Bulletins

Here's where climate research dollars are really going

They might grab headlines, but nascent moonshot climate technologies like solar geoengineering and carbon dioxide removal have received a vanishingly small sliver of research funding.

Wind farm

Not all climate research dollars are going to wind turbines.

Image: Zhang Fengsheng/Protocol

There's been a lot of ink spilled about climate projects like Harvard's research into dimming the sun and big-name tech donors like Bill Gates. But for all the public interest in high-tech climate solutions, the majority of research dollars are going to decidedly more on-the-ground climate fixes.


A new study from researchers at the University of Sussex Business School examined research funding for climate and energy research from 1990 to 2020. The study analyzed 153,202 projects across 17 countries and did a deep analysis of 1,000 representative projects with a total budget of $2.3 billion.

The research found that 36% of funding has gone toward climate adaptation over that period, while another 28% went to studying how to clean up the energy system. Transport and mobility (13%), geoengineering (12%) and industrial decarbonization (11%) each represented significant shares as well.

The bulk of the funding has gone to researchers in wealthy, Western countries, which are less likely to suffer the first and worst effects of climate change. In fact, four-fifths of the funding has gone to the U.K., European Union and U.S.; other major emitters like China and India have received lower amounts, and countries in both Latin America and Africa have received just a small sliver of the research dollars despite being on the front lines of climate change.

This asymmetry raised alarm bells for the researchers, even accounting for the fact that the dataset “overrepresents research projects in the Anglo-Saxon world that can afford to publish research data in English,” Benjamin Sovacool, one of the study's authors, said in a press release. “It is clear this is a significant failing to support a truly global response to the world’s greatest challenge.”

The researchers also found that fledgling climate technologies — specifically those that involve solar geoengineering, which aim to control how much of the sun’s energy reaches the planet’s surface — have the potential to be transformative but are “hugely underfunded.” These include stratospheric aerosol injection, which received less than 1% of all research funding.

“Although they may sound like science fiction, [stratospheric aerosol injection] techniques are actually technically feasible today and could enable near-term reduction of global warming,” the authors write.

Roughly a year ago, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that the time has come to at least study these technologies. Along with Gates, Amazon has also shown some interest in ensuring this type of research is being done and widely available, albeit using computer models and not in the real world. Dimming the sun may well cool the planet, but it comes with great risks, including unintended consequences like crop failure in certain regions of the world and lulling the world into a false sense of complacency about the need to dramatically cut emissions.

The paper notably looked at public research funding. Silicon Valley and private dollars have been flowing to companies focused on speculative climate solutions and the industrial sector. That includes notable commitments to buy carbon dioxide removal services. Venture capitalist John Doerr also recently donated $1.1 billion to Stanford's new School of Sustainability, which will focus on an array of solutions as well.

Putting money into adaptation and energy emissions mitigation research could well put the world on a more sustainable pathway. The recent United Nations report on turning the climate tide found that in terms of deployment, building out renewable energy systems offers the most bang for the buck right now.

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