Balancing realism and hope for the future

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was a vote on behalf of the international community to look to the future and redouble their tandem efforts to combat climate change. Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund, highlighted the importance of this urge to move forward in a March 28 talk hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative. Coming to such a broad consensus, Krupp said, was a huge feat. “195 countries pledged to address climate change, sworn enemies among them.” With this in mind, he said, “the world rightly celebrated Paris.”

The next steps, however, are going to determine whether or not the hope Paris ushered in will be backed up by results. “Paris was like an election,” Krupp said. “Now comes the challenge of governing.” In order for this era of governing to be successful, he told the audience, there are three major questions the global community must deal with first.

The first question is what climate progress is going to look like in the U.S. “We are both the world’s largest economy, and historically, the world’s largest emitter,” said Krupp. This gives the U.S. a special responsibility both at the negotiating table and within its own borders, as elected officials chart the course for the nation’s climate strategy.

The second question involves China. While the U.S. has been the largest source of emissions historically, China now holds that dubious honor. True climate progress cannot take place without these two emitters on board. The good news is that both countries have laid the groundwork for a continued partnership on climate mitigation. Krupp expressed optimism that the Chinese are deeply attuned to the urgency of the climate situation. “I’ve never met a climate skeptic in Beijing,” he said. “They understand there is no high-carbon path to prosperity.”

The third question is how to conduct an across-the-board examination of policy. “For all the progress we’ve made,” said Krupp, “we don’t yet have a plan in place. We need to be thinking about what smart climate policies look like.”

If Krupp’s insistence on all of these currently unresolved questions makes him a realist, his hope for the future of clean energy also makes him an optimist. He reminded the audience of the strides clean energy has taken in less than a decade — in 2010, 20 percent of new power sources were renewable, but by 2015, that percentage had tripled. Krupp’s interpretation? “Clean energy, once considered as exotic as a mission to Mars, has now taken off.”

Krupp touched lightly upon questions of politics, in particular the recent U.S. Supreme Court stay of the Clean Power Plan and the upcoming presidential election. No matter what happens, Krupp said, “I think the American people will not stand for turning back the clock to dirty energy. Concern about climate change in the United States is at an eight-year high.” And, significantly, stakes in the success of clean energy are spread across party lines. Krupp pointed out that Republican districts now contain more utility scale solar and wind installations than Democratic ones do. “Nothing,” Krupp said, “is more important to politicians than their constituents’ jobs.”

One of the most promising options for effectively fighting climate change, Krupp believes, is the implementation of a carbon tax or an emissions trading system. To him, it’s a question of simple economics. “When it’s free to pollute, you get a lot of pollution.” He added, “Using this economic lever is critical because no one knows which technologies will move us to a low-carbon future. Nobody knows better than the collective wisdom of the market.” This focus on economic solutions does not take away from the importance of researchers; in fact, it accentuates their role in the race for solutions. “Investors, engineers, and entrepreneurs,” Krupp said, “will accelerate the race to profit” by improving existing clean energy technologies — a process that would only be aided by the market forces arising from a carbon tax.

In the end, Krupp said, what matters most in the policy world is for the course policymakers decide on to deliver results — in this context, “guaranteed pollution reductions.” In a larger context, however, there are pressing human elements that need to be taken into consideration in any effective climate plan. Addressing questions concerning treatment of developing nations in climate agreements, Krupp said, “Equity and fairness in all of this is really important. At EDF, we’re always going to be for prosperity, for supporting people who want to enjoy modern conveniences. We’re never going to put a cap on human aspirations.” 

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