As federal regulations and climate programs are rolled back in spite of growing evidence of climate change drivers and impacts, it could be easy for climate and clean energy advocates to feel discouraged. But a jolt of energy came in the form of the 7th annual Climate Leadership Conference in Denver and the speakers and more than 400 energy and climate professionals engaging there.
The event, presented by co-hosts C2ES and The Climate Registry and headline sponsor Bloomberg Philanthropies, offered proof that business, city, and state action will continue to drive low-carbon energy solutions and climate action in the absence of leadership in Washington. With new announcements between Xcel Energy and the city of Denver and from Visa and L’Oreal, and broad participation and innovation from many sectors, it’s clear that climate action – in U.S. boardrooms, city halls, and state capitols – is strong and growing.
In addition to renewable energy announcements, collaboration to accelerate climate action took center stage:
- Signing the final commitment on the CLC stage, Xcel Energy and the City of Denver agreed to the Energy Future Collaboration, a partnership that will help the city meet its community-wide 2050 climate goals.
- National Grid, and its partners, Environmental Defense Fund, Colorado State University and Google Earth Outreach, received a Climate Leadership Award for their collaborative approach to detecting methane leaks in natural gas pipelines – a development that will allow better management of the country’s natural gas distribution system.
- The Utah Climate Action network received an award for its work coordinating climate conversations among a variety of regional stakeholders.
- The recently launched Renewable Thermal Collaborative invited businesses and city leaders to discuss how they are using renewable heating and cooling technologies to reduce GHG emissions. The conversation covered some of the specific challenges for commercial and industrial applications as well as the gaps that cannot be met by electrification. Participants also discussed policy and market challenges and opportunities to develop and scale solutions.
Standing in stark contrast to the federal government’s inaction on the changing climate and resulting harm to economic outlooks, leaders in attendance – from corporate pacesetters to local government innovators – seemed to agree that the world is changing, and they won’t be caught flat-footed. Their actions are diverse:
- Financial sector giants have outlined principles for companies disclosing climate risks to investors, marking what may be a dramatic shift in the expectations for business as usual.
- Electric utilities are confronting a new energy economy head on. Notably, the 2018 Individual Leadership Award was presented to Gerry Anderson, CEO of electric utility DTE Energy in Michigan. Anderson’s efforts to galvanize other utility leaders around the Clean Power Plan, and then lead his company to adopt an ambitious decarbonization plan, show that the utility sector is not the same as it was in 2009, when Congress came up short on passing a federal cap-and-trade plan. According to Anderson: “We’ve concluded not only that the 80 percent reduction goal is achievable, it is achievable in a way that ensures Michigan’s power is safe, secure, affordable, reliable – and sustainable. There doesn’t have to be a choice between a healthy environment and a healthy economy, although the debate often gets framed that way. We can have both, if we invest in a smart way.”
- Community leaders and academics are shining a light on vulnerable populations to ensure disadvantaged communities can reap the benefits of new energy policies and technologies, and that communities at risk of being left behind in the clean energy transition are considered, too. Leo Raudys of the University of Minnesota noted the economic decline of coal communities, “as we celebrate new wind farms, should we also be looking back over our shoulders and doing something about the legacy problems we had a part in creating?”
One of the high points of the conference came at the Climate Leadership Awards Dinner, when former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the audience, to exuberant applause, that in the face of federal inaction, cities, states, businesses and individuals must stand up to fill the gap. We must keep America’s Pledge to the Paris Agreement, and continue investing in innovation and fulfill our commitment to the people, institutions, and organizations that have made America a great country.
It is a precarious time for climate action, and McCarthy is right to point out that the retreat by the U.S. government has left space for greater leadership from everyone else. While we may not feel when the Arctic hits record warm temperatures, our vulnerability to extreme weather remains clear: Midwestern cities are recovering from winter floods, a series of Nor’easters are impacting millions with coastal flooding and power outages, and Puerto Rico six-months later continues rebuilding after Hurricane Irma. Companies, states, cities, and universities proved at this year’s Climate Leadership Conference they’re eager to fill the void and expand their climate strategies to tell the world “We are still in.”