No simple answer to carbon complexity

“These are the times that try men’s soul” wrote Thomas Paine in his famous pamphlet American Crisis in the heat of the American Revolution. These words well describe the present time too – in their broadest meaning. The political systems in the western world are under unprecedented pressure not witnessed since the dark times of the 1930’s.

But we also see the raise of a quite new kind of awareness among people and businesses on climate change. The public discourse on emissions has jumped to another level compared to just a few years ago. Our leaders are being challenged to move from just talking about the issue, to undertaking stronger measures to cut carbon emissions quickly.

At the same time, bottom-up popular movements are entering the political arena reflecting our political systems’ inability to adequately reflect on timely issues. However, they also reflect the failure of our politicians to equip the people with the tools and skills required to handle with wicked problems such as climate change.

The climate change movement is obviously getting stronger in several member states of the EU, and also resonated in the recent European Parliament elections. It may, however, still be too early to claim a coming leapfrog in climate policies due to the shifting political landscape in Europe, though all scientific evidence univocally speaks for its urgency.

But let’s make a ‘gedankenexperiment’ by assuming that in spite of all the uncertainties, Europe would soon make a shift towards a stricter climate policy. Instruments for emission cuts are in place (e.g. the price of emission allowances in ETS could be better regulated, among others). Scenario tools such as those used in the Horizon 2020 INNOPATHS project can help to construct least-cost technology trajectories to reach a zero-carbon energy sector in Europe. From a techno-economic point-of-view, we could well find a feasible deep decarbonization solution for Europe.

But would society be prepared for such a quick energy transition?  Deep decarbonization equates in practice to a huge technology disruption similar to the industrial revolution. It goes beyond the techno-economic realm. It involves profound social issues. It is essentially a social-technical transition in which institutions and business models supporting present technologies need to be changed to enable adoption of new clean technologies and practices.

Consumers also need to adapt and engage in new ways. How to deal with distributional effects? A change involves winners and losers. For example, a high carbon tax may sound like a perfect tool for cutting emissions as it forces those who pollute to pay and it could motivate the polluters to change their behaviours. But from a justice point of view, it could also legitimize those who can afford to pay to pollute (even more) and not to change their lifestyles, whereas those who cannot pay or afford non-polluting solutions, could face large challenges in their everyday lives. A just climate legislation would therefore strive for measures which treat each of us equally in relation to our capabilities.

There are multiple ways to frame the energy and climate problem1. Importantly, the way we frame it would also prioritize the values and factors against which we make our decisions, which in turn will shape the solutions. Personally, I would prefer to see the more fundamental factors being prioritized in any type of climate framing, namely the Science (laws of nature), the Planet (planetary boundaries), and the Ethics (universal values).

Though a lot of research has already been done on policy and social dimensions, also within the INNOPATHS project, the complexity of the issues involved is so profound that this would call for much stronger efforts for this area of research in the coming Horizon Europe R&D programme.

Thomas Paine ended his pamphlet with the words “…the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph”. For me his inspirational words sound in today’s terms more like where there’s a will, there’s a way – also in the quest of solving the carbon question.

1 Sun-Jin Yun, John Byrne, Lucy Baker, Patrick Bond, Goetz Kaufmann, Hans-Jochen Luhmann, Peter Lund, Joan Martinez-Alier, and Fuqiang Yang. 2018. Energy and Climate Change. In: Rethinking Environmentalism: Linking Justice, Sustainability, and Diversity, ed. S. Lele, E. S. Brondizio, J. Byrne, G. M. Mace, and J. Martinez-Alier. Strüngmann Forum Reports, vol. 23, J. Lupp, series editor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018 ISBN 9780262038966.

Electric mobility and vehicle-to-grid integration: unexplored questions and benefits

Reducing energy demand in the transportation sector is one of the most difficult challenges we face to meet our CO2 emission reduction targets. Due to the sector’s dependence on fossil fuel energy sources and the monumental negative consequences for climate change, air pollution and other social impacts, countless researchers, policymakers and other stakeholders view a widespread transition to electric mobility as both feasible and socially desirable.

How do we go about making it happen? As researchers working on low carbon mobility we need to start looking beyond technical challenges and look at the role of consumer acceptance and driver behavior, as well as the role for policy coordination, to move forward. My colleagues and I have been looking at research on vehicle-to-grid (V2G) and vehicle-grid-integration (VGI) and found that the focus has been too narrow so far. To help make the transition to electric mobility happen, we need to understand the benefits of the technology and propose areas where research should expand.

How does V2G work?

V2G and VGI refers to efforts to link the electric power system and the transportation system in ways that can improve the sustainability and security of both. As our figure below illustrates, a V2G configuration means that personal automobiles have the opportunity to become not only vehicles, but mobile, self-contained resources that can manage power flow and displace the need for electric utility infrastructure. They could even begin to sell services back to the grid and/or store large amounts of energy from renewable and distributed sources of supply such as wind and solar.

Visual depiction of a Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) or Vehicle-Grid-Integration (VGI) network

Source: Willett Kempton

What are the benefits of V2G integration?

A transition to V2G could enable vehicles to simultaneously improve the efficiency (and profitability) of electricity grids, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transport, accommodate low-carbon sources of energy, and reap cost savings for vehicle owners, drivers, and other users.

The four main benefits of V2G integration are:

  • Turning unused equipment into useful services to the grid

A typical vehicle is on the road only 4–5% of the day, so 95% of the time, personal vehicles sit unused in parking lots or garages, typically near a building with electrical power.[1]

  • Using underutilised utility resources

Many utility resources go underused, which is an implication of the requirement that electricity generation and transmission capacity must be sufficient to meet the highest expected demand for power at any time. One study estimates that as of 2007, 84% of all light duty vehicles, if they were suddenly converted into plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) in the United States, could be supported by the existing electric infrastructure if they drew power from the grid at off-peak times[2].

  • Financial and economic benefits

Automobiles in a VGI configuration could provide additional revenue to owners that wish to sell power or grid services back to electric utilities.  Some studies suggest that some types of vehicle fleets could earn even more revenue than passenger vehicles, especially fleets with predictable driving patterns.[3]

  • Reduced air pollution and climate change, and increased integration and penetration of renewable sources of energy. PNNL projected that pollution from total volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide emissions would decrease by 93% and 98%, respectively, under a scenario of VGI penetration and total NOx emissions would also be reduced by 31%. [4]  A VGI system can further accrue environmental benefits by providing storage support for intermittent renewable-energy generators.[5]

The unexplored questions

The vast majority of studies looking at VGI simply assume that consumers will go along and behave as the system tells them to. We need to better understand people, what cars they want to buy, and what it would take for them to be comfortable in letting someone else control the charging of their electric vehicle.

Furthermore, we need to understand how the societal benefits of the technology are distributed, especially among vulnerable groups. A transition to low carbon mobility needs to be just and equitable too.

V2G clearly has the potential to provide a wide variety of benefits to society.  However, research needs to broaden its focus and consider the following aspects:

  • Environmental performance of V2G in particular, rather than electric vehicles more generally;
  • Financing and business models, especially for new actors such as aggregators who may sit between vehicle owners and electric utilities;
  • User behavior, especially differing classes of those who may want to adopt electric vehicles and offer V2G services, and those who may not;
  • Natural resource use, including rare earth minerals and toxics needed for batteries and lifecycle components;
  • Visions and narratives, in particular cycles of hype and disappointment;
  • Social justice concerns, notably those cutting across vulnerable groups;
  • Gender norms and practices; and
  • Urban resilience in the face of intensifying climate change and consequent natural disasters.

Although the optimal mix is hard to discern, the share of V2G and VGI studies that focus on technical matters and rely on technical methods seems too large and imbalanced—as demonstrated by the many socially relevant research questions that remain unexplored.

Ultimately, these gaps in research need to be addressed to achieve the societal transition V2G advocates hope for.


Further reading:

This blog is based on two studies – “The Future Promise of Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) Integration: A Sociotechnical Review and Research Agenda” and “The neglected social dimensions to a vehicle-to-grid (V2G) transition: A critical and systematic review”—are available in the October Volume of Annual Review of Environment and Resources and Environmental Research Letters.

Read more about CIED’s research on urban transport and smart freight mobility.


Sovacool, BK, L Noel, J Axsen, and W Kempton. “The neglected social dimensions to a vehicle-to-grid (V2G) transition: A critical and systematic review,” Environmental Research Letters 13(1) (January, 2018), 013001, pp. 1-18.

Sovacool, BK, J Axsen, and W Kempton. “The Future Promise of Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) Integration: A Sociotechnical Review and Research Agenda,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 42 (October, 2017), pp. 377-406.


[1] G. Pasaoglu et al., Travel patterns and the potential use of electric cars – Results from a direct survey in six European countries, Technological Forecasting & Social Change Volume 87, September 2014, Pages 51–59

[2] Michael K. Hidrue, George R. Parsons, Is there a near-term market for vehicle-to-grid electric vehicles?, Applied Energy 151 (2015) 67–76

[3] Michael K. Hidrue, George R. Parsons, Is there a near-term market for vehicle-to-grid electric vehicles?, Applied Energy 151 (2015) 67–76

[4] Kintner-Meyer, Michael, Kevin Schneider, and Robert Pratt. 2007. “Impacts Assessment of Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles on Electric Utilities and Regional U.S. Power Grids Part 1: Technical Analysis,” Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Report, available at

[5] Okan Arslan, Oya Ekin Karasan, Cost and emission impacts of virtual power plant formation in plug-in hybrid electric vehicle penetrated networks, Energy 60 (2013) 116-124

Is climate policy a constraint or an opportunity for job creation?

  1. Context

Do climate policies represent a constraint or an opportunity for job creation and employment growth? Two theses are recurrently put forward in the political debate. The first emphasizes the cost increase, especially the pass-through on energy prices for polluting industries, which would threaten international competitiveness and thus employment. The other stresses positive long-term effects that, besides reducing emissions, will boost innovation and thus long-term competitiveness.

A rigorous evaluation of climate policies, such as carbon taxes, must of course account for the expected decrease in pollutant emissions and energy consumption. However, to be complete, this evaluation must study broader indirect effects on industrial competitiveness and employment – the very ones that are likely to have a primary impact on the well-being of people involved in carbon intensive productions (Smith, 2015).

The concern of an immediate loss of competitiveness is felt particularly in France. This concern comes first and foremost from the fact that the recent Energy Transition Law caused a strong increase in the carbon tax (€ 22 in 2016, € 56 in 2020, € 100 in 2030). This is the argument that industrial lobbies claim to curb overly ambitious environmental policies, especially in a context of non-binding international agreements, such as those initiated by COP21. Also, unions are worried that unilateral policy may lead to the relocation of more polluting activities and thus jobs to countries that implement a less ambitious carbon pricing schedule, or an opportunistic strategy of non-intervention. The main argument of the US administration against international agreements on climate change has always been that, in absence of a well-designed enforcement mechanism, ‘carbon leakage’ —a lose-lose outcome in terms of job losses and higher emissions—becomes a real possibility. For instance, a border carbon tax adjustment has been proposed as an amendment to the World Trade Organization rules to make the enforcement of international agreements on climate change credible.

An alternative view on the effect of climate policies emphasizes the positive consequences for innovation and the creation of a comparative advantage in new sectors where demand is expected to increase rapidly. These green innovative activities would use relatively more skilled labor than polluting activities, and this could have a large multiplier effect on employment for local communities. To turn climate policies into an opportunity, governments could also consider using the revenues from the carbon tax to reduce the tax burden on labor. A drop in taxation on labor could lead to a substitution effect leading to net job creation.

The purpose of this policy brief is to provide a preliminary empirical answer to the question of whether climate policies are an impediment or, on the contrary, an opportunity for employment growth. In doing so, we compare the performance of France, a country for which we have detailed micro-data to test the effects of climate policies, with those of its main economic partners, Spain, Italy and especially Germany.


  1. Employment dynamics and energy prices in energy-intensive industries

With regards to the situation of France compared with that of the three major European countries, Germany, Spain and Italy, it is first necessary to look at the extent to which climate policies have changed in these four countries.

Admittedly, climate policies are multidimensional and therefore their effective stringency is difficult to compare. However, it is possible to use differences in energy prices for gas and electricity (the two main energy sources for these four countries) to proxy the effect of carbon pricing. Indeed, while the European Emission Trading System (EU ETS) sets, in principle, a single carbon price, national-level instruments have been introduced to subsidize renewable energies in all four countries. This has thus created a certain heterogeneity in policy stringency across these countries. In France, for example, the Social Contribution of Electricity Generation (CSPE) was introduced to finance EDF’s purchases of electricity produced with renewable energies. The impact of the CSPE has increased over time in a very clear way: 0.003 euro per kw/h in 2003, or 5% of the price of electricity for a medium-sized industrial consumer in 2003, compared with 0.019 euro per kw/h in 2015, or 31.6% of the price of electricity for a medium-sized industrial consumer in 2015.

Let’s first look at the evolution of electricity prices (Figure 1) and gas prices (Figure 2) for an average industrial consumer, in the four countries, between 2000 and 2015.[1] In all countries both prices are rising sharply. In France, the price of electricity increases slightly less than in other countries and the price level remains below the average price in other countries. Since the gas market is global, the price variation across countries is much lower than in the case of electricity. There is therefore a stronger tendency for price convergence for gas than for electricity. It should also be noted that the impact of the price of natural gas (and the highly correlated oil price) is much higher in Italy, Germany and Spain than in France, where electricity is produced mainly by means of nuclear power. Thus, France’s effective exposure to energy price shocks, either because of climate policies or because of rising gas and oil prices, is lower than in the other three countries.

Now let’s look at how employment has evolved in the industries most exposed to rising energy prices. Using the average energy intensity across countries, we define two groups of industries: one with high exposure and the other with medium exposure to price changes.[2] Since in France the price of energy has increased relatively less than in other countries, a smaller impact on employment should be expected. Figure 3 and 4 show exactly the opposite for the period 2000-2011. In fact, while employment in polluting sectors declined in all four countries, the decline is more pronounced in France than in Italy and Germany. Moreover, the level of activity in highly polluting sectors (Figure 3) and moderately polluting (Figure 4) is significantly lower in France (7% of total employment in 2011) than in Italy (13.1 % of total employment in 2011) or in Germany (10% of total employment in 2011). Obviously, these are only correlations and such a result may be ascribed to other structural factors, such as the degree of specialization in these industries or the innovativeness in clean technologies.


3. Electricity prices and employment in French firms

Because employment in polluting industries reacts more to energy prices in France than in other countries, we examine in greater details what happened to French companies using firm-level data. This allows us to formally test whether these job losses can be ascribed to the increase in energy prices rather than to other structural factors. A recent INNOPATHS study (Marin and Vona, 2017) estimates the elasticity of employment of French manufacturing firms following a change in the price of energy.[3]

Table 1 shows the main results of this analysis, which uses the historical experience of price increases in the 2000s to extrapolate the effects of the carbon tax provided for in the energy transition law. They are, in a way, not surprising. Rising energy prices (measured as a weighted average of the prices of different energy sources) effectively reduce employment in French manufacturing. The effects are significant: a 10% increase in prices reduces employment by 2.6%. Unsurprisingly, these effects are stronger in the more energy-intensive industries (3.4% job loss) and more exposed to international competition (3.1% job loss). To put these results in context, it should be noted that, according to this calculation, a carbon tax of € 56 per tonne of CO2 will lead to an average increase in energy prices of 20% and, therefore, these elasticities should be doubled. However, unreported results also show that these employment effects are upper bounds, at least for multi-plant firms that can use their internal labour market to mitigate the negative effect of the shock.

This negative employment effect should also be weighed against positive effects in terms of a decrease in the energy demand and reduction of emissions. Table 2 shows that these effects go in the right direction. A 10% increase in energy prices reduces demand by more than 6%, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 11%. These quite considerable effects offset the social cost generated by the decrease in jobs. However, further research is required to understand the extent to which this decrease in emissions is just a reflection of an increase in emissions embedded in the country’s import. Such analysis as well as an analysis distinguishing between short-term and long-term effects would clearly allow us to shed more light on the net benefits of a carbon tax.

Overall, these large job losses raise the more general question of the change in comparative advantage induced by climate policies in international markets. At a first glance, it seems clear that, unlike Germany, France has not been able to turn the challenge of the energy transition into an opportunity to develop a new comparative advantage. To corroborate this conclusion, the next section will turn back to aggregate data on green exports and the size of the green economy in these two countries.


4. The energy transition: an opportunity for creating green jobs

Previous results only consider effects on energy-intensive industries. Keeping constant the industry structure, they do not consider the positive effects of job creation in the new green sectors. The destruction of jobs in energy-intensive industries can be more than offset by job creation in green industries. From this perspective, the energy transition may contribute to reignite sluggish economic growth. The scale of this counterbalancing effects remains difficult to establish: green industries follow different growth patterns from energy-intensive industries as they are usually more exposed to trade and are upstream in the value chain.

With particular reference to the situation in Europe, the available data allows for a comparison only between Germany and France and for a time span limited to the financial crisis period (2008-2014). We compare these two countries on four dimensions: employment in the green sector (Figure 5), green sector exports (Figure 6), value-added in the green industry (Figure 7), and investment in green technologies (Figure 8). It appears that the number of green jobs is roughly the same in both countries, albeit with faster growth in Germany, but also that exports of green products are 3.8 times higher in Germany than in France. Green value added is almost twice as high in Germany, and investments in green technologies almost 3 times higher. Germany is therefore more competitive than France in green industries, probably because its capacity for industrial development and therefore growth of activity and employment, in this sector as in the others, is higher. A possible answer to this divergence between France and Germany comes from a recent study on the drivers of green employment in US regions (Vona et al., 2017). According to this study, green jobs require more qualifications than jobs removed from polluting industries, mainly in terms of technical skills and engineering. Local technological expertise, as measured by the number of patent applicants in the region and by the presence of a national research lab, is also positively associated with the creation of green employment. Given the well-established comparative advantage of Germany in engineering services and machinery industries, the evidence on US regions can contribute to explain the difference between Germany and France in the capacity to turn climate policies into an opportunity. In Germany, the capital goods industry plays a key role in the design of green production processes. Recent work, based on patents, shows that Germany has a comparative advantage today and future much stronger than France in three of the four key green technologies: wind turbines, batteries and photovoltaic panels (Zachmann, 2016). 5. Concluding remarks It is very likely that the energy transition will negatively affect industrial competitiveness in the short term and therefore employment in a proportion that is greater if the companies concerned already suffer from a competitiveness deficit, like in France. This evidence argues for a phased and gradual transition, which must take into account both the time required to build a comparative advantage in the green sector, and the immediate negative effects on the polluting sectors in an already negative economic situation. The use of border carbon tax adjustment, as suggested by, among the others, Helm et al. (2012), represents a way to slow down the carbon and job leakage, giving more time to the affected industries in developed countries to adjust. On the other hand, it is no less obvious that such a transition may bring with it the creation of skilled jobs and growth. As the evidence of US regions tell us, these offsetting effects on job creation are more likely to occur if climate policies are combined with industrial policies and R&D investments on low carbon technologies. 



Greenstone, M. (2002), ‘The Impacts of Environmental Regulations on Industrial Activity: Evidence from the 1970 and 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments and the Census of Manufactures.’ Journal of Political Economy 110(6), 1175-1219.

Helm, D., Hepburn, C., Ruta, G., (2012), ‘Trade, climate change, and the political game theory of border carbon adjustments.’ Oxford Review of Economic Policy 28(2), 368-394.

Kahn, M., and Mansur, E. (2013) ‘Do local energy prices and regulation affect the geographic concentration of employment?.’ Journal of Public Economics 101, 105–114.

Marin, G., Vona, F., (2017), ‘The Impact of Energy Prices on Environmental and Socio-Economic Performance: Evidence for France Manufacturing Establishments.’ OFCE working paper.

Martin, R., Muûls, M., de Preux, L., Wagner, U., (2014), ‘Industry Compensation under Relocation Risk: A Firm-Level Analysis of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.’ American Economic Review 104(8), 2482-2508.

Smith, V. K. (2015). ‘Should benefit–cost methods take account of high unemployment? Symposium introduction.’ Review of Environmental Economics and Policy 9(2), 165-178.

Vona, F., Marin, G., Consoli, D., (2017), ‘Measures, Drivers and Effects of Green Employment: evidence from US metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas, 2006-2014.’ SPRU working paper.

Walker, W. (2013), ‘The Transitional Costs of Sectoral Reallocation: Evidence From the Clean Air Act and the Workforce.’ Quarterly Journal of Economics 128(4), 1787-1835.

Zachmann, G. (2016), ‘An approach to identify the sources of low-carbon growth for Europe,’ Bruegel policy contribution n.16.


Tables and Figures

Table 1. Effects on employment of 10% increase of energy prices

Sector D% Employment
All Manufacturing Sectors -2.6%
Energy Intensive Sectors -3.4%
Non-energy Intensive Sectors -0.9%
Sectors exposed also to international competition -3.1%
Sectors not exposed to international competition -1.6%

Sources. Marin and Vona (2017).


Table 2. Effects on Energy Demand and CO2 Emissions

Sector D% of Energy Demand D% CO2 Emissions
All Manufacturing Sectors -6.4% -11.2%
Energy Intensive Sectors -6.6% -11.5%
Non-energy Intensive Sectors -5.3% -10.9%
Sectors exposed also to international competition -7.9% -11.4%
Sectors not exposed to international competition -5.4% -11%

Sources. Marin and Vona (2017).


Figure 1: Electricity Prices, industrial consumers

Figure 2: Gas Prices, industrial consumers

Figure 3: Share Employment High Energy Intensive

Figure 4: Share Employment Mid Energy Intensive

Figure 5: Green Employment

Figure 6: Green Value Added

Figure 7: Green Exports


Figure 8: Investments In Cleaner Tech

[1] Source Eurostat,

[2] Source EU-KLEMS, The groups are rather standard in the literature and coincide with the more energy intensive industries. Highly polluting industries are: Chemistry, Metals, Manufacturing of other non-metallic mineral products, Coke and Oil Refining, Mining. Moderately polluting industries are: Food and Beverages, Leather and Footwear, Rubber and Plastics, Textile, Wood and Wood Products, Other Manufacturing Sectors including Recycling.

[3] This study is based on data from establishments in the manufacturing sectors in France during the period 1997-2011. Three databases are merged: the DADS database (to have a measure of employment, by type of qualification, in each establishment), the FICUS database (to build a measure of enterprise productivity, unreported in this note but available in the paper) and the ECAI database (to obtain measurements of the energy mix used and energy prices paid by a sample of French establishments in the manufacturing industry). The national price of different energy sources is used, weighted by the initial energy mix of the establishments, as an instrumental variable to isolate exogenous changes in energy prices unrelated to quantity-discounts. Our estimates are conditioned to a rich set of control including sector- and region-specific trends and establishment fixed effects. We also take into account the effects of European policy to set a carbon price, the ETS (Emission Trading Scheme). The employment effects of ETS are low, consistent with the low effective severity of this policy which has provided generous exemptions for more energy-intensive industries exposed to international competition (see: Martin et al. 2014).


Professor Paul Ekins presents at COP23 side event in Bonn

On 11 November, Professor Paul Ekins, Project Co-ordinator of INNOPATHS, was invited to speak at a COP23 side event session titled ‘Low Carbon Europe 2050 – The vision and beyond’.

The EU is set to reduce GHG emissions by 80-95% by 2050 and plans to bring a new long-term climate strategy on the table in 2018. Professor Ekins’ talk was part of a session which covered insights from ongoing H2020 and other research on low carbon transitions, ranging from the essential elements and scenarios to exploring future strategies and governance frameworks.

Three other short introductory presentations were given by Jürgen Kropp (PIK) on EUCalc as an analytical tool and experiences from policy interaction, Lars J. Nilsson (Lund University) on low-carbon Europe, and Guido Knoche (UBA) on the role of science and research. These introductory presentations led to an interactive scholarly debate between a panel and the audience on ways forward and the role of science in shaping policy and governance frameworks.

The panel discussed mitigation options and pathways, key opportunities, barriers and lock-ins, policy and governance implications seen from research, and the roles and responsibilities in science-policy interaction and co-design.

The event was organised by the German Federal Environment Agency and Lund University and co-organised by University College London, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Ecologic Institute, Fraunhofer Institute for System and Innovation Analysis.

For an overview of the event, please click here.

Technological innovation “trumps” politics

Technological innovation, often induced by national and sub-national policies, is a key driver of global climate and energy policy ambition and action. Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement will hardly affect this trend.

US President Donald Trump recently decided to pull out of the Paris Agreement. Will this be the beginning of the end for an international agreement that took two decades to reach? To answer this question it is important to understand why the Paris Agreement was signed by 195 countries in the first place – only six years after the failure of the Copenhagen conference.

Many political analysts argue that – besides French diplomacy – the key driver of Paris was that emission reduction pledges are voluntary. While this might be valid, in a recent comment [1], we argue that another, often overlooked factor was decisive: technological innovation.

A paradigm shift in climate politics

In 2009, many low-carbon energy technologies were expensive and, even more importantly, analysists predicted rather slow cost declines [2]. Contrary to this prediction, innovation in renewable energies, battery technology, hydraulic fracturing, ICT based solution etc. massively decreased the cost of these technologies, so that today many low-carbon technologies are cost-competitive in many applications. Crucially, it was primarily national (and sub-national) policies that pushed these technologies down their learning curve and incentivized innovative activities.

These cost reductions have contributed to a paradigm shift in international climate politics, from an emissions to a technology focus, from minimizing the economic burden of climate change mitigation to seizing its economic opportunities (see figure). Politicians realize more and more that low-carbon technologies can cut costs while creating local industries and jobs. The core mechanism of international climate policy is no longer to negotiate national climate targets aimed at fair burden-sharing. The new core mechanism is to draft national policies that target low-carbon technological change.



The interplay of politics, policy, technological change and climate change. (Figure from [1])

The challenges ahead

In other words, technological innovation served as driver of climate policy ambition. This is good news indeed. However, challenges remain: Cost-effective policies supporting the NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) need to be tailored to and implemented across many countries (including fossil-fuel subsidy reform and carbon pricing). Financial and technical support needs to be channeled to lower income countries. Importantly, ambition needs to be further increased as the current pledges are not sufficient to reach the agreement’s target of limiting the global temperature rise to well below 2 °C.

So what to make of President Trump’s decision then? In short: Pulling out of the Paris Agreement will not stop the technological mega-trend towards low-carbon technologies. Even the US low-carbon technology industry is unlikely to suffer from his decision in the short run, in part because states like California, but also many cities, are stepping in.

There are, nevertheless, potentially negative consequences [3]. First, the US looks likely to stop its contribution to the Green Climate Fund, which helps lower-income countries in their climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Second, the announced budget cut for US-based research in low-carbon technology will have long-term negative effects on innovation. Third, some fear that the Trump decision might lead to a bandwagon effect with other countries also pulling out. Finally, implementing policies that incentivize a shift from fossil fuels (particularly coal) to low-carbon technologies will face local resistance in the US and other countries with strong fossil fuel industries. Local fossil fuel constituencies might try to capture politics, as we have seen in in the past with attempts to reform fossil fuel subsidies. They can now point to the US decision.

Overcoming resistance

To overcome local resistance, it is important to strengthen local low-carbon constituencies, i.e. both economic and political actors forming around low-carbon technologies. Creating local jobs in low-carbon technology production, assembly, installation and maintenance is a powerful lever. The cheaper these technologies get, the more likely this is going to happen. Therefore, innovation can also serve as a driver to overcome this type of resistance.

Just one day after Trump’s decision, China and India announced that they will exceed their Paris pledges (mostly driven by higher-than-expected renewable energy installations). This leads us to conclude that the Paris Agreement will prevail. Technological R&D, at ETH and elsewhere, is crucial if we are to strengthen the new technology paradigm further.


By Prof. Tobias Schmidt and Dr. Sebastian Sewerin, Energy Politics Group, ETH Zurich

This blog was originally posted on ETH Zurich’s Zukunftsblog.

Further information

[1] Schmidt, Tobias S., and Sebastian Sewerin. “Technology as a driver of climate and energy politics.” Nature Energy 2 (2017): 17084. Link: Free access (read only):

[2] See e.g., McKinsey’s Marginal Abatement Cost reports of 2007 and 2009

[3] On June 13, ETH Zurich’s Center for Security Studies (CSS) organized an event where these questions were debated by Dr. Tim Boersma (Columbia University), Dr. Severin Fischer (CSS) and Prof. Tobias Schmidt.