Thinking & Analysis

Thirty years of climate research funding have overlooked the potential of experimental transformative technologies.

A new study by academics from the University of Sussex Business School Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), which used a transformative innovation framework, discovered the academic disciplines and technologies contemporarily disregarded by research funding bodies in the universal efforts to combat climate change.

Imaginably, transformative technologies such as albedo management or stratospheric aerosol injection have received less than £1 in £500 of climate research funding over the past 30 years, while even established climate change responses such as industrial decarbonisation have received just a third of the research funding that climate change adaption projects have received.

Based on a sample of 1,000 projects totalling more than $2.2 billion in research funding granted between 1990 and 2020, industrial decarbonisation received the least with (11%), followed by geoengineering (12%), transport and mobility (13%), climate mitigation via energy systems (28%), and climate change adaptation projects received the highest proportion (36%), the analysis has reveals in the study newly published in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.

The study reveals that the past three decades saw funding for climate research being lopsidedly appropriated, with the United Kingdom (40%), European Union (27%) and United States (11%) receiving almost four-fifths of all funding disbursed for a sample of 1,000 projects analysed by the researchers. Moreover, countries such as China, India, Israel or Japan received very low amounts of funding while developing countries, especially countries in the global South, e.g., Africa and Latin America, hardly feature.

The predominance of the Global North institutions, researchers, and the U.K., in particular, are to a greater extent common in the analysis of institutions that are most successful at attracting funding with 20 institutions, 18 of which are U.K.-based, sharing 96% of funding worth more than $800m spent on the social sciences, showing a clear concentration among top universities.

“As a good sign, our tracking of recent research trends reveals a much stronger role of the social sciences, arts and humanities than we would have predicted. These collective disciplines received about 45% of the funding from our sampled projects over the 30 years.

“Surprisingly, the hugely disproportionate funding awarded to the U.K., U.S. and EU raises important questions around issues of justice and equity in funding for Research & Development, especially on technology and innovation that could help address climate-related challenges, which are expected to adversely affect low-income countries disproportionately in achieving just-transitions. Even accounting for the fact that our dataset overrepresents research projects in the Anglo-Saxon world that can afford to publish research data in English, it is clear this is a significant failure to support a truly global response to the world’s greatest challenge.”

In addition, the study on Stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) (0.2% of all climate funding). Although it might resonate like science fiction, the study authors say SAI have the capacity and capability and is technically realisable today for achieving an impending abatement of climate crisis if given more deliberate attention.

The techniques on Marine cloud brightening (0.15%) and Cloud thinning (0%)—We argue that marine cloud brightening could be deployed relatively quickly, using fleets of ships to spray seawater into the air below marine clouds, thereby increasing the clouds’ reflectivity and longevity.

Ocean mirrors (0.15%) and Space sunshades (0.1%) technologies work employing the same pattern of placing scatterers, reflectors, or mirrors either across the ocean (terrestrially based) or into the high atmosphere or outer space (above the atmosphere) to reduce the amount of sunlight entering the Earth, thereby reducing warming.

High-albedo crops and buildings (0.1%)—Albedo technique modification proposes that if the Earth system absorbs less energy, the surface of the Earth will cool on average. The authors explain that technology could reduce the impact of huge volcanic explosions, which inject huge amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, increasing the Earth’s reflectivity (albedo) and decreasing the amount of sunlight absorbed, which can lead to temperature drops of around 0.3C for three years. Possible strategies include albedo modification via buildings (painting them white) or landscapes (managing cropland or marginal land) to better reflect sunlight, particularly in the Arctic and areas of high latitude, where sea ice and ice sheets can be protected.

The study also reveals the impact that major climate conventions have had in shaping the funding level and the areas where funding is focussed. Over the 30 years, the academics identified funding peaks in the early 1990s, coinciding with the Rio Convention and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change launch. A similar jump in funding occurred around 2000, coinciding with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol having its signing period end in 1999, and then a massive surge in funding post-2008 to 2020, which the academics attribute to shifts in policy and technology debates towards net-zero and decarbonisation as well as the influence of the Paris Accords. The analysis also suggests that engineering and technology dominated funding patterns from 1998 to 2002, again potentially linked to the Kyoto Protocol, before a surge in support for social science and humanities projects from 2005 onwards.

However, three decades after the lunch of UNFCCC from COP1 to COP21, the Paris Agreement was produced in 2015. Despite the convention’s cascade of achievements, the conversation around whose responsibility is to reduce emissions and who is responsible for funding climate actions still dominates discussions. With COP27 underway in Sharm El-Sheik in Egypt, there is an ongoing argument on how the previous COPs have not achieved the much-needed results, whereas around 30,000 diplomats and observers attending the summit who usually deeply worried about every other person’s carbon footprint, except their own. What about the leaders and eco-preachers who travelled in the 400 private jets that landed in Sharm el-Sheikh to attend the COP. If world leaders were to be sincere, why “Much COP” if we take climate emergency seriously, why wasn’t it held on Zoom to limit carbon footprint and rather spend such megabucks on climate and energy R&D.

The publication can be found here.

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