YouTube video

We already have the technology and the solutions; we just need the political will, says economist Rachel Cleetus with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report of the IPCC working group which covered the underlying science, the impacts, and the ways to address climate change was released on Sunday in Copenhagen. Here’s what the chair of the IPCC, Rajendra K. Pachauri, had to say at the press conference.


DR. RAJENDRA K. PACHAURI, CHAIR, INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE: I think it’s very clear that to avoid the chaos of runaway climate change, we know what we need to dramatically reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases. And I think we need to lead to a future that has much lower intensity in the use of those activities that contribute to emissions of greenhouse gases.


PERIES: In addition, the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, said at the same news conference that the world leaders must act, time is not on our side. The report was released in time for the next round of climate talks, COP 20, in Lima, Peru.

Now joining us from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to discuss the report, the urgency of the issues at hand, is Rachel Cleetus. Rachel is a senior climate economist with the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Rachel, I appreciate you making the time to join us today.


PERIES: So, Rachel, tell us a little bit about the Union of Concerned Scientists.

CLEETUS: Sure. The Union of Concerned Scientists is a nonprofit. We’re based in Cambridge in the United States. And we are a network of members and supporters of more than 450,000 people. And our aim is basically to ensure that good science is a part of good policymaking. So we have citizens and scientists engaged here in the U.S. in the policymaking process, trying to improve the fact-based nature of these policies. And one of the major issues we’re working on these days is of course climate change.

PERIES: Great. So, Rachel, what did the report have to say?

CLEETUS: Well, this report is coming at a very key moment in time. It is a synthesis of three different reports that the IPCC has released over the last year on climate impacts, on the science behind it, and measures that we can take to reduce some of these growing risks of climate change. And the synthesis report essentially is a signal to the global community that we’re in a situation right now where time is running out. Our window of opportunity to forestall some of the gravest risks of climate change is fast closing.

And we do have options, we have solutions available to us today to help both reduce our emissions as well as help prepare protect people from the changes that are coming our way. And that’s why this report is very, very important. It’s a message from science to the global community on the problems we face, as well as the solutions that we have to confront them.

PERIES: So, Rachel, you have written,

We’ve long known how to reduce global warming emissions: ramp up energy efficiency, transition to renewable and low-carbon energy sources and cut emissions from agriculture, tropical deforestation and land use. These solutions are already being deployed globally, but policies are needed to rapidly scale them up alongside further low-carbon technology innovation.

So, Rachel, how do we go about implementing these at a global scale?

CLEETUS: So the thing of it is that this is already happening at a global scale. For example, if you look at renewable energy, we’ve seen tremendous cost declines in wind and solar PV the last five years, and concomitantly we’ve seen these resources being scaled up everywhere in the developed world, here in the U.S. and Europe, as well as in developing countries, like China and India.

What’s not happening is that we’re not doing this on as wide a scale or as quickly as we need to do this. And there it comes down to a basic problem: we just haven’t had the political will to implement policies that would scale up these resources quickly.

So it’s pretty simple. We have the technologies, we have the solutions. What we need is the political will.

PERIES: Right. Let’s get at concretely what that means. So to reduce global CO2 emissions we really have to dramatically change the way we work and the way our economy works. So how do we go about dramatically reducing our energy sources so we’re not using carbon emissions?

CLEETUS: So, this is, of course, a sector-specific technology challenge. In the power sector, for example, we’re seeing coal in some parts of the world, like the U.S., just becoming increasingly uneconomic compared to other, cleaner sources. So just on the basis of market factors we’re seeing record numbers of coal retirement and a substitution towards cleaner generation sources, like natural gas, wind, solar. What we’ve got to do is accelerate this process, make this transition happen much quicker than it’s happening under current market conditions.

Globally, the challenge is a little bit different, because we are also at the same time confronting a world that’s full of poverty and inequality. So, for many countries the challenge is not just low-carbon energy, but simply providing providing energy to the billions of people who don’t have access to electricity and modern forms of energy today. So we have to simultaneously close energy gap, as well as make sure that as much as possible this is coming from clean energy sources. And that’s where we have a process globally that countries across the world are engaged in in this United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations that are happening in Lima, Peru, in the beginning of December and then leading up to what we hope will be a fair and ambitious global commitment in Paris next year.

In these global negotiations, what’s at stake is making sure that countries live up to their responsibilities, both in terms of cut emissions as well as helping other countries climb the technology curve and implement these low-carbon solutions even as they’re dealing with day-to-day challenges like poverty.

PERIES: Right. Rachel, so we now know that 50 percent of the emissions are emitted by China and U.S. in the latest estimates. Now, in order to cut these emissions, we really need a commitment, a big commitment from these two countries. Now, I understand that China has indicated that they will cut their emissions by 45 percent by 2020. We have not heard of such commitment from the United States. But even such a commitment, is it possible? I mean, no one’s agreeing to a binding solution at this point, so these are just words, but is that even possible for a state like China?

CLEETUS: Absolutely it’s possible. And the reason it’s possible, as I’ve pointed out, is that we do have low-carbon solutions available.

You make very good point. There are some major players here who really need to step up to the plate. Included among them are E.U., China, the U.S. uThese nations together are starting to put some commitments on the table, and that is a positive sign. We’ve seen the E.U. commit to a 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2030. We’ve seen the United States have its first draft proposal to limit carbon emissions from power plants. EPA just issued it this past summer, committing the country to 30 percent reduction in power plant emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. China has implemented a number of carbon trading schemes within the country that have succeeded in cutting emissions. They have made pledges that they will have an emissions fee. They haven’t announced a date, but they have announced that that is something that they’re looking at.

So what we need to do is take all of this momentum and develop a cooperative strategy. So this is not one country against the other. We’re all in this together. The climate impacts that we’re experiencing around the globe make it clear that this is a problem that’s not confined to developing countries or developed countries. Right here in the U.S. we’re seeing sea levels rise, increased coastal flooding, increased worsening wildfire seasons. In parts of the world, we’re seeing an increasing risk of food shortages. So this is a problem that’s here now, and I think we need to find our common cause and our common purpose in this. And that’s where the next year of the leadup to Paris very important.

What we need to see is more definition in the commitments that countries are making. So we need China, the U.S., and other countries to step up and put a very precise contribution on the table that’s ambitious, that actually says, we’re going to both cut emissions, help other countries that need to invest in low-carbon technologies, as well as invest in preparedness, because the sad fact is we’ve locked in climate impacts now for decades to come and we’ve got to prepare our citizens around the world, help protect them, and invest in adaptation measures simultaneously.

PERIES: Do you think a binding solution is possible in France? Because while you see sort of countries making a gesture towards all of this, we also see them ramping up coal plants in places like India. How can we get a binding solution? Is that possible? Do you advocate that?

CLEETUS: So I think the legal nature of what happens in Paris is still up in question. You know, how will it be made binding? There is a fair understanding now that countries have different domestic considerations that they have to take into account in terms of what they’re able to commit to in a globally binding framework. But we absolutely need a commitment from countries, a strong commitment from countries, not just to a number, but also how they’re going to get there. So we need to see the policies that they’re going to implement that they’re going to put in place that will help them achieve those emission reductions that they’re committing to.

Yes, we have a lot of work to do between now and Paris. And much of that work needs to happen in Lima and soon after, because waiting until Paris is too late. This is a moment where the hope is that this most recent UN report just highlights the urgency of the need to act. This is no longer a moment where we can default to the political and the narrow considerations that have dominated previous negotiations. So it’s very clear; the challenge is clear, the solutions are clear, as they’ve–it’s stark. It’s never been this stark before.

That said, it is a big challenge. Absolutely. Right here in the United States it’s a challenge. As I said, we have this standard to limit emissions from power plants. It’s in draft form right now. It will be final next June. And already there are the usual suspects, the fossil fuel interests who’ve come out in full force trying to defeat this standard. So there will always be those folks who, through their own narrow pocketbook interests, will want to hold back progress. And the challenge for our political leaders is to rise above that, not be held back by those kinds of narrow considerations, and look to the interests of their citizens.

PERIES: Right. Rachel, I thank you so much for joining us today.

CLEETUS: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Rachel Cleetus is an economist with the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The focus of her work is designing and advocating for effective global warming policies at the federal, regional, state and international levels. These policies include both market-based approaches (such as cap-and-trade programs) and complementary, sector-based approaches (such as efficiency, renewable energy and clean technology R&D). She also analyzes the economic costs of inaction on climate change.

Prior to joining UCS, Dr. Cleetus worked as a consultant for the World Wildlife Fund, doing policy-focused research on the links between sustainable development, trade and ecosystems in Asia and Africa. She also worked for Tellus Institute in the energy and environment program, under the mentorship of Steve Bernow.

Dr. Cleetus holds a Ph.D. and an M.A. in economics from Duke University and a B.S. in economics from West Virginia University.