Year Ahead: We must strengthen climate action wherever possible

When I wrote a blog a year ago taking stock of the strengthening climate change effort, I reflected on a year of unprecedented progress, capped by the Paris Agreement, and outlined ways we could build on those successes.

At the beginning of the new U.S. administration, the outlook is unfortunately far different.  Now, our challenge is to preserve as much of this progress as we can, and to devise new strategies to continue strengthening climate action wherever possible.

Despite coming setbacks, it’s worth reminding ourselves that we have a solid base to work from. Thanks in part to strong policies, but also to growing market forces, the U.S. is on the path to a clean-energy transition, and the continued momentum is strong.

A few examples, just since the election:

·      Some of the world’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, including Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Mark Zuckerberg, launched a billion-dollar fund to invest in cutting-edge clean energy technologies.

The new policy landscape won’t be clear for some time and is likely to evolve. But as we monitor the early signs, and take soundings with policymakers and stakeholders around the country and around the world, we are coming to a clearer view of immediate imperatives, and of opportunities that may lie ahead.

One imperative is ensuring that the United States remains a reliable partner in the global climate effort – by staying in the Paris Agreement, and by working constructively with other countries to establish sound rules for its implementation. 

We were encouraged to hear Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson note the importance of the United States staying at the table. Indeed, the Paris Agreement reflects long-standing bipartisan principles. It fully preserves national sovereignty while providing a means of holding other countries accountable. U.S. businesses benefit from full access to the clean energy markets the agreement helps drive.

We were encouraged also to hear EPA Administrator nominee Scott Pruitt express respect for the “endangerment finding” underpinning the regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. What is critical is how EPA chooses to fulfill the inherent legal obligation to regulate emissions, starting with the power sector.

While the Clean Power Plan appears unlikely to survive, decarbonization of the power sector is already underway. Thanks to improved energy efficiency and a more diverse energy mix, emissions dropped more than 20 percent over the last decade. Last year was the third in a row that renewables accounted for more than half of new U.S. power capacity.

Continued tax credits enjoying strong bipartisan support will help sustain that growth.  State-level conversations on lower carbon energy policies are continuing as states, cities and utilities find economic opportunity in modernizing the power sector. But the imperative remains: We need an overarching federal framework to deliver sustained, cost-effective emission reductions. We urge the new administration and Congress to get on with the job.

In the near term, we see opportunities for bipartisan steps that benefit both the climate and the economy and strengthen the foundation for a longer-term clean energy transition. These include:

Incentivizing carbon capture, use and storage.

Carbon capture technologies like those deployed this month in Texas are essential to meeting the climate challenge. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was among the bipartisan sponsors of a bill last year to help advance these technologies by supporting the use of captured CO2 in enhanced oil recovery, as recommended by a coalition of industry, labor, and environmental groups we help lead. We expect similar legislation in this Congress.

Advancing nuclear energy.

Bipartisan bills have already been introduced in the House and Senate to spur advanced nuclear technologies. Nuclear is our largest source of zero-carbon energy and the only one that provides continuous baseload power. It will have to play a significant role in any realistic long-term climate strategy.

Modernizing our infrastructure.

A viable infrastructure package could open significant opportunities to address climate change while creating jobs and growth. Examples include:

  • A modernized electric grid that can better distribute renewable power and is more climate-resilient.
  • Expanded charging and refueling networks for electric, natural gas and hydrogen vehicles.
  • Roads and bridges that can better withstand more frequent extreme weather.

One reason we’re confident of continued momentum is that the vast majority of the American people support it. In a Yale survey conducted after the election, nearly 70 percent favored staying in the Paris Agreement. And 70 percent – including a majority of Republicans – supported strict carbon limits on existing coal plants.

Business leaders, too, recognize the growing risks of climate impacts, and the opportunities to create new products, services and jobs.

And a growing number of cities are finding they can save money and create jobs by encouraging energy efficiency and clean energy and transportation.

At C2ES, while we are bracing for setbacks, and are prepared to defend against reversing course, we also will continue working as hard as ever to bring diverse interests together to make progress wherever we can. We face significant new challenges. But from the local to the global level, we’ve got strong momentum. And we can’t turn back.