Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 143: The end of tech stagnation; green growth; why (one) climate change consensus is wrong; and more...

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The end of technological stagnation?

We’ve talked a lot about a slowdown in science and technology (e.g. TiB 92TiB 102TiB 103), but recent events seem an important counterargument to the technological stagnation thesis:

We were promised flying cars... but all we got was three 90% effective vaccines within 10 months of a novel viral pandemic 🚀

As Caleb Watney argues, perhaps there are "cracks in the great stagnation”. Recent years have seen promising signs of breakthroughs in “physical world innovation”, from energy to lab-grown meat (and how about yesterday's DeepMind announcement?).

There are two important caveats to all this optimism, however. First, the tension between technologists and regulators is not going to go away. The most striking case study is perhaps that the Moderna vaccine was actually designed in two days(!) It was the messy details of real-world implementation that took the rest of the time (but why no human challenge trials?)

Second, the economic impact of technological renaissance may be more muted than we’d hope. Dieter Vollrath’s work suggests - see the excellent summary in this Matt Clancy post from January - that the economic slowdown of recent decades may owe less to technological stagnation than many (including me) have thought. But three cheers for the vaccine, nevertheless! 

Climate change is not a collective action problem

Why has it proven so hard to achieve significant progress on climate change? Conventional wisdom is that mitigating climate change is a classic collective action problem. Everyone benefits from a stable and healthy climate, but there’s strong incentive for individual countries to “free ride” and not bear the costs. An important new paper, however, suggests that this is wrong: empirically “governments implement climate policies regardless of what other countries do… whether a treaty dealing with freeriding has been in place or not” (There’s a great summary of the paper here). 

If true, this is an enormously important finding. It suggests that the binding constraint on effective action on climate change is not international deal making, but the internal politics of nation states - in particular the distributive conflict between winners and losers from moves towards carbon neutrality. The paper presents a range of empirical evidence that this, and not international coordination, should be the main focus of climate campaigners.

This is broadly good news. It suggests that progress is possible even when major countries “defect” from international agreements on climate. This helps explain developments like China’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, which is expected to reduce the increase in temperature by as much as 0.3C (perhaps the best news of 2020!), despite President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Research into the socio-political structure of major challenges is deeply unsexy, but undoubtedly underrated. 

Can the UK achieve "green growth"?

Given the finding discussed above, it’s particularly valuable if climate change mitigation can grow the economy. That’s one lens through which to look at the UK Government's recently announced plans for a “green industrial revolution”. This is a series of proposals to accelerate the post-coronavirus economic recovery through investment in low-, zero- and negative-carbon technologies. Richard Jones - whose work on R&D we discussed in TiB 94 and TiB 117 - has a superb analysis of the plans here.

Jones is broadly positive, though worries that there’s too much hope invested in getting breakthroughs from relatively small sums invested in R&D. As Matt Clancy (again!) shows in this interesting post, it usually takes around 20 years to get from scientific breakthrough to real-world impact - which is a long time in climate change on our current trajectory. Jones’ blog is a treasure trove of thoughtful pieces on the underlying opportunities, including nuclear, hydrogen and carbon capture (but do read in conjunction with this new profile of Stripe’s impressive work in this area).

The post directly addresses one of the biggest questions for (non-US, non-China) policymakers today: what can and should a medium sized power do? As Jones notes, most countries should expect to be consumers, not producers, of most of the necessary innovations, so (as in startups) problem selection is key. Jones suggests that the UK has strong competitive advantages in offshore wind - and highlights nuclear fusion as a more speculative, but important, bet. As Jones says, the proposals are “patchy and insufficient”, but still important and, perhaps, a hopeful step forward. 

Quick links

  1. Where in the world? An amazing example of open source intelligence - "find a mysterious monolith" edition...
  2. Missed vocation. A beautiful (if not strictly quick) introduction to the wonders of biology (and why it's so often badly taught)
  3. Littoral, literally. Beautiful graphic of global population density.
  4. Messi data. New paper, co-authored by DeepMind and, err, Liverpool Football Club on what AI means for the sport.
  5. Overcommitted? Which countries (over)ordered COVID vaccines? Canada, surely, had the right strategy.

You know the drill...

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Matt Clifford

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