The Policymaker: The US response, green technology and climate regulation

Ken Alex, former adviser to Californian governor Jerry Brown, discusses US policy, carbon capture and storage and the need for regulation to combat the effects of climate change.

4 minute read

Ken Alex
Ken Alex, Director of Project Climate at the University of California, Berkeley

California’s experience with climate change is both intimate and direct. Having suffered devastating wildfires in the last couple of years, the effects of the climate crisis have been brought sharply into focus. Unsurprisingly, this has made it a major focus on the state’s political agenda. But with President Trump’s intended withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, a tension clearly exists between climate policy direction at the state and national level.

Optimists hope, regardless of whether Trump wins a second term, efforts from cities and states can cut through and make a difference. They also place faith in technology’s ability to solve many of the challenges associated with climate change. With his strong legal background and policy experience as senior adviser to Jerry Brown, Ken Alex is well placed to assess California’s response as well as the global context within which it should be assessed. Here, he reveals his personal and professional views to AIQ.

Will state and regional organisations have to step up now that President Trump has formally started the process to withdraw from the Paris Agreement?

As much as California and other states can do, it is problematic that the United States is absent. Its absence is felt in terms of investments, domestically, and its lack of leadership, internationally. It also gives free reign to other countries to say: “Well, if the US isn't going to do anything, neither are we.” So, you have a race to the bottom. Obviously, there are other countries stepping up to a certain extent, but the absence of US leadership  gives cover for those who don't want to do anything. This absence could be devastating. We need the US back in.

Do you see that happening?

Any of the Democratic candidates will likely re-enter the Paris Agreement in the first week in office. That would be a significant change, if it occurs. Regardless, the impact of climate change is here, and it will get significantly worse if we fail to take dramatic action to turn things around. Nature isn’t going to hang out and wait for us.

What initiatives are you most proud of from your time as senior policy adviser?

The Under2 Coalition comes to mind. A lot of the climate work must be done at the subnational level. California helped start this coalition which continues today, with over 200 subnational governments like cities, states and provinces globally working towards the goals of the Paris Agreement. Signatories are asked to submit a plan to meet target emission reductions and to assist each other by sharing best practices, among other things.

Under2 Coalition and Transformative Climate Communities programme are the two initiatives that stand out

Another initiative we started was the Transformative Climate Communities programme. The idea was to take some of the money from California’s cap-and-trade programme and send it to disadvantaged communities to implement a suite of transformative actions that would reduce climate risks. These might include transportation, housing and infrastructure. The requirement is that the investments are matched, and they can range anywhere from 30 to 70 million dollars. It is a substantial investment in communities that historically received relatively little in the way of the government largess.

Of all the different initiatives over the eight years under Governor Brown, those are the two that stand out.

One of the biggest issues around climate change is energy consumption. How might renewables evolve, and what are the challenges?

This is where California has made a lot of progress. The state met the 33 per cent renewables portfolio standard by 2020 – approximately four years early. It will probably be closer to 40 per cent by 2020, under the old way of calculating emissions. The new approach also includes large-scale hydropower, so California will be closer to 50 per cent and on track to reach 100 per cent renewables by 2045.

California's struggles in the energy sector are around energy storage and overproduction, particularly in solar during certain months and certain times

In some ways, the struggles in the energy sector are around energy storage. Actually, some of the overproduction, particularly in solar during certain months and certain times, appears to me to be akin to having too much bandwidth. I think people will eventually figure out how to deal with the overproduction of renewable energy. One possibility, for example, is to use excess energy – often on a sunny day in Spring – to convert to hydrogen, which can later be used in the form of fuel storage.  

What should investors do to provide the right incentives?

Again, I would pay a lot of attention to energy storage, where a lot of research could potentially be game-changing. There are a lot of new and interesting technology solutions coming to market. One area I am keeping my eye on is direct air capture of carbon. There are big developments there. 

Companies need to be more active, as opposed to being passive

In terms of what companies can do, it is a slightly longer conversation. They need to be more active, as opposed to being passive. We hear a lot of things like: “Oh, we're going to get all of our energy from renewable sources.” That's fantastic, but what about turning a blind eye on company assets or suppliers in locations that are not taking aggressive action to reduce climate risks? There are a number of things companies can do if they believe this is an emergency. 

Agriculture is also important to California’s economy. How can land use policy help mitigate climate challenges?

This is a big deal and it tends to go under the title of regenerative agriculture. A huge amount of science is showing certain techniques – some of them quite traditional, others modern – can really improve and increase the ability for the soil to sequester carbon, to retain water and to promote greater yields. It has applications everywhere because almost every jurisdiction in the world has agriculture.

Certain techniques can really improve and increase the ability for the soil to sequester carbon, to retain water and to promote greater yields

Some of these techniques are quite simple, like moving cattle more quickly on the range before they chew the grass down to the nub; simply doing that promotes faster regrowth of grass, which helps with the sequestered carbon.

There are more complicated and complex techniques. Then there are certain additives – for example basalt or gypsum – that can significantly increase the soil’s ability to help retain carbon at a rate that would make a difference worldwide. I think we're at an inflection point in the agriculture sector.

On reflection, would you have done anything differently as senior policy adviser?

Of course, and that's always the case. We have not made enough progress on reducing transportation emissions. Californians continue to increase the miles they drive. We should have been more aggressive with that. We also could have done more to improve the sustainability of buildings. So yes, there is always more to do.

When it comes to changing behaviour to reduce climate change risks, is the carrot or the stick better?

Historically, I come from an enforcement background. Good regulations that are well thought-through can drive actions. They drive policies, and they drive innovations. They can create a new industry. Energy storage is a good example. Simply having a requirement that utilities purchase a certain amount of storage has promoted significant investment and innovation in creating a storage industry. But while we need regulation that is well thought out and can drive change, we also need a good system for enforcement to make sure the rules are applied well.

So while incentives are important, I guess that puts me in the stick camp. It is, however, more realistic to acknowledge that we need both.

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