Technology Forcing Can Yield Climate Innovation

Studying past regulations to compel climate tech breakthroughs

3 min read

computer chips in white and green with a leaf in the middle of the image
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This article is part of our exclusive IEEE Journal Watch series in partnership with IEEE Xplore.

Many climate change policies and technologies are currently not reducing greenhouse emissions fast or hard enough. As an alternative to current approaches, researchers point to technology forcing—which is when policy-makers or market leaders set standards above and beyond what current technology is capable of achieving, forcing companies and researchers to develop completely new and innovative technological solutions to problems. Some experts believe this approach could help result in new, greener technology to help tackle the climate crisis.

Fred Phillips, president of TANDO Institute, a non-profit thinktank spun out of the University of Texas at Austin, is one such expert. According to Phillips, technology forcing is when an authority, such as a government, sets a cost or performance target that significantly exceeds that of any current technology or product. By a set deadline, only products meeting the new standard may be sold.

One example of tech forcing involves Phillips’ own mentor, George Kozmetsky, who headed a private tech company in the mid to late 1960s. To win a contract bid with the U.S. government, Kozmetsky identified a key cost driver of a military helicopter avionics system, which cost a dollar to produce.

“He told his engineers not to emerge from their basement cubicles until they could make that one-dollar part for five cents, a task at which they succeeded before the proposal deadline,” explains Phillips, acknowledging that his mentor was prone to exaggeration. “George then [submitted] a military contract proposal and won it.”

In recent paper published 19 January in the journal IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management, Phillips, and co-author Pham Thi Thuy Dung, a researcher at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Economics and Finance, in Vietnam, delve into the pros and cons of technology forcing in the context of the climate crisis. Phillips and Dung cite the Clean Air Act of 1970 as a prime example of technology forcing. The Act set such strict emissions standards that new technology would be needed to meet the requirements. As a result, the catalytic converter was developed by 1975.

While very similar and yet distinct from technology forcing, bans can also be useful for driving positive change, Phillips says. For instance, in 2007, the Energy Independence and Security Act set a lumens per watt standard for light bulbs that effectively banned the incandescent-type bulb. It was anticipated that the standard would result in a shift towards compact fluorescent tubes instead.

“In a happy accident, [the development of] newer LED lights far exceeded the new standard, and far exceeded the performance of the fluorescents,” says Phillips, adding, “People didn’t like working under harsh fluorescents anyway.”

However, bans can involve several pitfalls. Phillips notes that banning a certain technology sometimes allows equally bad or even worse tech to enter the market. Or lobbyists can sometimes intervene and gain insensible exemptions from bans.

Tech forcing, on the other hand, dictates that everyone must meet the new standard by the deadline, and that no products falling short of the requirement are in circulation.

Of course, technology forcing could fail if the standard or deadline is too difficult to meet, or when the standard results in a product that is unacceptable to consumers. “We’re still learning, for example, under what conditions consumers find all-electric vehicles worthwhile,” Phillips says.

Other climate policies that are vigorous but don’t necessarily fall into the tech forcing category, Phillips says, include Norway’s aggressive set standard that, by 2025, 100 percent of vehicles sold must be electric. To support this ambitious goal, Norway offered tax exemptions, reduced tolls, and provided free public parking to electric vehicle drivers, as well as invested in widespread charging infrastructure. As a result, about two-thirds of new passenger vehicles sold in Norway were fully electric in 2021. Because electric vehicles already exist, this is not an example of tech forcing. Instead, Phillips says, it represents strong government intervention to ensure wider adoption of an already existing technology.

Singapore’s push to decarbonize harbor operations, California’s executive order for zero emission cars, and Germany’s mandate to phase out nuclear power offer additional examples of a strong government intervention to drive innovation and change.

While these interventions may or may not work, some scientists—including Phillips and Dung—are not shying away from the more aggressive concept of tech forcing to drive more innovative solutions to the climate crisis.

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