash the Apollo Project needs simply by prioritising existing R&D spending properly and recognising that tackling the most important long term challenge humanity faces is, for the next few decades at least, more important than many other areas of R&D.
There is also the potential to re-direct some of the money currently used to subsidise clean energy deployment towards R&D as renewables costs fall. This is sensible, but it also has to be handled extremely carefully. Cutting subsidies too deep or too early while doing little to tackle the huge subsidies still handed to fossil fuels may only serve to damage the fast-maturing industries that will be required to deliver low cost renewables at scale. Research and development is critical, but so is deployment. If Osborne and his fellow finance ministers opt to back the Apollo Programme they must not do so at the expense of real world deployment of clean technologies. This is not an either or scenario.
Ultimately, what is required is investment of a fraction of global R&D spend in a programme that offers multiple benefits environmentally, technologically, economically, and politically. We can only hope the Chancellor recognises the Apollo Programme's many strengths and that one day soon it becomes as ubiquitous in government speeches as his Northern Powerhouse.
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