03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Number That Should Be at the Heart of Copenhagen Climate Talks

Forget 80% by 2050 and 17% by 2020. Time to stop fixating on 450 ppm vs 350 ppm. As UN climate talks kick off today in Copenhagen, Denmark, if you want a number to focus the world's attention on, try this one: $10.5 trillion.

That's the scale of additional investment required between now and 2030 to put the world's energy system on a lower-carbon path, according to the world energy watchdog, the International Energy Agency.

Without measurable progress that dramatically increases global investments in clean energy, we can forget stabilizing global temperatures or atmospheric carbon dioxide at any level. And as the IEA makes clear, the world's governments must lead the way in making massive public investments to rapidly develop and deploy an array of clean energy technologies capable of sustainably and affordably powering the planet.

So for those following the progress in Copenhagen, keep that sense of scale -- $10.5 trillion -- and just one phrase on your mind: Show me the money!

Enough With the Targets and Timetables

In the days leading up to the UN climate summit beginning today in Copenhagen, the focus has been on pronouncements from world leaders establishing various national targets to reduce or curb the growth of the carbon dioxide emissions principally driving global warming.

In July of this year, the world's 17 largest economies declared support for "an aspirational global goal" to reduce emissions by 50% by 2050. Then, the world watched in recent weeks as first the United States, then China and most recently Brazil and India put their emissions pledges on the table. Each would cut their emissions some amount by some date, with the developed countries outlining targets for absolute cuts to CO2 emissions and most developing countries, including China and India, announcing reductions in the carbon intensity of their economies (aka CO2 per GDP).

The withering array of different baselines and methods for counting cuts has left plenty confused as to where the world now stands as we enter the global climate talks this week.

But where do all these targets and timetables get us?

Whether you think the world should aim for 450 ppm or 350 ppm, 80% by 2050 or 50% by 2050, upshot is pretty much the same: the world must drive net global greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible towards zero. The real question then, is how to get there. And that is a question that tireless debate over emissions targets, timetables and ppm gets us no closer to answering.

The obsession with targets and timetables, both at the national and global level, obscures and diverts attention from the critical and fundamental reality underlying any successful global effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. A revolutionary transformation of the global energy system requiring trillions of dollars of shared investment in clean energy technology will be necessary to meet the global climate objectives being discussed in Copenhagen.

As Breakthrough Institute Senior Fellow Christopher Green and co-author Isabel Galiana recently wrote in Nature,

"The fixation on near-term targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions at the climate meeting in Copenhagen has resulted in insufficient attention towards the technological means of achieving them."

10.5 Trillion Dollars by 2030 - The Scale of Investment Required

In November, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released its 2009 World Energy Outlook in an effort to provide a boost to international climate negotiations by "detailing the practical steps needed for a sustainable energy future as part of a global climate deal."

The IEA predicts what the world energy mix will look like in 2030 under business-as-usual (what they call their "Reference Scenario"). Under the Reference Scenario, global energy demand increases by 40% from now until 2030. Absent significant global efforts to increase the utilization of clean energy technologies, fossil fuels will account for more than three quarters of the additional global demand. Significantly, the large majority of additional global energy demand--over 90 percent of the increase--will come from developing countries, with China and India alone accounting for half.

There is little doubt that such a scenario would be insufficient to keep the cumulative global carbon dioxide emissions under 450 parts per million. A business-as-usual energy future would also propagate a "persistently high level of spending on oil and gas imports"; the United States would still be dependent on imported oil, with the attendant negative implications for U.S. energy independence and national security.

The IEA also outlines a "450 Scenario", a future energy path that would limit the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gas emissions to 450 parts per million. In the 450 Scenario, 60% of global electricity production comes from clean energy sources; 37% renewable, 18% nuclear, and 5% from plants fitted with carbon capture and storage.

Achieving anything close to this scenario will require a revolutionary transformation of the global energy system. Investment and innovation will be required across a wide range of technologies, almost all of which must be improved to become cheaper and more reliable in order to accelerate the pace of global clean tech adoption and emissions cuts.

This worldwide energy technology transformation, according to the IEA, will require additional investments in energy efficiency and low-carbon energy technologies on the order of $10.5 trillion from now until 2030, above and beyond investments in energy infrastructure already included in their business-as-usual scenario.

This scale of additional clean energy investment, at roughly $500 billion per year over the next two decades, is far more than the world spends today on clean technology. And until we have cheaper and better clean energy technologies, the costs of meeting our climate objectives will continue to be excessively high, creating real, ongoing political hurdles and slowing the pace of clean energy adoption.

Indeed, the costs of climate mitigation are one of the major barriers constraining efforts to successfully address climate change. That is why the Breakthrough Institute has consistently advocated for a proactive clean energy technology strategy to make clean energy sources cheap, thereby cutting the costs of their widespread adoption. As the IEA has made clear, clean and cheap energy is needed to power sustainable global development, particularly to meet the massive demand for new, affordable energy sources in the developing world, where the bulk of new energy infrastructure investments will be made in coming decades.

All of this exposes an ironic truth: we will never reduce global carbon emissions on the scale necessary if the world continues to obsess about targets for reducing carbon emissions To succeed, the world must instead focus a healthy obsession on the massive shared global investments in clean technology needed to get the world running on low-carbon energy.

How to Judge the Outcome of Copenhagen

The important question in international climate negotiations should not be which countries are promising to reduce their emissions by which level. As similar commitments under the Kyoto Protocol reveal, these emissions pledges can easily become empty promises, and creative accounting offers plenty of ways to "comply" with these targets while avoiding the real task of fundamentally transforming the way the world makes and uses energy.

The only truly important metric is the impact Copenhagen has on the shared sums the global community will invest to build a new clean energy economy, how and where the funds are allocated, and where the investment will come from.

Without real, concrete strategies to drive over half a trillion dollars in new global annual investment in clean technology over the coming decades, our critical climate objective will remain far out of reach. And we will no doubt see world leaders continue to make empty promises that may provide a brief moment of catharsis for many climate advocates, while doing little to solve climate change.

$10.5 trillion dollars by 2030. That's the scale we must grapple with. If Copenhagen doesn't get us closer to closing this massive clean energy technology investment gap, it will have failed the global community, plain and simple.

Post updated 12/9/09