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Climate Change Policy Measures: Identifying Priorities, Particularly Outside of the Usual Suspects

With the 2020 Presidential race already heating up, issues surrounding climate change, clean energy, and what policy mechanisms are the most critical ones for the federal government to employ are getting more of a spotlight than ever before. While ideas like research & development, tax credits, and carbon prices are among the first policy levers candidates and pundits may look to pull, many are starting to advocate for new, creative, and even niche policies.


Decades after climate scientists first started sounding the alarm on climate change and a full 12 years after Vice President Al Gore stood on stage to warn us about climate change’s Inconvenient Truth, the Sunrise Movement and the policy package that came to be known as the Green New Deal finally seemed to bring desire for action to the United States federal government. While the complete package of a Green New Deal looks to be a long shot – at least at this point in time – to be passed, it succeeded in bringing the conversation about climate action to the forefront of American politics.

For example, whereas in previous elections it was simple enough to separate potential Presidential candidates by those who prioritized climate action and those who did not, the field of 2020 Democratic candidates are now forced to bring their actionable climate plans to voters and defend not just that climate action is necessary but that their particular plan is the one that will get the job done in time. While of course the question of how high on each candidate’s priority list energy and climate lie is up for debate, voters (and donors) are paying more attention than ever before and the seven-hour town hall on climate change that CNN hosted with the prospective candidates demonstrated the level of detail at which voters are now looking.

Photo source: CNN.com


All that is set up to say: what are the right policy measures that should be utilized by the U.S. government? The clean energy community certainly doesn’t speak with a singular voice, and you’ll have portions of the climate advocacy population ardently defending carbon taxes vs. renewable portfolio standards; investment tax credits vs. deregulating electricity markets; policies for transportation emissions vs. industrial emissions; and many more. This segmentation can be damaging in the short-term because those fighting against spending money on climate action or for placing regulations on corporations tend to be unified, but in the long run, it’s critical that the federal government’s role in climate action be chosen deliberately, carefully, and with all the facts. Germany’s progress towards emissions reductions, for example, was delayed a damaging amount due to acting too quickly and going down arguably the wrong path. So, while inaction is wasting time, going down the wrong pathway (pouring time and resources into the non-ideal solutions) can be just as damaging towards the ultimate goal.

That conversation about which policies are the most critical is the basis of Solar Tribune’s Climate Policy Primer. In this ongoing project, we’re connecting with stakeholders across industries, regions, and positions to ask them about which climate change policies are the most singularly important in their opinion. These conversations we’re continuing to have are informing and growing this living document (and if you’d like to share your two cents, please don’t hesitate to reach out!), so I’d encourage you to refer to that page to see about some of the identified priorities in climate policy, the very issue that’s being debated on the federal and electoral stages today.

While this is a process that is of course still ongoing, a number of interesting trends have been popping up. One intriguing occurrence I noticed quickly was how many people, when narrowed down to a single policy to discuss, advocate for those that were not in the list of usual suspects like carbon pricing, tax credits, or mandatory renewable energy goals. Rather, these advocates were passionate about first and foremost identifying and bringing up climate change policy measures that are less likely to be discussed in the soundbites from the campaign trail. This trend could identify an opportunity for the innovative and forward-looking candidates to blaze a new trail and connect with climate-concerned voters in new ways, but more importantly, these experts in their fields simply saw the measures as being too critical to land anywhere other than the top of the priority list.

A few examples of these less commonly discussed climate policy options include the following…

Land Use Policies

Solar Tribune connected with Protect Our Winters about the climate policy question. This organization was founded by a professional snowboarder who inherently treasured the natural landscapes on Earth and saw the dangers that climate change had begun posing to all outdoor spaces. The concern for areas to hike, to snowboard, and to enjoy nature are naturally paired with all of the questions of climate change. From the mission statement of Protect Our Winters, the organization notes:

“Right now, we have the luxury of worrying about how climate change might impact the outdoor industry. Right now, we get to help dictate the outcome rather than react to a foregone conclusion. If we sit on our hands for the next two decades, we won’t be worried about powder days, tourism or having fun. We’ll be worried about the stability of our environment, our jobs, and our economy.”

Inherent to this inclination to protect nature comes the unique perspective on what climate change approaches are most important.  When I talked to Lindsay Bourgoine, Director of Policy & Advocacy of Protect Our Winters, she shared the following sentiment:

“Public lands not only enhance carbon sequestration, but their protection often removes them as a fossil fuel development opportunity. As an example, on the Arctic Refuge, not only do we oppose the drilling of this land because of the human rights issues and conservation issues, but also because the indirect emissions that would come from such drilling would be equivalent to about a million new cars on the road. Protecting public lands is protecting the climate.”

While many of the most commonly shared ideas on fighting climate change focus on the need to minimize the man-made CO2 emissions emitted into the atmosphere, the focus on land use policies instead prioritize maximizing Earth’s natural tendencies to be able to regulate and capture carbon. But when we increase greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously reducing the environment’s capacity to regulate those same emissions, that’s when the climate death spiral comes into play.

LEAF Asia


Focusing on a Just Transition

Another area of focus outside the top-discussed federal roles in climate policy came from Solar Tribune’s discussion with Eban Goodstein, Director of Graduate Programs in Sustainability at Bard College. When talking to Eban, he noted that federal energy policies had already largely done their role in the traditional routes of tax subsidies, R&D dollars, and the like. Given that renewables like solar and wind were already cost-competitive, or already more affordable to build than new fossil generation, two routes for climate policy were necessary. For the role of continuing to bolster renewable energy generation, Goodstein saw that as the responsibility of state and local governments. Each more localized government would be able to assess the hurdles that still remained in their region and which policies were the best fit for their situation, rather than look at a one-size-fits-all policy for the entire country. These state and local initiatives are the basis of Bard’s upcoming Solve Climate By 2030 initiative over the coming year.

While deferring to state and local governments for solutions is not entirely outside of the usual suspects of climate solutions, what is more unique in Goodstein’s perspective is where the federal role is given the above. While the more regional governments should be charged with increasing renewable deployment, Goodstein sees the federal government’s role to be one that oversees this energy transition and ensure it’s completed in a fair and just manner. As Goodstein and his co-author, L. Hunter Lovins, noted in a paper:

“Green New Deal type policies that focus on employment and on fair and reliable access to power and transportation will be central to ensuring that the social benefits of a rapid transition to clean energy are widely spread and that the transition is not cut short due to policy opposition.”

The idea behind this push is that the nation has already reached a part where the clean energy transition will be taking place in one way or another, but if that plays out naturally there are risks that certain populations will benefit more from the change than others. Whether that’s certain disadvantaged communities not receiving the economic benefits of renewable energy, regional disparity in how the jobs market changes (e.g., coal country getting hit harder than others in economic consequences), or another way, the federal government has a role to play in ensuring that the energy transition is equitable, accessible to all populations, and doesn’t play favorites with different populations.

Photo source: Shepherd Express


Allowing Geothermal, Hydro, and Biomass Parity to Achieve with Other Renewables

When the clean energy transition is discussed in popular media, most people recognize that conversation to strictly deal with wind power and solar energy. However, a host of other renewable energy generation sources are critical to the U.S. energy mix today and in the future, including geothermal, hydropower, and biomass. When discussing the climate policy primer with The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), the non-profit organization highlighted to Solar Tribune the need for federal policies to include these secondary forms of renewable energy as well:

“Wind and solar will need to be complemented by geothermal energy, hydropower, and biomass energy. This can be incentivized by modifying the current tax credit structure that currently favors solar and wind power. Despite unequal access to tax incentives, geothermal, hydropower, and biomass are valuable because they provide baseload power and are located in geographically diverse areas.”

Renewable energy and climate change policies must not blindly support just one or two technology types, and despite solar and wind being the most commonly considered renewable energy sources, they are not alone the solution. In fact, until 2018 hydropower was the most common source of renewable energy generation in the United States, only recently being overtaken by wind. Because of the flexibility these non-wind and non-solar renewables provide based on local geography, resources, and economics, EESI is smartly beating the drum of these alternatives. While of course that does not mean they don’t see wind and solar as key parts of the solution, but any climate change policy that includes tax credits or other economic incentives must also account for the value provided by the renewable energy sources less often placed on the podium.

Photo source: Better World Solutions


Conclusion

The takeaway here is that voters and citizens who care about the government following the right policy pathways when it comes to climate change need not be so narrowly focused. While many groups may have coalesced around a handful of key ideas, a successful fight against climate change will tap into the full toolbox of solutions. So, the above (and other) options outside the usual suspects remain critical to investigate and about which to ask questions. As Solar Tribune continues connecting with advocates and thought leaders about the Climate Policy Primer, don’t be surprised if more new areas of focus arise that might seem out of left field. But just because they’re not the standard, sound-bite proven answers to the climate change questions does not mean they are not appropriate and effective real-life solutions.

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Orlando, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates the Chester Energy and Policy blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.

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