So said Jonathan Lash, the CEO of the World Resources Institute, one of Washington’s most respected environmental groups, as he began his annual look at the state of the environment in the new year.
2010 was indeed a dismal year–marked as it was by record warm temperatures, natural disasters linked to climate change, the BP Deepwater oil spill, the Massey mine disaster and, most importantly, the defeat of climate-change legislation in Congress.
Given today’s political realities, it was hard for Lash to summon much optimism about 2011, at least when it comes to U.S. policy. But he was able to identify pockets of progress in the business world and elsewhere–particularly in China–that could, over time, drive the decarbonization of the global economy required to curb climate change.
Policy will be needed–specifically a price on carbon, in some form–but if and when governments finally manage to peenalize companies for their emissions, they will set off “an avalanche, a shift that will go much faster than policy requires” as businesses compete in a low-carbon world.
“My premise has always been that once we begin the process of decarbonization, there will be business and economic incentives” that will drive rapid change, Lash said.
But that carbon price is nowhere on the near term horizon in the U.S. So, for now, environmentalists will have to look to the private sector and overseas if they want to find reasons for hope.
Here are some highlights from Lash’s talk. His presentation is available on this WRI website.
Why EPA won’t solve the climate problem. EPA is in the process of regulating CO2 emissions from big power plants, as well as emissions of toxics; together, those programs have the potential to force the retirement of aging coal plants.
But, Lash acknowledged: “There is a thunderous chorus from much of industry demanding that these regulations be blocked.”
More important, industry opponents are getting their way with Congress. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Fred Upton, the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, teamed up with Tim Phillips, head of an industry group called Americans for Prosperity, to describe EPA’s plans to regulation global warming pollution as “an unconstitutional power grab” that will “kill millions of jobs.” Upton was once a more-or-less moderate voice on climate; his rush to the right is a sign of how the political climate has changed, as the NRDC’s Pete Altman reported today.
Even under a best-case scenario, Lash said, there’s scant hope that current U.S. policies will enable President Obama to keep his promise, made at the Copenhagen climate talks, to reduce U.S. emissions by 17% by 2020. Getting there would not only require that all current laws be strongly enforced, but that other agencies, like the agriculture and interior departments, take aggressive action to mitigate emissions. (Click on the chart below for more detail.)
What’s more, as Lash acknowledged: “The science says we should be doing way more than what was agreed to in Copenhagen.” The reluctance of the U.S. to enact a strong climate policy is “the biggest restraint” right now when it comes to reaching a global accord. That’s depressing.
Now the good news.
Electric cars: They’re arriving in the U.S. market in small numbers, but have the potential to become mainstream. Lash, who advises GE on its EcoMagination efforts, noted that the company has promised to buy 25,000 electric cars. “Basically, their whole sales force will be driving electric vehicles.” Currently, the cars are expensive, but if gas prices rise and fleet sales drive down the manufacturing costs, they could appeal to many more drivers.
China: WRI now has more than a dozen people based in China, and Lash said the move to clean energy there is rapid and real. One example: High speed rail. China is investing $120 billion in the next two years, he said, and soon will have more high speed rail corridors–where trains travel more than 200 miles an hour and soon will go faster–than the rest of the world combined. “This is a spectacular new technology,” Lash said. China still burns lots of coal, of course, but it also intends to export solar and wind technology globally.
Green advertising: Even as the political winds seem to shifting against climate policy and environmental action, Lash notes, big companies are talking more and doing more about their environmental efforts. “Why is it that the politics are going one way, and the corporate advertising and commitments are going another?” he asked. Business executives tell him that “their customers care about whether companies are environmentally sensitive and products are environmentally preferable.”
This isn’t trivial. It’s a message that a clean environment can go hand in hand with healthy businesses, jobs and economic growth.