COP16 plea for US policy pragmatism

Stephen Lacey, editor and contributor to the Renewable Energy World network, covers COP 16, taking place through this week in Cancun, Mexico. Some onlookers in the U.S. are calling for a renewed focus on bottom-up, local initiatives rather than a top-down approach. 

(December 8, 2010)Stephen Lacey, editor and contributor to the Renewable Energy World network, covers COP 16, taking place through this week in Cancun, Mexico. Some onlookers in the U.S. are calling for a renewed focus on bottom-up, local energy initiatives rather than a top-down approach. 

Last year’s failed COP15 conference was a big blow to the climate advocacy community: In a period of weeks, hopes for an international agreement crashed and burned, leaving people wondering if any kind of movement would come. Shortly after, it became clear that the U.S. Congress wouldn’t pass a climate bill, further dimming prospects for action.

The November US elections turned the chilly politics of global warming in America ice cold. After winning 65 seats in the House, Republicans are now taking control of key committees that could determine the future of energy policy; some of the leaders in the running for these committees are vociferous foes of climate science.

Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for the New Yorker who has been covering climate change issues for over a decade, profiled some of those leading Republicans in a piece last month.

“A lot of people whose positions are not even necessarily mainstream…are going to come into power,” she explains in an interview.

There’s John Boehner, the presumptive Speaker of the House, who said in a television appearance last year that “the idea that CO2 is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical.” He went on to opine that because people breath out CO2 and cows “do what they do,” we shouldn’t consider the gas a problem.

Then there’s John Shimkus, who’s been running for the Chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He became well-known last year for quoting a passage from Genesis during a hearing as evidence that climate change is not an issue, saying “there’s a theological argument that we are a carbon-starved planet.” (It should be noted that Shimkus is not a front-runner in the race. Fred Upton, who is considered far more moderate on climate and energy issues, will likely get the seat. He’s battling Joe Barton, another leader who is extremely skeptical of climate science).

And there’s also Darrell Issa, the incoming Chairman of the House Committee for Oversight and Government reform. As leader of that body, he’ll have the power to open investigations on a variety of issues. One of his stated priorities is to investigate climate scientists associated with the “Climategate” scandal. (Multiple independent inquiries found no evidence that climate data was skewed by scientists).

These are a few among a handful of powerful politicians who have vowed to thwart climate-change mitigation efforts when they take leadership positions. Kolbert says this change in leadership makes it increasingly unlikely that the U.S. will play a positive role in international climate negotiations in the foreseeable future.

“This is a situation where irrationality has won the day,” says Kolbert. “Without strong leadership from the U.S., I have never seen how we are going to get from here to there.”

But some people don’t believe that all is lost. The renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors are maturing quickly, accelerating solutions to the problem. Although the politics around climate change are vitriolic, there is still strong bipartisan support for clean energy.

Jigar Shah, the CEO of the non-profit investment firm Carbon War Room, has been telling renewable energy advocates to “stop bitching” and “go out and build businesses.” The industry made it this far, he says. Companies can continue to persevere in spite of the challenges.

His business partner, Virgin Airlines Founder Richard Branson, recently wrote a piece in the Guardian newspaper urging the investment community to stay ahead of policymakers: “Legislation and public policy will only shape the market, it will not deliver solutions,” he wrote.

Activity at the COP16 conference in Cancun mirrors this new political reality. Rather than push for a large-scale global agreement, negotiators are focusing on the details of a climate fund that will help finance renewable energy, energy efficiency and mitigation projects in developing countries. Even if political leaders can’t agree on how (or whether) to price carbon, there is still support for investment in technological solutions at the sub-national level.

In the US, industry leaders are pushing for extensions of the federal grant program and key tax credits. (Aside from solar, which has an investment tax credit through 2016, tax credits for other technologies expire in one or two years, making it difficult to plan large-scale projects). Trade groups were hoping to have those extensions in a bill currently before Congress that will extend tax cuts and unemployment benefits, but they didn’t get them in. Also check out our coverage of the California Prop 23 battle in November.

Beyond that immediate priority, industry leaders have halted their push for a comprehensive energy policy on the federal level.

Lewis Milford, president and founder of the non-profit policy and investment advisory firm Clean Energy Group, believes there will be a trend toward more specific and localized action in the U.S. With the prospects for cap and trade or a national renewable energy standard virtually dead, Milford says the U.S. needs to focus on “policy pragmatism” and establish solutions on a more local level.

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“We’ve tried big and grand — let’s try small and experimental and work from the bottom up, rather than assume we have the answers in Washington to all these problems,” he says.

He recently co-authored a report for the Clean Energy Group outlining some ideas on how to redeploy existing federal dollars to programs at the state level. By giving more local control over the money (which again, has already been appropriated to federal agencies) he says we can continue building the clean energy industry without a climate bill or national renewable energy target.

“This is the opposite of what many people have been promoting [on the federal level] for years,” he says.

A few ideas include: Using $100 million to mimic corporate technology-procurement programs and better link R&D and commercialization efforts; deploy over $1 billion to help state agencies procure electricity from emerging technologies; and invest $650 million into existing state-level clean energy funds to help grow technology funding partnerships, improve regulatory coordination and build workforce development programs. These efforts could leverage billions more dollars in private investment on the local and state levels, providing a direct economic boost.

Milford admits that these programs are only one piece of a long-term clean energy strategy. While this “Clean Energy Federalism” approach is good for helping early-stage technologies, it may be less effective for helping companies build large-scale wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and bioenergy facilities. Ultimately, long-term tax credits are the key to helping developers in that sector – and developers in most industries are nervously watching the expiration dates for those credits get closer.

With the exception of some possible tax credit extensions, Milford believes this approach is currently one of the only realistic options.

“We have to think smaller, more locally. I think this can reconcile the differences between the two groups who either do or don’t want do something about climate change,” he says. “It can really appeal to anyone.”

That is also the hope on the international stage. To keep momentum going, policy makers are trying to hammer out any viable package that will accelerate clean energy development on the national or sub-national level.

The New Yorker’s Kolbert sees this as a somewhat positive trend during an otherwise dismal period for climate action. Despite the continued attack on scientists and advocates trying to raise awareness of the issue, there is a wide-spread recognition that renewables and energy efficiency are an important investment.

“It’s a very frustrating time right now. But at least we can feel positive that we’re going in the right direction in some ways,” says Kolbert.

Stephen Lacey is a producer and host of the Inside Renewable Energy podcast, a weekly audio news program that covers the latest developments in technology, policy and finance. He contributes to Photovoltaics World through the Renewable Energy World network.


This article originally appeared at and is reprinted here with permission.

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