Why Low-Carbon Technology Innovation is Not Enough

Posted by Don Fullerton on Mar 19, 2010

Filed Under (Environmental Policy, U.S. Fiscal Policy)

Nobody likes new taxes.   When policy wonks like me talk about addressing the problem of global warming by introducing a carbon tax, nobody listens (even though all of the tax revenue could be returned by cutting OTHER distorting taxes on labor or on investment!).  Instead, policymakers like to use the Manhattan Project analogy, essentially saying that we can solve the whole global warming problem just by research and development (R&D), innovation and diffusion of new technology.  We’ll just throw money at the scientists, and they will solve the problem for us.  Policymakers want to subsidize or require wind power, solar power, and other low-carbon technologies.

Here is why that idea will not work, for reasons based on some new research in a book called “Accelerating Innovation in Energy: Insights from Multiple Sectors”, edited by Rebecca Henderson and Richard G. Newell.     To see what might work for energy, they look at technology innovation in all the other sectors where R&D has been successful (the internet, chemicals, agriculture, and semiconductors).  They find that three elements were key in ALL of those success stories: “(1) the substantial, differentiated, end-user demand that enables private firms commercializing the technology to anticipate healthy returns; (2) the sustained funding and effective management of fundamental research; and (3) the development of an institutional environment that includes robust mechanisms to promote the widespread diffusion of both knowledge and technology and that favors vigorous private-sector competition.”

My point is all about #1: there has to be demand in the market for the technology.  No matter how much money Congress throws at the problem of research into new energy technologies, the program will not be successful unless people want to USE those new technologies.  And people will not particularly want to use those new low-carbon technologies, unless they face a carbon tax!  The researchers and developers of new low-carbon technologies might have great ideas, but those ideas will not come to fruition unless people are chomping at the bit to get those new technologies and use them to increase their profits or reduce their carbon tax burden.

My own thinking about this problem relates to the fundamental reasoning for any government policy intervention: the private market works fine unless you can point to a fundamental market failure.  One market failure is the pollution externality from carbon emissions, and that can be addressed by a carbon tax.  A different market failure is that any private firm might not have sufficient incentive to undertake R&D if they don’t capture all the benefits from it.  Patents only last for 17 years, not all ideas can be patented, other firms can see those ideas, and other firms can get similar patents for similar technologies.  These “knowledge spillovers” are a possible justification for government intervention to subsidize basic research, the kind of research that private firms would not undertake sufficiently.

But we still have two different market failures!  Two different market failures require two different policies to address them.  Subsidies for research might help address the knowledge spillover problem, but we still need a carbon tax to get people to want to use those technologies.

That is why we can’t solve the global warming problem by just throwing money into research.