Climate Change: A Strategy for the Future

Climate Change: A Strategy for the Future

Speech  by Eileen Claussen, President
Pew Center on Global Climate Change

Honors Colloquium on a Just and Sustainable Future
University of Rhode Island

September 25, 2001

I am very happy to have the opportunity to address this honors colloquium, and I want to pay tribute to the faculty, staff, and students here at the University of Rhode Island's Sustainable Communities Initiative for trying to come to terms with a very serious question-and that is, how do we create a just and sustainable future?

This, of course, is an extraordinary time, and a just and sustainable future may seem very far away as we ponder the horrific events of two weeks past. Usually, when I give a speech, I try to begin with some humor, and I do this because I think it is important that we not take ourselves, or our specific issues and interests, too seriously. But I think the events of September 11th have cast an enormous shadow over all of us-and, with it, a sadness and a seriousness of purpose that we cannot escape. And so I ask you, for the next short while at least, and for longer if you can, to be thoughtful about the issue of climate change, because it, too, requires us to be serious and reflective and determined about what we need to do to make the world a safer place.

In talking about climate change today, I want to touch first on the science - and, more specifically, on the ever-solidifying scientific consensus that this is a very serious problem that demands very serious action. I'd like to talk broadly about the challenge we face, and the ways in which many in the business community are rising to that challenge. I'll turn then to the essential role of government - both internationally and here in the United States. And, finally, I will suggest how we might forge a common path forward that is sustainable, just, and fair to all.

Our goal must be to facilitate the arrival of a second industrial revolution. And this means doing all we can to accelerate the development of new technologies that will move us closer to a low-carbon world economy.

The Science of Climate Change: A Few Observations

Let us focus first on the science of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or IPCC) is a body created by the United Nations to reach scientific consensus about the magnitude and nature of the climate problem. In its "Third Assessment Report," approved in January of this year, the IPCC said it now expects the global average surface temperature to rise by between 2.5 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of the 21st century. This is a much greater increase than projected just five years ago. Even at the low end of the projection, the warming trend is expected to cause significant problems-more sea level rise, droughts and floods; increasingly violent storms; damage to our ecosystems; effects on the availability of water; and impacts on our forests and agriculture. And the higher-end projections of 10 degrees or more could prove catastrophic. Studies from the IPCC and others also confirm that greenhouse gases produced by human activities, mainly the burning of fossil fuels, are the principal cause of the continuing warming trend.

These findings were confirmed in June by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, put together at the request of President Bush, and including some scientists who had previously expressed skepticism about the nature and pace of global climate change. The NAS report also affirms that temperatures at the Earth's surface already are rising and that the warming trend has intensified in the last 20 years.

What will be the impact of climate change here in Rhode Island? While it is hard to pinpoint impacts on a state-by-state basis, it is fair to say that Rhode Islanders-and, indeed, all New Englanders-will see temperatures rise, along with significant increases in precipitation. Fragile coastal ecosystems could be at risk as global sea levels rise, barrier reef islands are inundated, and we see an increase in the frequency and severity of storms-as scientists expect we will. Sea-level rise also could lead to flooding of low-lying property, loss of coastal wetlands, erosion of beaches, saltwater contamination of drinking water, and damage to low-lying roads, causeways, and bridges. Agricultural production will surely be affected both here and elsewhere because of warmer temperatures, less soil moisture, and other climate change-related problems. And the possibility of health problems, including increases in heat-related illnesses, cannot be discounted.

The bottom line is that if we need a reason to act on this issue, the latest science certainly provides one. The fact that there is uncertainty about exactly how much temperatures will rise or what the precise effects will be should be expected. Both the IPCC and the NAS have identified a number of critical research challenges that need to be addressed in the coming years. But, increasingly, the science tells us we would be irresponsible not to take the threat of climate change very seriously.

A Second Industrial Revolution

How, then, do we address this threat? How do we avert the many risks that the scientific community is warning us about? Quite obviously, we must reduce our emissions of the greenhouse gases that are contributing to climate change. And to do that, we must launch a new industrial revolution.

This will be a revolution characterized more than anything else by a growing reliance on low-carbon and even no-carbon energy sources to power the world's continuing economic development and growth. We must embrace the possibility of "decarbonizing" our economies. At the same time, we must also be realistic about what can be done and in what time frame. Before you start to think of me as a latter-day Pangloss, let me assure you that I am fully aware that all countries will continue to use petroleum and coal for many years to come. The challenge with respect to these traditional fuel sources will be to promote ever-increasing levels of efficiency in their transmission and use at the same time as we are working to develop and deploy cleaner energy sources for the future. Coal currently accounts for 24 percent of the United States' total primary energy supply-and a remarkable 57 percent of China's. Even if these numbers edge downward-as they are already doing with the introduction of increasing numbers of natural gas-fired power plants-the predominance of coal in the worldwide energy mix means we need to find and embrace cleaner-burning ways of using it. And we need to think seriously about sequestering coal-related carbon dioxide emissions.

But these types of steps clearly will not be enough. The bottom line is that we need new technologies to meet the energy and environmental challenges we face. To effectively address climate change, we need to lower carbon intensity (that is, the amount of carbon we emit per unit of GDP); we need to become more energy efficient, so that we use less energy to achieve the same results; we need to promote carbon sequestration, so that the carbon we do emit does not enter the atmosphere and affect the climate; and we must find ways to limit emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gases. This will require fundamentally new technologies, as well as dramatic improvements in existing ones. New, less carbon-intensive ways of producing, distributing, and using energy will be essential. The redesign of industrial processes, consumer products, and agricultural technologies and practices will also be critical.

These changes need not take place overnight. They can be introduced over decades as we turn over our existing capital stocks and establish new infrastructure. But we must begin making the investments needed to usher in this new industrial revolution, and we must begin making those investments now.

Industry Takes the Lead

Many businesses, in fact, already are taking important steps to address climate change. About half of the 36 companies that are part of the Pew Center's Business Environmental Leadership Council have set specific, quantitative targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and others are working toward establishing these objectives. Consider DuPont, a corporation that is well on its way to achieving its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent before 2010, relative to 1990 levels. Or Baxter International, which is committed to improving its energy efficiency by 30 percent below 1996 levels by 2005. Or IBM, which has committed to having 90 to 100 percent of its new model computers meet Energy Star criteria for energy efficiency.

Other companies, too, are making process and efficiency improvements that are yielding real reductions in emissions. The energy company Enron, for example, reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by controlling leaks in its natural gas pipelines. And TransAlta Corporation improved its energy efficiency by about 4 percent when it upgraded old, less efficient turbines and other systems.

In addition to these types of steps, some companies are investing in dramatic changes to their production processes. Alcoa, for example, is developing a new technology for smelting aluminum that, if successful, will allow the company to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to half their 1990 levels over the next nine years. Similarly, Shell aims to achieve its greenhouse gas reduction target by revamping its disposal of the waste gases resulting from oil and gas production, even as it puts increasing emphasis on renewable energy sources.

The States are Moving

We are also beginning to see real movement on this issue from a number of states. On August 28th of this year, the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian premiers approved a comprehensive Climate Change Action Plan at their annual meeting. This plan includes goals of returning the levels of greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2010, reducing them to 10% below that level by 2020, and putting in place a process to review, adjust and add new goals.

The state of New Jersey is hoping to reduce its levels of greenhouse gases by 3.5% from 1990 levels by 2005. The state of Oregon has put in place carbon dioxide standards for new power plants. The state of Massachusetts is regulating its highest emitting power plants, and expects to see significant reductions in emissions by 2008. And many others are experimenting and beginning to implement different approaches to addressing the climate change issue.

The Role of Federal Government Action

All of these are important developments-and they show how increasing numbers of leading companies and states see a clear interest both in reducing their emissions and in helping to shape the energy economy of the future. But voluntary actions undertaken on a largely random basis by some members of the business community or by a small handful of states are not enough. In the United States, we have had voluntary efforts in place for much of the past decade, and still we have seen a dramatic rise in emissions - almost 12 percent over 1990 levels.

In the end, there is little incentive for any company or state to undertake real action unless, ultimately, all do-and unless all are in some manner held accountable. Markets, of course, will be instrumental in mobilizing the necessary resources and know-how. Market-based strategies such as emissions trading will also help deliver emissions reductions at the lowest possible cost. But markets can move us in the right direction only if they are given the right signals. It is our national government's job to send the right signals.

Government can and must play a critical role in establishing the ground rules for the energy economy of the future. Because this is a global problem that must eventually be solved globally, it means sending global signals and establishing mandatory global frameworks for action, because each country must be assured that others will act too. And it means, in turn, the adoption of mandatory programs on a country-by-country basis. What truly matters, of course, is what individual countries and individual businesses do to reduce their individual contributions to this problem. And there is no substitute for actually requiring countries and businesses to reduce emissions, because it is in the process of trying to meet clear objectives that innovation will flourish.

The Significance of the "Kyoto Compromise"

Is government rising to the challenge? Looking first to the international arena, we see that the world community-minus one very important player-has at long last agreed on a set of first steps to address climate change.

As all of you know, over the summer in Bonn, Germany, 178 nations reached a tentative compromise on the rules that will allow the Kyoto Protocol to enter into force. The Kyoto Protocol, of course is the agreement first negotiated in 1997 that requires developed countries to reduce or limit their emissions of greenhouse in relation to 1990 levels, with different countries agreeing to different targets.

In addition to establishing targets, the Kyoto Protocol outlines how countries can achieve them-for example, by making emission reductions at home, by trading emission credits with others, and by using "sinks" such as farms and forests to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Although many of the details on how these mechanisms will work still need to be decided, the compromise reached in Bonn will likely provide countries with a high degree of flexibility in how they use these various strategies. And this, I believe, is a very important and positive development, because it will permit countries and businesses to meet their objectives in the most cost-effective ways.

But the Kyoto Protocol is just a first step on what will be a long march to a less carbon-intensive world. Its initial targets for emission reductions take us only to the 2008-2012 period, and they represent just a very small down payment on the level of reductions that scientists say we must achieve in order to have a real effect on mitigating climate change.

It is also important to note that the ultimate impact of the Kyoto Protocol will be severely limited by the United States government's decision not to be a party to the agreement. The Bush Administration has said repeatedly that it believes Kyoto is fatally flawed and not acceptable to the United States. Granted, the Protocol does have its problems-it is, after all, an agreement of approximately 180 countries with differing aspirations, differing economies, and differing views of the environment. But I believe that the other nations of the world, in agreeing to a compromise solution in Bonn, decided to send a message to the United States that an imperfect agreement is better than none-and that we cannot wait any longer to begin working together to solve the most important environmental issue facing the world today.

The Kyoto compromise very clearly does not amount to a solution to the problem of climate change. Rather, it is a first, strong statement of purpose and will to deal with this problem. And, therefore, it is an essential and historic step.

Launching Domestic Efforts in the U.S.

And what of the United States? Interestingly, in the same way that the Bush Administration's rejection of Kyoto seems to have galvanized international support for the Protocol, it appears to have generated new momentum on Capitol Hill to finally begin tackling the challenge of climate change. It is too early to know how the tragic events of September 11 will affect this and so many other vital issues in the months ahead. But prior to those events, there were strong indications that Congress was more prepared than ever to begin building the programs needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions here in the United States.

It is important to note that this new support comes from both sides of the aisle. Perhaps the biggest sign of a "changing climate" in Congress is legislation introduced by Senator Robert Byrd of coal-producing West Virginia and Senator Ted Stevens of oil-producing Alaska. In addition to providing money for technology research, the Senators' bill would require the President to develop a climate change strategy aimed at stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman - another bipartisan team - are going even further. They have announced that they plan to introduce major legislation to require greenhouse gas reductions throughout the economy under an emissions trading system - a proven way to cut emissions cost-effectively, and one that we strongly support.

What are some of the other key elements of a serious domestic program? We need, first and foremost, an energy policy that is climate-friendly. We need policies to deal with energy-using products, such as automobiles and appliances, so that they use fuel more efficiently and are compatible with different, non-fossil fuels. And we need a technology policy that will speed our development and diffusion of new technologies.

None of this will happen overnight. But there is good reason to believe that as we approach the mid-term congressional elections next year, and the presidential election in 2004, the prospects will grow only stronger. And as the United States begins to demonstrate real effort to curb its own emissions, it can credibly reenter the international dialogue and work more closely with other nations to chart a common path forward.

Which leads me to the "strategy for the future" that is mentioned in the title of my remarks. The strategy, in my view, is to insure that the Kyoto Protocol stays on the road to ratification and entry into force, while the United States begins to pursue good-faith domestic efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. To the extent that U.S. efforts are compatible with the Kyoto framework-and I hope they will be compatible-then the world can still hold out hope that the two roads will eventually merge, yielding a truly global plan of action.

Resolving the Equity Issue

Achieving that global strategy, however, will mean coming to terms with an issue that has loomed over the climate debate from the start, but has yet to be faced head-on - and that is the issue of fairness. For as the title of your colloquium, "A Just and Sustainable Future," rightly suggests, this is not about sustainability alone, but justice as well. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a future that is truly sustainable unless it is also fair and just.

From Rio in 1992 through Kyoto in 1997 and up to the most recent round of negotiations in Bonn, the international climate talks have proceeded on the basis of a common understanding: developed countries must act first. This bargain of sorts - which obligates one group of countries to act with the understanding that the other group will follow - acknowledges the fundamental inequities presented by climate change. It is an undeniable fact that developed countries account for the vast majority of the greenhouse gases put in the atmosphere over the past century, and that their per capita emissions are many times those of developing countries. (The United States, for example, contributed nearly a third of worldwide emissions last century and continues to produce roughly a quarter of global emissions with only 4 percent of the world's population.)

But historic responsibility for climate change is just one piece of the equity equation. It is also undeniable that those least responsible, the developing countries, face a disproportionate share of the impacts of global warming - from flooding to disease to famine - while having fewer resources with which to cope.

So while many in the United States, including President Bush, fault Kyoto for letting developing countries off the hook, I believe it is only fair that the developed countries act first. But I also believe that, in time, the developing countries must act too. Indeed, the emission reduction efforts finally getting underway in the industrial world will be pointless unless developing countries agree in some way to restrain the rapid rise in their own emissions.

It is important to recognize the steps already being taken by developing countries. Measures such as market reforms and energy efficiency improvements, while more often motivated by concerns other than climate change, are, in fact, resulting in significant emissions savings. China, for example, cut carbon dioxide emissions by more than 10 percent over the last five years. But far more effort is needed. In a series of reports looking at electric power in developing countries, the Pew Center found that emissions from that sector alone will triple by 2020 under a business-as-usual scenario. However, we also found that efficiency improvements and the introduction of low-emission technologies could cut this increase in half while maintaining economic growth. Once again, technology is absolutely critical.

Arriving at a truly global strategy, then, will require a fundamental rethinking of the approach taken so far. The straightforward targets set by Kyoto - cutting each country's emissions by an agreed percentage - will hopefully succeed in starting industrialized countries on the right path. But a framework that encompasses both developed and developing countries, and fairly apportions responsibility among them, will have to be more sophisticated. It will have to accommodate the legitimate desire of developing countries to raise their living standards. It will have to recognize that different countries face very different challenges - for developed countries, the challenge is converting from the existing energy infrastructure to a clean one, while for developing countries, it is much more a matter of building the infrastructure right in the first place. An effective global strategy also will have to mobilize the flow of technology, know-how and resources from wealthier nations so that poorer countries are in a position to keep up their end of the bargain. In that sense, our challenge is to ensure not only that the new industrial revolution is launched, but also that its fruits are shared quickly and fairly.

These are my thoughts on where we stand in our effort to spare future generations the grave risks of an overheated planet. Enormous challenges lie ahead. But there are promising signs, both internationally and here in the United States, that we are at last mustering the will to begin confronting them. We must seize on that momentum, and keep moving forward. Thank you.

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