The Climate Action Conundrum

Years ago, I was in the audience at a conference of investors and environmentalists listening to a panel of presenters talk about what actions they were pursuing on climate. A speaker from NRDC, who worked in their D.C. office and was all too familiar with the political realities, was talking about their strategy of advocating for incremental reasonable energy reduction targets. In the Q&A, I asked “If the science tells us that we need an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the scope and approach we would adopt to reach 80% is vastly different than the strategies we adopt to achieve a 10-20% target. I realize the political difficulty, but where does this really get us?”

The conundrum is that all the effort and activity to reach shorter-term GHG reduction targets will not necessarily position us to achieve the much greater reductions that the science tells us we need. In a meeting of a state climate action network I was in yesterday, a colleague provided a metaphor of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was running on the roof of one train and had to jump to another train. You can imagine one train as all the activity focused on ensuring the state achieves its 2020 target of a 25% reduction in GHG emissions vs. 1990. This will require implementing a portfolio of policies and actions that will add up to the 25%. The other train is actions needed to reach the longer-term target of reaching an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050. The strategies required to reach that goal call for a different level of innovation and transformation of the economy and our society.

I believe that cross-sector networks can play a unique leadership and convening role to focus on the long-term goal and a systems perspective, i.e., the 30,000 foot view. Governments, businesses, non-profits, and foundations tend to focus on tactical short-term solutions, despite recognizing the critical need for a longer-term view. Networks can offer the places to convene a different strategic conversation. For example, the Vermont Energy Action Network brought together about 40 senior level leaders from across Vermont’s energy system for deeper dialogue and analysis about what it would take to create a fundamental transformation of the energy system. Over two years, they worked together to develop a comprehensive understanding of the energy system and agree to pursue a goal for Vermont to meet 80% of its energy needs through efficiency and renewables by 2030.

Four major leverage points were identified that could move the whole system toward dynamic change. The Network is now pursuing coordinated strategic work and specific projects for these four leverage points to shift the system:

  • Capital Mobilization: Developing innovative public and private financing for renewable energy and removing the financing barriers and risk for investors;
  • Regulatory and Permitting Reform: Fair, predictable, timely and efficient permitting and regulatory processes that treat all energy projects “equally;”
  • Public Engagement: Increased community engagement around the transition to renewable energy and developing a common language and message among multiple players in the state; and
  • Technological Innovation: Developing new energy technologies as a core competency of Vermont.

In another example, in 2011 and 2012, Massachusetts was ranked #1 in energy efficiency programs by ACEEE. As Elisa Wood describes in her blog, a pivotal event that laid the groundwork for this leadership position occurred in the mid-1980’s:

“A group of influential activists, thinkers and utility leaders converged in the state, ready to bring efficiency to the forefront. Their names weren’t necessarily recognizable then, but today several are national leaders in the energy arena… John Rowe, CEO of Exelon, now arguably one of the power industry’s most influential figures…directed a legendary challenge to the group that would frame the region’s direction. “I’m the rat, show me cheese.” In other words, give utilities a financial incentive to pursue energy efficiency, and they will do it.

Cowell and the others found the cheese and they convinced utilities to direct large sums of money toward efficiency. The group spent three years creating a guiding document for New England called “Power to Spare.” “Power to Spare” brought forward the then relatively novel idea of efficiency as a kind of power plant, a way to meet power demand by injecting efficiency rather than more megawatts into the grid.

The report also envisioned a day when New England would actually “bend the curve,” meaning those charts that show power demand forever rising would instead someday show it falling…the “Power to Spare” group saw its vision realized this year, on the report’s 25th anniversary. The curve has bent downward, and analysts say the slow economy, alone, did not cause the reversal. They attribute as much as half to the LED lights, better motors, smart appliances and other efficient equipment that is decreasing demand for energy. Bending the curve wasn’t easy; it took a lot of mental muscle, a host of innovations that sprang up in New England over the years.”

These two examples inspire me about the kind of network convening, research, and dialogue needed to create the vision, engagement, innovative thinking, and consensus to move states toward bold transformative changes to our energy system and economy.

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