The rise of China, which has lifted more than 800 million out of poverty since the economic reforms of the late 1970s, is the great economic story of our time. Though the United States retains a sizable edge in technological innovation, that competitive advantage is under threat from an unlikely source: the U.S government.
The administration’s disdain for science makes news all the time. It was on display again in its proposed 2020 budget, which would have slashed funding for the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which oversees the federal government’s 10 national laboratories.
Also on the chopping block was the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, slated for an 86% cut, from $2.4 billion to $343 million. A July budget deal between the administration and Congress backed away from these cuts.
The budget proposal is simply the latest salvo in the administration’s ideologically driven war on science. In June, the administration blocked submission of congressional testimony by a government scientist whose research revealed how climate change will undermine U.S. national security in the next 20 years.
The scientist, Rod Schoonover, resigned his post and went public with the story of being muzzled. The president’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, has said, “Do we really need government-funded research at all?” The answer is yes.
Government-funded research was crucial to the development of the internet, hydraulic fracturing and other breakthrough technologies. Cuts to renewable energy and energy efficiency programs are particularly unwise, since the world is racing to bring to market green technologies that combat climate change.
Renewable energy, including solar, wind, liquid biofuels and hydropower among others, is now a fast-growing $1.5 trillion global industry that employs more than 11 million people, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
The race is on
As the U.S. stalls, China, Germany and other countries are moving ahead. China is expected to surpass the U.S. in funding for research and development as early as next year. China’s latest five-year plan offers specific targets to reduce costs, increase growth and improve efficiency in the solar sector.
In 2017, China spent $133 billion on clean-energy technologies, more than twice the amount spent in the U.S. Beijing has said it will spend another $360 billion by 2020. China is already the world’s largest electric vehicle market. Norway has set a goal for all new cars to have zero emissions by 2025, and other countries are close behind.
Meanwhile, President Trump is trying to roll back the U.S. clean car program with new rules, using flawed science to justify his decision. The move will only hinder electric vehicle research here at home.
Solar technology, first developed in the U.S., has made tremendous strides over recent years under U.S. leadership. But other countries are now leapfrogging ahead.
A key component of solar power is the inverter, which converts solar energy to alternating current. China’s Huawei Technologies, the telecommunications giant caught up in U.S. national security concerns, also dominates the market for inverters.
Environmental technologies aren’t the only areas where China is taking the lead. In 2017 Beijing announced a new artificial intelligence (AI) strategy that aims to rival U.S. efforts by 2020. The latest data suggest China is on track.
Chinese researchers have published more AI research papers than the U.S. for several years. AI has enormous implications for the environment, from climate modelling to managing water use, as detailed in a January 2018 WEF report, Harnessing Artificial Intelligence for the Earth [PDF].
The challenge of our lifetime
If the U.S. drops out of the innovation race, we’ll be turning our backs on the most important challenge of our lifetime — climate change. Scientists say the world needs to achieve net zero emissions — releasing no more climate pollution into the atmosphere than we can remove — early in the second half of this century if we are to avoid its worst impacts.
That means the U.S. and the rest of the developed world must decarbonize by midcentury. Although some U.S. states and corporations are stepping up, only the federal government can provide the economic and technical leadership we need to reach a 100% clean economy that quickly.
We’re in the race of our lives. Science and innovation are what will make us run faster.
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