A version of this article appeared on Triple Pundit on May 11, 2016.
By Pari Kasotia
On April 22, some 171 countries commemorated Earth Day by signing the Paris Agreement. At the opening ceremony of the United Nations climate talks in Paris, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “We are in a race against time. I urge all countries to join the agreement at the national level.”
The commitments to address climate change go back to the 2009 Copenhagen Accord which established the $100 billion Green Climate Fund to help developing countries address and build resiliency to climate change. The United States committed $3 billion in 2014 in addition to commitments from other developed countries. While financial assistance is urgently needed, it is just one side of the coin. The other side – enhancing the soft infrastructure, the know-how and the culture is equally significant to assist developing countries in the transition from high-carbon to low-carbon economies.
The United States makes a great case study for this and has demonstrated over the last years that underscoring the non-financial side can produce significant and measurable results as well.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. energy consumption has slowed down. The agency predicts that this consumption will not return to the growth levels seen during the second half of the 20th century. A key point to note here is that household energy consumption is expected to remain relatively flat. Improvements in appliance efficiencies and consumer awareness, hand-in-hand, are driving this trend.
The U.S. is also witnessing “decoupling” of economic growth and energy consumption. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. will continue to see an increase in economic growth and population, but its energy consumption will remain steady. Interesting to note, this trend in U.S. energy consumption is driven by advances in energy efficiency, renewable energy and natural gas.
So, what are the key lessons developing countries can derive from the U.S.? The trends mentioned above occurred in the absence of any national policies or mandates. The Clean Power Plan came into existence much later. Rather, it was the state policies and federal/local incentives, along with consumer preferences and changing market dynamics, that helped drive the market. Here are some key takeaways.
- Strengthen local soft infrastructure: Most developing countries employ a top-down development model where policies and agendas are established at the highest level of government and are passed down to the state and municipality level. Bringing impactful change will necessitate all levels of government to serve as change-agents, which requires the presence of operative soft infrastructure to deliver services to consumers. The U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative Soft Costs program is an example of a program working to build effective soft infrastructure. The Soft Costs program works with local governments and other stakeholders to reduce market barriers that inflate the costs of solar deployment and hinder market growth. The Solar Foundation, through funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, recently launched the SolSmart program, a national designation program designed to recognize communities that have taken measurable steps to minimize local barriers to solar energy deployment. Building soft infrastructure improves service delivery and enables consumers to take action.
Convening delegates from developing countries for workshops and exchange of best practices, focused on building local capacity, can expedite the adoption and implementation of climate-change programs and policies.
- Effectively utilize the private sector as champions: Apart from being famous for technology, clothing and food, companies such as Intel, Microsoft, Kohl’s, Whole Foods, Google and Apple are renowned for their commitment and action on clean energy. They are the trailblazers of the clean-energy movement. These companies top the ranks for utilizing the greenest and the cleanest energy options. Microsoft is one of the biggest consumers of renewable energy sources, and 80 percent of its annual electricity comes from clean energy. Going a step further, Microsoft also implemented an internal carbon tax program to limit its own carbon emissions. The clothing retailer Kohl’s, through a combination of solar credits and on-site installed solar projects, gets 105 percent of its electricity from clean-energy sources.
Besides sending a clear signal to the market about their desire to reduce their carbon footprints, these companies play a pivotal role in influencing policymakers, competitors and consumers in making sound energy choices. Developing countries must emulate this culture of action, promotion and influence. A significant credit in creating this culture of influence goes to the U.S. media, both mainstream and grassroots, for bringing visibility and highlighting these success stories.
The local media, as well as civil society, in developing countries should be equipped with tools and resources to amplify local success stories emerging from their private sector. This will bring broad awareness and influence how climate change and clean energy issues are perceived and acted upon.
- Increase consumer understanding of energy efficiency and renewable energy: The U.S. clean-energy movement is an offshoot of the environmental and self-reliance movement. A multitude of environmental organizations in the U.S. — at the national, state and local levels — have incorporated clean energy and energy efficiency in their organizational agendas. By one count, there are over 25,500 environmental organizations in the U.S. If even 25 percent of these organizations promote energy efficiency and clean energy, it amounts to one organization per 50,000 individuals. And this is just nonprofits. Including other organizations such as lobbying firms, schools and higher-education institutions, and environmental centers, you have a civil-society structure that saturates the market for increasing consumer awareness. India, in comparison, shows 69 nonprofit environmental organizations, by one count, that may or may not touch on clean energy and energy efficiency.
Investing funds to build this volunteer-based, action-oriented capacity — whether it’s at schools and universities, religious institutions, housing associations or even at work centers — will significantly increase awareness among the populations to demand clean energy and subsequently reduce emissions, especially in high-carbon economies.
The U.S. is far from perfect. It still has a lot of room to improve and grow into a society that consumes energy responsibly and sustainably. The above takeaways are examples of what the U.S. is doing right. As world leaders carve out projects via the Green Climate Fund, they will be remiss to ignore the value-add of soft infrastructure and the civil-society capacity in assisting countries’ transition to a low-carbon economy.