On Thursday October 3rd, I attended the Emerging Leaders in Energy & Environmental Policy (ELEEP) conference titled “Transatlantic Cooperation on Energy Security and Climate Change” in DC hosted by the Atlantic Council and the Ecologic Institute. There were three sets of panels of ambassadors, former diplomats, and energy-climate experts. Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator, was a scheduled panelist but was a no show because of the government shutdown. Among several jokes from the panelist that they had passed the threshold of being considered “emerging”, the afternoon was descriptive conversation of the current and future landscape of US-European energy and climate actions. I will deconstruct the key points of the conference into 5 take home messages.
Transitioning to a low-carbon economy is the primary challenge of international relations
Energy energy energy. How it is acquired, what sources we extract it from, and how it is used, are the underpinnings of international affairs as the world progresses through the 21st Century. Energy availability has driven what economies will grow and exert their influence and will continue to do so. We are now keenly aware of the relationship between traditional fossil fuel use and climate change. Transitioning away from a dominance of these fuels to a low-carbon world economy holds great importance for economic growth, sustainable development, and the degree of anthropogenic climate change in the coming decades.
The US is doing what it can with a paralyzed Congress
Although federal climate legislation failed in 2009, that same year President Obama made the ambitious pledge in Copenhagen promising a 17% decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 2005 levels. With Congress incapable of effective decision-making at this time, responsibility has fallen on federal agencies and the states to make this happen. Not evidenced by popular media, they have taken to the challenge and the US has seen promising cuts to emissions over the last few years.
Gradually more stringent automobile efficiency standards are reducing emissions from the transportation sector while the EPA is forging new standards for fossil fuel fired power stations. Individual states (such as California’s ambitious renewables and energy efficiency standards) and states acting in groups (such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – RGGI) are approaching carbon emission reductions on regional scales. States can take regionally and municipally appropriate actions that energize their local economy while contributing to aggregate US reductions. For instance, Texas is the largest wind producer of energy in the US. Who knew? In this way, states have lessons for economies over seas and the US overall. Facilitating the sharing of best practices and removing barriers to cooperation among states and countries plays a critical role in a low carbon transition.
A reoccurring topic of the conference was America’s shale gas boom. Contentious fracking throughout the country has created an energy revolution in the US (we are “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas” as one Congressional staffer phrased it during a separate meeting). For all of its environmental misgivings, hydraulic fracturing is providing a domestic source of natural gas that when burned creates significantly less GHGs than oil or coal. The accelerated extraction and use of fracked gas has been a major contributor to the steady reduction in overall US GHG emissions. Is shale gas a transition fuel or a destination fuel? A question to be considered along with the heavy environmental cost of extracting this gas, it has for the time being provided a less carbon intensive source of energy and has set an example that quick, economical transitions to lower carbon fuels are possible.
This may be the last decade of American–European influence as we know it
Emerging economies may be a misnomer. Emerging superpowers may be more accurate. India and China are on track to surpass the United States and Europe as global trendsetters in the next decade as their economies expand and they lift their populations out of poverty. What examples will the Euro-American superpowers of the 20th Century set in this remaining window of global influence? The decisions of the next decade are pivotal in defining where the world is heading this next century.
Putting a price on carbon is a good idea
It was described as “crazy” that the US has not paid more consideration to implementing a tax on carbon emissions. Put simply, tax the unhealthy, climate change inducing pollutant instead of, for example, income. Here we would be paying for the “social cost” of carbon.
The idea is that we do not pay the full price of carbon emissions when we buy electricity or gas. We pay the health bills associated with dirty air and water, we pay in the form of lost habitats and landscapes as fossil fuel extraction levels whole mountains and ecosystems, we pay to rebuild entire shorelines after devastating hurricanes pound our communities. Therefore, to put a price on carbon that equates to these values incentivizes a transition in the economy, industry, and individual lifestyles.
For this to work the tax needs to be sufficiently high. The estimated price of the social cost of carbon is around $40 per ton. The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme prices carbon at around €4 (about $5.40) per ton, too small to take a sizeable chunk out of emissions and begin to effect industry decisions. Furthermore, a price on carbon needs to have a global structure to level the playing field. Industries that will be heavily taxed in one country for their emissions will have the incentive to relocate to deregulated countries if there is not a global carbon pricing structure.
For these reasons, compounded by ideological disputes and the Congressional paralysis mentioned above, a carbon tax in the US is not likely anytime soon. To hear the proposals of how one activist group is working to overcome these obstacles and respond to the challenges of implementing a US carbon tax, check out Citizens Climate Lobby (http://citizensclimatelobby.org).
Optimism is necessary for there is hope
Climate change has taken on an aura of doom and gloom pessimism. “We are screwed anyway so what’s the point in doing anything about it?” is a common defeatist argument. And it is easy to see the issue this way if taken at face value.
The failure of advocating for climate change mitigation and adaption is to focus on the bad news; sea level rise, more intense and frequent extreme weather events, ecosystem disruption. These are complex problems and short horizons are partially to blame. But when we view climate change as an opportunity rather than a monumental challenge, we flip the script.
The world has advantages to gain from acting to mitigate and adapt to climate change. New industries need human power to scale up new technologies with the promise of replacing fossil fuels. In fact Ikea has begun selling Photovoltaic (solar) panels in the UK. Developing climate resilient infrastructure builds better, more efficient, more livable communities. The more than one billion in poverty throughout the world are staged to benefit significantly from climate and energy financing and the principles of equity they are predicated upon. Climate change is creating jobs and hope for people all over the world.
As one panelist pointed out as the conference was reaching its conclusion, the world teetered anxiously on the verge of major disaster throughout the Cold War. Few predicted its end would come in the form of a fizzle rather than a fight. We should not be over burdened by climate change. The world shares responsibility, but also shares in its benefits. There is space for optimism and this should be the point of departure in climate change dialogues.