Eminent UK scientists announce global clean energy "space-race" program

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A group of leading scientists, economists and businessmen from the U.K. have this week launched an ambitious program designed to channel the space-race spirit of the 1960s into pushing clean energy R&D spending into a new stratosphere.

The Global Apollo program’s chief aim is to make renewable energy sources cheaper than coal globally within 10 years, and is calling for an average $23 billion investment annually to be spent on R&D in the fields of solar and wind energy, energy storage, nuclear power, energy efficiency and carbon capture storage.

Led by Sir David King, the U.K.’s climate change envoy, and supported by ex-BP boss Lord John Brown, Lord Adair Turner and Lord Nicholas Stern, the team’s primary mission is to support programs that will make clean energy cheaper than coal over the next ten years.

"Once we get to that point, we are winning in all the battles," said King at the launch of the program this week. The scientist confirmed that a number of countries have already expressed an interest in the Apollo Plan, including officials in the U.S., India, Japan and China – four of the most influential solar markets.

That cited $23 billion figure is the equivalent funding in today’s money that took man to the moon in the 1960s, and it is this level of investment, gusto and ambition that is required to knock global C02 emissions off their projected course, says the team.

At current global carbon emission rates, the world will be subjected to more than 35 gigatonnes of C02 emissions annually by 2035. The Global Apollo plan is to reduce that figure dramatically to around 20 gigatonnes – which would hold global temperature rises below 2C and keep atmospheric C02 concentrations within a "safe" 450 parts per million.

To achieve this, the program’s backers claim, global research on renewable energy needs to rise from its current $6 billion per year to $15 billion per year.

"This challenge is at least as big as the challenge of putting a man on the moon," said program co-founder Lord Layard. "We believe that is an absolute minimum to crack this problem. The good news is that we are seeing this technological progress. The bad news is that it is simply not fast enough."

Some climate observers and solar commentators have remarked that the current pace of clean energy adoption – particularly within the PV industry – is already at a game-changing rate, and that this extra push, while welcome, is rooted in out-dated thinking.

Calls for investment in clean energy increase

Current subsidies for renewable energy amount to $101 billion globally, said the Global Apollo report – a figure that is dwarfed by the $550 trillion spent on subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, according to the IMF. Greater investment in electricity storage is highlighted as one of the three key tenets of the Global Apollo program, alongside renewable energy development and greater integration and adoption of smart grids.

The program seeks not to create a central fund, but instead compel nations to up their spending on transitioning away from fossil fuels, and is asking those nations that commit to it to spend 0.02% of GDP on R&D.

Renowned U.K. broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough welcomed the plan, calling it an "exciting, positive" report. "At last someone is saying there is a way we can do things,” he said.

However, Alasdair Cameron of Friends of the Earth told the BBC that although the project appears exciting, renewables are already a "rocketing success" and are rapidly becoming the cheapest source of energy.

"The best way to boost the development of renewable energy is for the [UK] government to make sure we keep installing it, while investing in more research – not by abandoning onshore wind, already one of the cheapest clean energy sources, and getting cheaper."

Speaking to the Guardian about the UN Climate Summit in Paris this fall, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has urged governments to step up their investments in low carbon energy.

With climate change occurring faster than expected, Ban has called on decision-makers to double their efforts on this issue, which has been one of his top priorities since taking office in 2007.

"I have been urging all sectors of society to choose wisely and invest in the low carbon pathway," Ban told the Guardian. "Over the next 15 years, the world will make a massive investment in new infrastructures, in serious renewable energy. We can invest in the low carbon economy or we can invest in dirty technologies."

For Sir David King, the hope now is that the Global Apollo program, slated to launch in November just a few days before the potentially pivotal Paris summit, garners enough support to seriously urge world leaders to make an appropriately ambitious global deal on climate change.

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