A Vision for a Climate-Friendly Future

A Vision for a Climate-Friendly Future

Remarks by Eileen Claussen
President, Pew Center on Global Cliamte Change

Air & Waste Management Association Annual Conference and Exhibition

June 23, 2003

Thank you very much.  It is a pleasure to be here in San Diego.  And I thank the Air & Waste Management Association for inviting me here today. 

While looking at the website for this conference, I was surprised to see that the plenary presentation this morning coincides with a recreational opportunity for attendees at the-- conference -- that is, a visit to several of San Diego’s historical sites that is billed as the “step back in time tour.”  Let me say, first, that I appreciate the fact that so many of you opted out of that event, preferring to remain in the here and now. 

In my speech today I intend to offer a tour of both the past and the future. I want to talk about the need for a vision of what the world might look like 50 years from now -- what the world must look like -- if we finally accept our responsibility to protect the global climate. And I want to talk about how the lessons from the past can help us get there.

Let me start with a brief “step back in time tour” of my own,  and reflect for a minute on some advice that I was given when I was working on waste management issues back in the 1970’s.  I can clearly remember being berated by a vice president of a major US corporation for my foolish ideas on reuse and recycling.  After the critique was over, the VP went on to offer me some counseling.  “Eileen,” he said, “be careful that you don’t try to become a monument.  Monuments attract pigeons.”  Well, I didn’t listen to that advice, and while the pigeons are sometimes a problem, I would be delighted if pigeons were all I had to worry about. 

Unfortunately, what I do worry about is whether we have what it takes to create the vision of where we need to be, and then achieve it – whether we are all willing to take the risk of becoming monuments.  Because the task at hand is not an easy one:  we must wean ourselves away from our reliance on fossil fuels, and begin in earnest to develop the technologies and the alternative energy sources that will help us achieve real and steady reductions in worldwide emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. 

There are a lot of good things happening right now.  Individuals, companies and governments are taking important and worthwhile steps to address this problem, and I want to talk with you a little bit about what they are doing.  But what is happening now is not nearly enough.  And the priority looking ahead must be to marry a long-term vision of a climate-friendly future with the short-term strategies that will get us there.

In this, we must remember the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “The future is literally in our hands to mold as we like. But we cannot wait until tomorrow. Tomorrow is now.”

Of course, the reason we are having this discussion -- and the reason I am laying out this vision -- is that we have a real problem.  The earth’s climate is undergoing important and potentially hazardous changes, and human activities are largely to blame.  Of this there is no doubt.  Even our President (previously referred to as skeptic-in-chief), revised his prior assumptions after he assigned a committee of the National Academy of Sciences to look into the matter -- and they came back to him reporting that, and I quote "GHG's are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean  temperatures to rise.  Temperatures are, in fact rising.  The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities."  The report goes on to say that we can't exclude the possibility that natural variability has contributed as well  -- but the main point remains - the earth is warming, and humans must accept some responsibility for that warming.

How significant is this warming trend?  The earth’s temperature has always fluctuated, but ordinarily these shifts have occurred over the course of centuries or millennia, not decades.  Over the last century, we have seen a one-degree increase in global temperatures.  And the increase appears to be accelerating.  The 1990s were the hottest decade on record.  The last five years were among the seven hottest on record.  Scientists project that over the next century, average global temperature will rise between two and ten degrees Fahrenheit.  The higher-end figure of ten degrees would be the largest swing in global temperature since the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago. 

What will be the effects of this warming?  In the short term, there will be both winners and losers as farms and forests, for example, become more productive at some latitudes, but less productive at others.  In the long term, though, any possible benefits from global warming will likely be far outweighed by the costs -- and the consequences may be irreversible.  Consequences such as increased flooding and increased drought, as well as extended heat waves, more powerful storms, and other extreme weather events.  And I have not even mentioned the problem of rising sea level, which has potentially far-reaching effects on coastal areas throughout the world.

Global warming, in other words, is not an idle concern.  Unfortunately, however, it is a concern that has become overly politicized and polarized, and the main reason for this is that addressing this issue effectively requires us to change.  There is no way around it.  Responding to climate change will fundamentally alter the way we meet many of our most basic needs. 

But a lot of people don't like change; change is hard, it requires effort, and it makes things, well…different.  Many would rather keep the status quo.  Those who are against the changes that are needed, argue that they would imperil our economy and our way of life.  But let me tell you something: those who oppose practical steps to deal with the issue of climate change are misguided, because we can address this issue effectively while still growing our economy. In fact, if we fail to address it, the costs are likely to be greater.  Our emissions will have grown; the amounts we will have to reduce will be greater; the time available to make these reductions will be shorter; and the costs for damage control and remediation will increase.   In making this argument I am not suggesting that taking the necessary steps will be either free or easy.  But I believe strongly that with a long-term vision of where we want to go, we can design reasonable, cost-effective strategies to get us there -- one step, one decade at a time. 

Looking 50 years ahead, the questions then become: How will we power our economy?  How will the nations of the world -- developing and industrialized countries alike -- achieve reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time achieving their goals for growth?  And, at a more every-day level, how will we get to work?  What kind of office buildings will we work in?  What kind of cars and trucks will we drive?  And, if we plug in our hot tubs, our refrigerators, and our TVs and computers, where will the power come from? 

This isn’t the Jetsons of cartoon fame that I am talking about -- with people rocketing around in space cars and taking ultra-sonic showers.  Rather, it is real life.  And there are real changes that need to happen -- and that can happen -- if we give this issue the attention it so desperately deserves. 

And now, if you will permit me, I would like to give you a second little “step back in time tour.”  The location isn’t San Diego in 2003 but Montreal in 1987.  That was the place and the time, as all of you know, when the nations of the world stepped up to the challenge of ozone depletion and negotiated a treaty, The Montreal Protocol, to begin to phase out the production and use of ozone-depleting chemicals. 

In the years leading up to 1987, there was a great deal of skepticism about whether the depletion of the ozone layer was indeed a problem -- and, more importantly, whether it was a problem we could solve.  At first, many people denied that the problem existed, but then the argument shifted to one where many in industry said that replacing the CFCs that were causing the problem was impossible, particularly in the short term. These chemicals, it was said, are in such wide use in everything from refrigerators to aerosol antiperspirants that there is no way that society is going to be able to do without them.  But then governments began to work seriously on a framework for action, and industry initiated a major effort to work on alternative chemicals and processes.  Soon it became clear that we could develop less harmful substitutes.  The Montreal Protocol was agreed and then strengthened over time as industry became more and more comfortable with alternatives.  And the rest is history.  

I tell this story because it is about reaching for a vision that might not seem immediately attainable but that can indeed become reality with a lot of hard work and imagination.  Fast forward to today, and you see that getting rid of CFCs has not stood in the way of our ability to keep our yogurt cold or our ability (indeed, our need) to use antiperspirant -- and for that we can all be very thankful.  We were able to change to protect the planet.  And, today, we need to start thinking about the changes we have to make in order to protect the climate. 

Do we have a climate-friendly vision for the future?  I believe we have some of the pieces, but are far from having a complete vision.  Let’s look at what the Bush Administration has offered.  It seems to consist of three parts:  a greenhouse gas intensity target for the next decade; a strategy of voluntary measures to achieve that target; and a set of research efforts to assist in bringing about long-term technological change. 

There are a number of fundamental problems with this approach.  First, rather than establishing an absolute target for emission reductions – as many of the companies we are working with at the Pew Center have done and as the international community has done with the Kyoto Protocol, the Bush administration’s climate strategy sets a voluntary “greenhouse gas intensity” target for the nation.  The idea is to reduce the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to U.S. economic output, or GDP.  But the biggest problem with the White House target – an 18 percent reduction in greenhouse gas intensity by 2012 – is that it would allow actual emissions to grow by 12 percent over the same period.

What’s more, the Administration’s strategy relies entirely on voluntary measures.  This despite the fact that U.S. climate policy has consisted primarily of voluntary measures for more than a decade.  And what have these voluntary measures achieved?  As of 2001, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were up 12 percent over their 1991 levels. 

And, finally, while the Administration is putting significant effort into long-term research and development, it is not tied to specific longer term emission reduction goals. It is absolutely clear that technological research and development must be a critical element in any vision of a climate-friendly future.  It is also clear that without a specific, binding target that creates the demand for these new technologies, we are unlikely to succeed in our efforts to protect the global climate. 
We can do better than that.  We have to do better than that.  In the months and years ahead, we as a nation need to think more seriously about the short- and long-term steps we should be taking to reduce our contribution to climate change.  

And we can learn from many of the promising activities that are taking place all around us starting with the efforts of the members of the Pew Center’s Business Environmental Leadership Council.   The council’s 38 members represent nearly 2.5 million employees and have combined revenues of $855 billion.  They include mostly Fortune 500 firms, and they are committed to economically viable climate solutions.  What are they doing?  

  • 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 recently met its target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent from 1990 levels -- and it did this in part by revamping its disposal of the waste gases resulting from oil and gas production. Shell also is planning a long-term transition into the renewable energy market, having invested $1 billion in renewables to date.
  • Shell is not the only company we are working with that is venturing into new markets or shifting its business focus.  ABB is a $25 billion Swiss business-to-business supplier that has divested itself of traditional, large-scale power generation businesses.  Instead, the company now supplies distributed energy solutions, such as combined heat and power technology, fuel cells, microturbines, and wind power plants.  
  • And then there is the case of Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., which entered into an agreement to provide the waste stream from one of its chemical plants for use as a fuel source for a neighboring company.  Air Products and Chemicals also has numerous operations that recover hydrogen molecules and other waste gases from the industrial processes of other companies.  Not only are these waste gases used as a fuel source for cogeneration plants, but the recovery of hydrogen reduces the need for natural gas to create hydrogen anew -- creating a double climate benefit.

All of these are important developments—and they show how increasing numbers of leading companies see a clear business interest both in reducing their emissions and in helping to shape a climate-friendly future. 

Even more encouraging is the fact that elected leaders in the states are working to shape that future now -- and they are doing it, in part, by recognizing that climate change is an air and waste management issue.

  • Massachusetts, for example, has established a multi-pollutant cap requiring six older power plants to reduce their CO2 emissions by 10 percent. 
  • In neighboring New Hampshire, lawmakers have adopted a similar, multi-pollutant approach in an effort to require the state’s three fossil fuel-fired power plants to stabilize their CO2 emissions at 1990 levels.  
  • Elsewhere, states have developed innovative waste management programs that will protect the climate.  These include a mandatory statewide recycling program in New Jersey that helped the state avoid 8.7 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 1995; and a program in Missouri that provides financing for a project to capture methane from a 70-acre sanitary landfill for use as fuel for the boilers of a local high school. 

That is what I call vision.  And it is a quality that is desperately needed as the United States sets out in the years ahead to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.  Clearly, we have a ways to go.  How far?  Well, right now, we have a national climate strategy that says it is fine and good for our emissions to continue to grow.  So obviously the road ahead is a rather long and probably a winding one.  But first we must decide what the future should look like.

Let's take a look at a  couple of specific sectors, the power sector and the transportation sector -- which together account for about 2/3 of our nation's energy use.

How do we envision the power sector?  With no silver bullet on the horizon, we can  expect a future with greater use of natural gas (if we can increase supply and meet our infrastructure needs); with a steadily increasing use of renewables (and the progress of wind energy over the last decade should give us a glimmer of hope); with an increased emphasis on distributed generation and combined heat and power; with nuclear at least maintaining its current level of electric generation; and finally with coal, if we are able to master carbon capture and sequestration and make it economically viable.  

Meeting the challenge of the transportation sector will not be easy, but the rewards will yield energy security dividends as well as environmental ones. If we start now by investing and deploying  existing technologies and investments, it is possible to reduce carbon emissions by about 20 to 25% by 2015 and 45 to 50% by 2030, compared to business as usual.    The transportation sector is a perfect example of the need for both short and longer-term efforts.  It typically takes 10-15 years to turnover a vehicle fleet, so if we start making new vehicles more efficient today,  it will take more than a decade for these efficiency gains to be realized in all vehicles on the road.  At the same time we should be working toward the low-carbon transportation future that we ultimately need, with advanced hybrids, advanced diesel, hydrogen fuel cells and the infrastructure that will be needed to support hydrogen. 

But simply having a vision gets you nowhere.  You have to be able to achieve it.  Starting right now, we have to identify the steps necessary to transition to a new, climate-friendly economy.  We know that there are short-term strategies that significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions without radical changes in technologies or lifestyles.  These are the low-hanging fruit in the effort to create a climate-friendly future: the efficiency and management improvements that will save money and reduce emissions.    And we have a vision of our longer-term needs.    But most important, we know that we cannot achieve our vision for the future, or even take advantage of the myriad of shorter-term improvements that are environmentally and economically advantageous without a strong national policy. 

This policy must be focused on four specific areas: 

  • One: We need to create a system where reporting and disclosure of greenhouse gas emissions becomes the rule -- at the very least, for major sources -- and where companies that are acting now to reduce their emissions are assured of credit under future mandatory regimes.
  • Two: We need to use a combination of standards, tax credits and other incentives to expand the use of energy-efficient motor vehicles, appliances and buildings; renewable energy; and alternative fuels and technologies.  We need to send the market the right signals in order for change to happen.
  • Three: We need to expand our natural gas supply and infrastructure and promote advanced coal technologies with carbon capture and disposal.
  • And four: We need to adopt a comprehensive national strategy that couples mandatory reductions in emissions with flexible, market-based approaches such as emissions trading.

Just last month, the Pew Center released a report taking a detailed look at six diverse emissions trading programs.  The aim was to draw general lessons for the development of trading programs for greenhouse gases.  And the conclusion?  A so-called “cap-and-trade” program -- which couples trading with a mandatory goal for reducing emissions -- would be an especially attractive way of reducing the U.S. contribution to climate change. Among the reasons: trading allows for greater efficiency than other approaches, given that the cost of reducing emissions varies widely by source.

Of course, we already know how a market-based strategy such as trading can contribute to environmental progress.  We have seen it happen.  The year in this case was 1990, and the place was Washington, D.C., where lawmakers, as part of the Clean Air Act Amendments passed that year, set out to mandate significant reductions in emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from electric utilities.  The results of this program are clear – the goals have been met, and the costs have been far less than anticipated.  

The same kind of cap-and-trade system can achieve the same kind of progress in our effort to protect the climate.  It is this kind of system, in fact, that is at the heart of national climate change legislation introduced earlier this year by Senators Joe Lieberman and John McCain.  This landmark measure for the first time brings together several features that would be critical to the success of a national climate change strategy.  The bill would establish ambitious and binding targets for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.  Equally important, it would provide companies with the flexibility to reduce emissions as cost-effectively as possible – thanks to the creation of a rigorous nationwide system allowing emissions trading, the provision of credit for carbon storage, and the ability to use credits earned abroad  Last but not least, the bill would recognize those reductions that are being made now by the companies that are taking the lead on this issue and provide additional flexibility for these early actors. 

Of course, the Lieberman-McCain measure has no real chance of becoming law any time soon. But it does give us a starting place on the policy vision that we so desperately need. 

As we begin building a workable strategy to reduce U.S. emissions, we can at the same time begin demonstrating leadership internationally. As the producer of fully one-fourth of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, we have to show the world, first, that we are stepping up to this problem domestically, and, second, that we can contribute in important and substantive ways to the development of a global framework for action. 

Despite the Bush administration’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, it is in the United States’ best interests to forge an effective, long-term international climate agreement – one ensuring that all major emitting countries do their fair share to meet this challenge.  Whether you support it or not, the Kyoto Protocol is a reasonable first step and provides an important framework for the continuing evolution of the world’s energy mix. 

But in the same way that the United States should be guided by a long-term vision as it works domestically to protect the climate, so too must the global community be looking beyond Kyoto.  Because an agreement that’s going to work – an agreement that can bring in not only the United States, but developing countries as well – will in all likelihood be something other than Kyoto.  And it’s going to take some time to get there.

The more immediate challenge, though, is here at home.  And the longer U.S. policy makers wait to address the climate issue in a serious way, the greater the risk to the climate and to America’s standing in the world. 

A “step back in time” is important for learning what works.  But Eleanor  Roosevelt was right: “Tomorrow is now.”  And we need right now to be shaping a vision of a better tomorrow for our climate, for our economy, and for all of us. We need to get on with solutions.

Thank you very much.