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A U.S. X Prize to Solve Global Warming?


New Wyoming Senator John Barrasso recently introduced legislation that brings a fresh new approach to the issue of global climate change.  The “Greenhouse Gas Emission Atmospheric Removal Act,” or GEAR Act, would create a commission at the Department of Energy to establish an award system for scientists working on carbon dioxide sequestration technologies.  The general model is the X Prize and other prize competitions, which have a rich tradition going back to Charles Lindberg’s first trans-Atlantic flight.

In a statement earlier this month, Sen. Barrasso said

“The GEAR Act aims to tap into human potential and the American spirit to develop the technological solutions we need to address climate change.”

“Where ever you find yourself on the issue of climate change, we can agree on one important dynamic – change not only awaits us - it is banging on the door. We need to change it on our terms before Washington’s massive bureaucracy changes it for us.”

“It makes sense that we explore proposals to remove and permanently sequester excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to slow or reverse climate change. The best way to develop the technology we need to achieve this is through a system of financial awards, or prizes, for achieving technological goals established by Congress.”

“Putting strict limits on our economy is not the answer to climate change.  A healthy economy that spurs American ingenuity makes more sense to me.”

Of course, the X Prize is privately funded while Sen. Barrasso’s GEAR measure envisions using taxpayer resources.  Such a program would need to be offset by reductions in less critical spending elsewhere.  We are also a little skeptical that Congress, a political institution, can successfully set specific and ongoing technological goals.  In any event, it is important to recognize the dramatic costs that other global warming proposals would place on the economy, and in that context GEAR could deliver an enormous bang for the buck.  GEAR might also build on existing private efforts, such as the $25 million challenge issued last year by Richard Branson.

Sen. Barrasso is right to marshal the forces of private innovation and to focus on the underlying problem—reducing and even eliminating excess carbon emissions.  The GEAR approach has the potential to leap over more regulatory proposals such as cap-and-trade that would impose huge costs on the economy without delivering real environmental results.