Paris to DC: Acting on Affordable Clean Energy

Kerry Worthington
Kerry Worthington

By KERRY WORTHINGTON, Leaders in Energy Reporter

Leaders in Energy and the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA) gathered on March 3, 2016 at the United Nations Foundation to get motivated to act for affordable clean energy. The theme of the event was Paris to DC, a slogan that captures the need to translate and apply the newly enacted 2015 Paris climate Conference (COP21) and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 (which is aimed at ensuring access to affordable clean energy) into practical solutions at the local, national, and global levels. By the end of the session, almost all audience members raised their hands when asked if they heard an idea that they can take on climate action.

Key takeaways:

  • Decades of efforts to prevent climate change preceded the COP21 Treaty.
  • Through COP21 and the UN SDGs, the world is acting on climate change, and so can you!
  • An important area of work is finding ways to make clean energy more economically inclusive.
  • New possibilities for confronting climate change are being opened through technology.
  • Now is the time for durable policy leadership to advocate for clean energy.

Read more below, and please check out the recap from Paris to DC cosponsor, UNA-NCC, available on our website and theirs.

Introductory Remarks

Leaders in Energy, Founder and Clean Energy Ambassador, Janine Finnell, thanked the UNA-NCA Board members, Ken Lemberg and Gautam Sharma, for their leadership in identifying this important and timely topic and for inviting Leaders in Energy to collaborate.  Janine highlighted how Leaders in Energy is building a community of leaders to enable solutions to move us towards a more sustainable energy system, economy, and world.   One of the group’s members is from Fiji which is poignant because that country was recently impacted by one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever experienced in the Pacific, Cyclone Winston. Fiji was also the first country to ratify the UN Paris climate agreement. A number of initiatives pertaining to affordable clean energy are taking place in the Washington DC region that, combined with the efforts of other cities and countries, can cumulatively make a big difference and help all the countries around the world, including FIJI!

The Significance of the Treaty

To kick things off, Reid Detchon, Vice President for Energy and Climate Strategy, United Nations Foundation, reminded us that, although 200 countries signed the agreement to transition towards a sustainable economy and world in December 2015, discussions on climate have been circulating for quite some time. COP21 was not the first meeting of the minds on climate strategy. What COP21 did was to define what are the dangerous levels of climate pollutants, how bad the situation is now, and how much action people need to take to halt the damage. Conversations leading up to COP21, particularly at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, have increasingly placed the blame for negative climate impact on anthropogenic causes. This means that something humans are doing is dangerous and could interfere with climate. In terms of the steps the world community can take to halt climate change, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC at the UN and a key figure in the Paris Agreement, said that the level of investment in clean energy must triple to about $1 trillion annually in order to prevent serious climate risks.

Detchon underscored that a remarkable feat about the COP21 agreement was that tensions of responsibility between underdeveloped and developed nations were addressed and the agreement was signed universally. Meanwhile, the UN counted among the SDGs goal #7 having to do with affordable and clean energy and #13 with climate action. This point is important because it means the world is turning the discussions on economic development priorities towards sustainable development.

The Military and Climate Change

Dr. Theresa Sabonis-Helf, Professor of National Security Strategy, National War College, brought a national security perspective to the discussion. The COP21 treaty, with commitments between nations, cities, individuals, and businesses, became “poly-lateral,” which is unique among international treaties. Additionally, many nations have limited experience with treaties outside of arms control and weapons. However, in 2014 the U.S. engaged with China to reduce emissions by up to 17 percent below 2005 levels in 2020 and 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. This agreement between the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHG) was an important milestone and laid the groundwork for resolving some of the key sticking points that might have thwarted the negotiations surrounding the Paris Agreement.

To put things into perspective, Dr. Sabonis-Helf reminded the audience that the Department of Defense, if it were considered its own country, would rank as approximately the 10th highest polluter. Therefore, taking steps to reduce military GHG emissions should be an important component of the national climate change mitigation strategy. Yet arguments can be made that reduction efforts in the military context can conflict with one of its primary objectives, effectiveness on the battlefield. Therefore, the business case for investing in energy-efficient technologies in the military must be about efficiency and cost savings. A key driver for more energy-efficient technologies in the military is the cost of fuel on the battlefield.

Later in the Q&A, Dr. Sabonis-Helf noted that the Pentagon has responded to climate change: the Pentagon has recently adopted climate as a threat to national security. Through their three-step risk assessment, analysis, and response process, they have developed disaster response planning specifically to respond to climate change. This leadership has been more through technology than policy, but as she said, “if anyone can influence Congress, it’s the Pentagon.”

On a personal level, she challenged the audience: “is it possible for you to reduce your emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020?” She urged the audience to leverage community groups to move the message beyond themselves. She referenced Interfaith Power & Light as a great resource for promoting clean energy and efficiency.

Climate Change is Political

Mike Tidwell, founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, spoke on the local actions that citizens of Maryland, DC, and Virginia can do to raise awareness about the impact of climate change and to generate local solutions. Electing the right officials is a large part of ensuring that the right policies get implemented to curb climate change. Tidwell also mentioned some of the work that has been done locally, such as Maryland’s proposal for a 25% renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for the state’s electricity.[i] See the Maryland Climate Coalition’s fact sheet on the Clean Energy Jobs Act (which includes the RPS goal). Tidwell’s best advice for how people can have an impact is to develop a relationship with at least one group that is fighting climate change.

One of the group’s initiatives is pushing a carbon tax in DC that rebates the tax, especially to the low and middle classes. Later in the evening he was asked why CCAN is championing that program instead of, for example, reinvesting the tax into clean energy development or energy efficiency. His response was that an elegant bill is “simple, fair and durable in the government/policy space”. He agreed that there is a need for investment, but there are other programs that could accomplish that goal. The theory goes that once people receive those tax returns back, the officials would have a hard time discontinuing that program.

Later it was asked if the Federal government could overturn a carbon tax or another policy due to the unique nature of DC as a non-state. Tidwell said that although that is possible, they do not foresee that a carbon tax would be as controversial as other recent DC bills. Furthermore, there are ways to get around any rejection of the bill, such as pushing for a referendum. Other states have been considering a carbon tax, which allows other states to learn from their experiences. Tidwell named Washington, Oregon, Vermont, and Rhode Island as states that are considering a carbon tax.

An audience member asked if there were any anti-fracking initiatives in the DMV area (DC, Maryland, and Virginia). Tidwell described his experience with counties banning fracking, such as with Montgomery County, MD. Prince George’s County is on track to pass a similar bill in the coming months. He claimed that Maryland may become one of the states with high gas reserves with a ban on fracking. Currently, a two-year moratorium is in effect. Additionally, Montgomery County Councilmen Roger Berliner pushed for a carbon tax in the county, but it was overturned after it was passed.

Mark Davis, founder of WDC Solar, spoke about another method for local action. WDC Solar helps to bring solar to low-income communities at no cost to residents. The company also has young men and women from those communities participate in training programs to gain solar installer labor skills. The group has also worked with DC Sustainable Energy Utility. Davis thanked the President and the Mayor for understanding the needs of low-income communities and providing leadership on expanding access to affordable clean energy.

Speaking of the President, congratulations are due for Mark for having received the special honor of joining the First Lady’s 2016 State of the Union box in a clear sign of recognition of Davis’ hard work at the highest levels. Well done!

When asked what is the low hanging fruit that can be reached to bring energy efficiency to communities in the U.S., Mark noted that weatherizing homes and promoting good practices, such as changing out light bulbs and turning off the lights, are most effective. When asked about the future, Mark anticipates a breakthrough with batteries, more solar energy, and more community net metering such as with churches.

Developing Nations

Additionally, Davis is on his way to develop a 50 MW module facility in Liberia to create jobs for the local community and a sustainable future in that country. An audience member asked about the challenges and support needed for mobilizing clean energy in Liberia. Davis is confident that his organization can secure loans and create jobs for the people of Liberia.

Detchon noted that the poorest people in the developing world have phones because they value the service. He claimed that people will similarly value electricity and be willing to pay for it. A challenge now is that the industry is moving away from centralized generation to other models such as micro grids. Using Mexico City as an example, Sabonis-Helf warned that the fit between the technology and the country must be right, or else technologies can be used improperly. The government there decided that it would be cheaper to purchase solar powered water filters than build out a centralized water system.

Small Businesses and Jobs

Many observers note the lack of capacity of some communities to embrace clean energy solutions that will contribute to climate change mitigation; however, what is left out of the conversation is the need for more capacity in small businesses. Reid added that there are small business associations, such as hotel/motel associations, that have resources available to engage with energy efficiency and other electricity needs.

As a final question for the panelists, the moderator asked, “what is the next step in the green energy revolution, and what are your profession or career thoughts?” Detchon sees a lot of opportunity at the intersection of where information technology meets the needs of the energy system. In commercial buildings, for example, equipment that wasn’t installed properly can impact energy efficiency. With the help of sensors, we can reach a point where there is “continuing commission” of the equipment, and not just “commissioning.” Somebody has to be there to install the sensors. That means jobs.

In terms of entrepreneurship and job creation, there is scope for action too. Tidwell told the audience about how he has taken at least 20 teams of three people out in the field to learn how to install solar panels, and now they have jobs.

Throughout the evening there was an undeniable attitude of “just do it” that motivated to change their individual behavior, to reach out to their community groups, and to see how reaching the COP21 Treaty means that all citizens of the world will be influenced to do the same.

[i] As of the time of writing, this bill was headed to the Maryland Governor Larry Hogan for approval. This is an increase in ambition from the current goal, which is to reach 20% solar and wind energy by 2022.


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