Bumps Along the Energy-Transition Road

There will be many bumps along the road as America transitions to a clean power system. That’s the pragmatic assessment offered by Lori Bennear, the Juli Plant Grainger Associate Professor of Energy Economics and Policy and Executive Vice Dean at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, in the newest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program,” a podcast produced by the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Our complete conversation is here.

As you probably know, in these podcasts, I converse with leading experts from academia, government, industry, and NGOs, who are working at the intersection of economics and environmental policy.  Professor Lori Bennear belongs in this group. 

Bennear, whose academic research focuses on evaluating environmental policies and improving methods and techniques for conducting these evaluations, has devoted recent years to studying issues relating to environmental justice and just tranistion, particularly surrounding the “winners” and “losers” who will emerge from the clean energy transition.

“We are in the process of [a] … once in many, many generations transition in our energy system, the likes of which we can’t … really imagine. But it’s going to involve significant land use changes, and changes to the way electricity is generated,” she says. “A lot of that is exciting from an environmental standpoint because they’re lower carbon. We have this opportunity to do this in a way that extends those benefits more evenly across the population than the fossil fuel-based energy system did, and potentially doesn’t centralize the costs of that energy system in particular communities in the same way that the fossil fuel energy system did. But we have to do that consciously from the beginning.”

Bennear admits that some areas of the country that are economically dependent on fossil fuels, including her home state of Wyoming, will suffer in the near term and accommodations must be made to reduce the negative impacts on those communities. She also remarks that there may be other downsides associated with some of the new energy sources which must be taken into account.

“While they’re good for carbon, they’re not perfectly great along every environmental dimension,” she states. “There’s waste associated with them. There’s mining associated with them. We need to take that in holistically from the beginning.”

Discussing the role of regulation in high-risk industries such as offshore oil exploration, Bennear emphasizes that government can only do so much.

“We need a series of both safety systems and safety processes that are tied to a safety culture, only some of which regulation can actually really dictate. That’s a hard pill to swallow, because on the one hand … we’re still dependent on these industries in many ways,” she remarks. “There have to be processes in place that reward people for valuing safety. That’s a harder thing. There’s a huge role for industry in that, which also gets some folks in the environmental community, gets their backs up because they feel like industry has too much say over what these regulatory processes should be. But they also have the expertise and the experience to actually make them happen.”

For this and much more, I hope you will listen to my compete conversation with Lori Bennear, which is the 36th episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Recalling the Past and Looking to the Future

Sometimes it’s helpful to recall the past as an aid to thinking carefully about the future.  The development of scientifically sound, economically sensible, and politically feasible climate-change policies would seem to be a case in point.  Such an approach is well illustrated by the thinking of Jonathan Wiener, the William and Thomas Perkins Professor of Law at Duke Law School, who shares his thoughts on the prospects for federal legislative and regulatory policy in the latest episode of my podcast, “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.”  Our full conversation is here.

As you probably know, in these podcasts, I converse with leading experts from academia, government, industry, and NGOs.  Jonathan Wiener certainly belongs in this group.  Wiener, who also holds appointments at the Nicholas School of the Environment, the Sanford School of Public Policy, and Resources for the Future, has focused his research and writings for thirty years on a broad range of environmental policy issues, often from an economic perspective (once quite rare among environmental law scholars). 

Before launching his academic career, he served as a clerk for Judge (now U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Stephen Breyer on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston from 1988 to 1989. He also served at the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ/ENRD), during the George H. W. Bush and Clinton Administrations.

Reflecting on his time in Washington, Professor Wiener recounts in our conversation the sense of bipartisanship that permeated environmental policy discussions on Capitol Hill during the Bush 41 and Clinton years. “On the issue, for example, of designing an economic incentive-based policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there was, I would say, substantial agreement among all of those involved,” he says.

Wiener explains how there have also been significant changes in the scholarly world of environmental law in recent decades, including more mainstream support for economic incentive instruments, and for the use of economic analysis to evaluate the costs and benefits of laws and regulations.

“The advocacy of cost benefit analysis has shifted over time so that now one sees a lot more advocacy [on behalf of] economic analysis and cost benefit analysis to demonstrate the large social gains from environmental policy,” he remarks.

Jonathan also addresses the prospects for the Biden Administration to make headway on climate policy, saying that it started on the right foot. “President Biden issued a memorandum on modernizing regulatory review on his first day in office, which reaffirmed the executive orders from the Clinton and Obama Administrations.” Yet Wiener goes on to acknowledge that the administration’s promise to issue a revised estimate of the social cost of carbon has yet to be fulfilled.

At the end of our conversation, Jonathan Wiener offers – as a contrast with the slow pace of government action – his optimism that youth movements of climate advocacy which have become prominent in recent years hold great promise for advancing policy in the years ahead.

“On campuses across the country and around the world, one sees enthusiasm, energy, some sense of impatience and indignation, that the earlier generations didn’t address these problems adequately,” he says. “I think we anticipated, when you and I and …others were working on climate change policy design back 30 years ago, that we needed to design the institutions well so that we would not face a crunch time later of trying to address climate change in a big hurry. Unfortunately to some extent, we are in that crunch time right now.”

For this and much more, I hope you will listen to my compete conversation with Jonathan Wiener, which is the 35th episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month.  You can find a transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Can Europe Decarbonize in the Midst of a Geopolitical Crisis?

Is the geopolitical crisis due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine likely to accelerate or retard the energy transformation in the European Union?  This and related topics on decarbonizing Europe were central to the most recent webinar in our series, Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy, sponsored by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements (HPCA).  This time, we featured a conversation with Dan Jørgensen, the Danish Minister of Climate, Energy, and Utilities, who expressed his hope (if not expectation) that the tragic war in Ukraine will help accelerate the clean energy transformation by weaning Europe off Russian gas.  A video recording (and transcript) of the entire webinar is available here.

As many readers of this blog know, in this webinar series I feature leading authorities on climate change policy, whether from academia, the private sector, NGOs, or government.  In this most recent Conversation, I was fortunate to engage with someone who has had solid and important experience in government.

Dan Jørgensen, who played a significant role in maintaining the focus on reducing the rise of global temperatures during the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP-26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow last November, lauded the efforts of European countries like Greece that are proclaiming their intent to reduce their use of Russian gas in favor of other energy sources, although Greece has simultaneously announced that it will therefore have to increase its use of coal for electricity generation.

“One of the few positive things that might come out of a terrible situation is that we will now be forced to speed up the green transformation away from fossils in Europe,” Jørgensen says. “It has opened the eyes… I think, for decision makers all over Europe to ramp up the replacement of fossils – that’s gas, that’s oil, that’s coal, with renewables. And we have a lot of potential for that in Europe.”

Jørgensen talks about important legislation being negotiated in the European Union which would create new directives on energy efficiency and renewable energy that could, he states, help EU countries greatly reduce their dependency on Russian fossil fuel.

Much of the discussion also focuses on COP-26 and the decision by participating countries to agree on language calling for a “phase down” of unabated coal and to reduce inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.

“On one hand, I’m disappointed that the text is not stronger than it is on those issues. On the other hand, it is really huge progress that it’s now in the text, meaning that…[it will be] the starting point for the next negotiations [at COP-27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt],” Jørgensen remarks. “The overall result was a positive one. There was some real progress. But first and foremost, the aim of the COP-26 meeting was to keep 1.5 alive, so to speak. What does that mean? It means that if we hadn’t made the decisions that we actually made then…it would be almost impossible for us to keep the promise of staying below 1.5 alive, and it wouldn’t be credible.”

Looking ahead to COP-27, Jørgensen says negotiators will focus on the promise of more ambitious nationally determined contributions (NDCs) as well as questions surrounding finance for developing countries requiring short-term assistance to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels and adapt to climate change.

“I do understand how some of the growing economies of this planet that are also now amongst the biggest emitters, why they think it’s only fair that the richer countries of the planet help them in the transformation,” he states. “We have a climate problem because rich countries have been polluting for more than 100 years. Now, some countries are raising their standard of living and…starting to pollute more. But I don’t really think it would be fair for us to say, ‘You cannot have the same standard of living as we do.’ That would not be legitimate, in my point of view. And it wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t also offer help to mitigate the problem. So, we need to have a clear focus on the financing part.”

Jørgensen also shares his thoughts on the potential for carbon trading systems to reduce global emissions, arguing that pricing can be complicated but is absolutely necessary.

“We need clear price signals in the market,” he says. “It needs to be more expensive to produce in a way where you’re dependent on fossil fuels and less expensive to do the opposite.”

I ask Jørgensen about the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), established in 2005 as the first large greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme in the world, and which now covers more than 11,000 factories, power stations, and other installations in 31 countries, including all 27 EU countries.

“It is actually pretty incredible that we have this well-functioning system with 27 countries that is economically rational, that works, that cuts emissions, even in times of crisis where normally many countries will probably say, ‘Okay, well, we want to save the climate, but we need to get through this crisis first,’” he says. “In times of crisis like that, it’s extremely important that we have these systems. And what I like especially about it is that it’s a win-win. I mean, it is the cheapest, most efficient way of making a transformation.”

During the forum, Jørgensen also responds to questions from attendees from around the world, including questions focusing on carbon capture and sequestration, solar radiation management, methane, nuclear power, and the youth climate movement. 

All of this and much more can be seen and heard in our full Conversation here.  I hope you will check it out.

Previous episodes in this series – Conversations on Climate Change and Energy Policy – have featured Meghan O’Sullivan’s thoughts on Geopolitics and Upheaval in Oil Markets, Jake Werksman’s assessment of the European Union’s Green New Deal, Rachel Kyte’s examination of “Using the Pandemic Recovery to Spur the Clean Transition,” Joseph Stiglitz’s reflections on “Carbon Pricing, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Green Economic Recovery,” Joe Aldy describing “Lessons from Experience for Greening an Economic Stimulus,” Jason Bordoff commenting on “Prospects for Energy and Climate Change Policy under the New U.S. Administration,” Ottmar Edenhofer talking about “The Future of European Climate Change Policy,” Nathaniel Keohane reflecting on “The Path Ahead for Climate Change Policy,” Valerie Karplus talking about “The Future of China’s National Carbon Market,” Laurence Tubiana reflecting on “A European Perspective on COP26,” and Congressman Garret Graves on “U.S. Climate Change Policy in an Era of Political Polarization.”

Watch for an announcement about our next webinar. You will be able to register in advance for the event on the website of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.