"Miracle Technology" Isn't Needed to Stop Climate Change

  March 9, 2016

"Miracle Technology" Isn't Needed to Stop Climate Change

Robert Pollin of PERI says investment in existing technology could create a zero-emissions economy within 35 years
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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay. We're coming today from the PERI Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts.

When I talk to some big capitalists, big investors, and I ask them, how come you guys aren't going nuts about climate change? In the short term I can understand, you can make more money somewhere else. But aren't you worried about, you know, we're not even talking that long-term anymore about the consequences. We're already seeing consequences. Aren't you worried about it? And often I hear the answer, you know, when it's needed, some new technology is going to come. And really, we don't really have to change all that much, because we always have this power of invention, and we will figure out a technology that solves it. And until then there's really no reason to do very much about it.

Well, that's not what scientists are saying, but it's also not necessarily what needs to be done or what's possible. It may be that we can--lots we can do without waiting for new technology. So now talking to someone who thinks we need to get started now and can get started now, and that's Bob Pollin, who's joining us in the studio.

ROBERT POLLIN: Thank you for having me.

JAY: Bob's co-director of the PERI Institute. He's the author of Greening the American Economy--of course, it's Greening the Global Economy. And, but you'll--obviously that--.

POLLIN: [Global economy]. America's [inaud.].

JAY: [Some people] don't think American, America's really in the global economy, but we know it is.

Bill Gates is one of the advocates of this, of this idea that we will come up with the new invention, and in fact that's the only way to deal with it, because you really can't turn the ship of the global economy around any other way. What do you make of the argument?

POLLIN: Well, Bill Gates came to the November Paris conference with some of his colleagues, and said that, you know, the critical thing that needs to be done is some new major technological breakthrough, using technologies to generate clean energy in ways that we have not envisioned thus far. And that has to be the critical focus. And he himself pledged, I don't know, $1 billion and some of his, the other people, the other billionaires, said that they would do the same.

Of course, it would be great to have new technologies emerge that deliver clean energy cheaply and efficiently. However, what this, the situation that we have now is, A, that we need to take dramatic steps immediately, and we can't simply wait for new technologies to occur, and B, the fact is it's already cost-effective to invest in green energy. In fact, that is one of the critical messages of my book, that you were nice enough to hold up.

The point is, if we talk about two types of green investments, one is energy efficiency and the other one is renewable energy, solar, wind geothermal, some hydro--look, investing in energy efficiency by definition pays for itself. It's a matter of two or three years, maybe four years. If you retrofit a building to make it operate more efficiently, that means you're going to consume less energy and still have the building be just as, as comfortable and have just as much lighting.

So energy efficiency investments pay for themselves in all regions of the world. And so what we need is a revolving fund, such as, by the way, exists already in Germany. Germany is held up as the star in terms of green energy performance, and it is. It's a deserved accolade. Almost all of their accomplishments are based on having a high efficiency economy. Not investments in solar and wind. Those are good, but the real action is with energy efficiency, and they have a public development bank that promotes energy efficiency.

JAY: So let's make that concrete. What's their examples of energy efficiency?

POLLIN: Energy efficiency is making buildings--number one, making buildings more efficient, because buildings consume about 40 percent--.

JAY: So trapping heat in, don't let--.

POLLIN: Yes. Insulate the building better. Have a better heating and air conditioning system. Have tighter windows. Those are the critical things that we're--.

JAY: I mean, that's pretty basic stuff. [Crosstalk]

POLLIN: It's extremely basic. It's, it's stuff that you--.

JAY: Stuff we, [inaud.] when you and I were kids.

POLLIN: It's stuff that you, you don't need any high-tech anything.

JAY: So what's stopping that? We've heard President Obama say this. Everyone talks about it.

POLLIN: Right. And in fact, as I think I've said on another occasion on the Real News Network, and elsewhere, look, in 2007, the U.S. Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act signed by George W. Bush. Under that law, the public buildings, federal buildings, are all supposed to increase their efficiency by 30 percent, or 75 percent of the buildings, sorry, by 30 percent, by the end of 2015. Well, guess what? We're already in 2016. We've maybe done 5 percent of the buildings.

Even those investments, however, have saved U.S. taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. So why don't--I mean, starting with the federal government, retrofit every single building and save tens of billions of dollars for taxpayers? What's the new technology that we need? There is no new technology that we need.

Now, when we talk about solar, wind--.

JAY: But just back up one step. So why not? Why isn't--it's such a no-brainer. I mean, is there economic interest against this?

POLLIN: Inertia. I mean, there is, there is an initial, there is up-front cost, and there's organizational, there's hassle factors. I mean, you'll have to do it. And yes, you have to put up the up-front investment in, say, the new insulation and the new heating and air conditioning--.

JAY: And then of course I assume there's thousands of jobs created to do it.

POLLIN: It is the single best source of job creation through any kind of energy investment. And these are construction jobs. These are jobs for truck drivers. If we take a city like Detroit, or Cleveland, you know, where you have a very high unemployment rate, and you've laid off a lot of construction workers, you could create tens of thousands of jobs by committing to raising efficiency standards--.

JAY: So are any of the candidates in this now-election cycle promoting this?

POLLIN: Well, I mean, Bernie Sanders did say last night in his victory speech--.

JAY: It may not be last night. We're going to be running this a few weeks after [inaud.].

POLLIN: Yeah, okay. In his victory speech in New Hampshire, he did single out energy efficiency as part of the green agenda.

So it's not just--green buildings is the number, should be the number one priority, because we waste so much energy in buildings, and energy consumes 40 percent of all energy. Not just electricity, all energy, 40 percent is buildings. Then transportation systems, invest in public transportation. You're going to, you know, you're going to achieve major savings. And again, this is an infrastructure investment. It's good for jobs, it's good for urban planning, it's great for energy savings. What is the new technology that we need to have more buses or streetcars? Or okay, we could have subway systems. But basically, we don't need new technology. I mean, I'm not against new technologies, but we don't need them.

JAY: And we don't have to wait for them [crosstalk].

POLLIN: No, we don't have to wait. Cars, I mean, Obama has, to his credit, set the standard for energy-efficient cars by 2025 to be roughly double what they are now, for the new cars, which means that, you know, with the turnover another five years, roughly we're talking about every car on the road in the U.S. is going to be at the level of a Toyota Prius today. Okay, that's a Toyota Prius today. It would be great to have something even more efficient, but if we got everybody in 20 years driving the equivalent of a Toyota Prius, that is going to achieve 50 percent savings on emissions from automobiles. So those are the kinds of things that we need to start financing and promoting right now.

JAY: The other new tech argument we've all heard is that there's going to be some new tech that sucks carbon out of the environment, and there's a lot of talk that that's going to be the real [solution].

POLLIN: Why should we do that? We can run a zero-emissions economy within 35 or 40 years talking about the things that we already know can work. Why should we instead commit to maintaining burning fossil fuels so they're going to generate emissions, and then come up with some new technology that nobody's ever heard of, there's no evidence that it works, it's going to suck all the carbon out. And then, by the way, what are we going to do with that carbon? We're going to have to store it underground for all eternity. And the level of storage capacity that we're going to need is equivalent to all the oil that's already underground at present.

So this is a project that is going to take a, you know, tens of years to do, that there's no evidence that it can work. And we already have solutions right before us that can work.

JAY: All right, thanks for joining us.


JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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