Renewables need a grand-challenge strategy


Launch a global clean-energy initiative to set priorities that galvanize researchers to deliver breakthroughs, write Alan Bernstein and colleagues.


Public spending on research into renewable energy is too low to meet even the modest targets set at the Paris climate talks last December, let alone decarbonize the world economy. It stands at about US$6.5 billion a year, or less than 2% of total public research and development (R&D) spending, according to data from the International Energy Agency.

There are encouraging signs that the political will and private-sector interest is coming into place to accelerate the transition to a decarbonized economy. Two recently formed initiatives aim to increase public funding for renewables R&D: Mission Innovation and the Global Apollo Programme. In addition, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition is a group of private-sector investors (led by Bill Gates) who have pledged to invest in innovative ideas resulting from publicly funded research.

To ensure the strategic and most effective use of these funds, stakeholders must work together across countries, sectors and disciplines. We propose that this is done through a ‘grand challenges’ strategy for renewable energy. We argue that agreeing on a global set of priorities would be an efficient and effective way for countries and funders to make decisions about which technologies to back.

As we approach the first anniversary of the Paris climate agreement, we urge governments, researchers, the private sector and philanthropists to act quickly to forge this important initiative.

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