Earlier this month, the apocalyptic wildfires on the Pacific coast reached a grim milestone: 4 million acres burned in California alone. While much of our national attention has since focused elsewhere, this year’s wildfires pose a real and significant threat from climate change.
These fires have decimated entire cities, killed people and produced toxic smoke that reached the east coast. They provide a worrying signal of what lies ahead if we don’t tackle climate change and reframe our society around a serious commitment to sustainability.
Climatologists predict more frequent and uncontrolled wildfires as droughts become more common and other aspects of climate change emerge.
We must act on several fronts to move towards a sustainable future. Responding to climate change requires innovation in technologies, policies, communications, business practices and public engagement. But the current policy has not fostered the necessary innovation.
First, we need a deep decarbonization strategy that shifts the energy foundation of our society towards clean, renewable sources of electricity. But the path to a low-carbon future will also require increased investments in energy efficiency, better batteries and storage technologies, as well as smart grids, homes and devices.
Pathways are available to address each of these sustainability challenges. But our current approach to environmental protection fails to highlight these possibilities.
Red light, green light
To bring about transformative change, we need to move away from our existing environmental policy framework based on ‘red lights’ and government mandates that tell us all what NOT to do – but do very little to inspire a new one. reflection, stimulate technological development or channel capital into the infrastructure necessary for a sustainable economy.
A successful response to climate change and these other sustainability challenges requires a system of “Green lights” – incentives that encourage entrepreneurs and creative talents in our society to offer innovations in clean energy, sustainable production, low impact products, new financing mechanisms and broader public engagement.
Examples of a “green light” could include emission allowances, such as the program established by the Clean Air Act of 1990 to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions that cause acid rain or increase the price of chlorofluorocarbons. (CFCs) that have damaged the ozone layer. These economic incentives functioned as signals to investors of the need to innovate, attracted private capital, and succeeded in meeting environmental goals.
Today, more financial incentives are needed, especially for entities with limited access to capital. Green banks and green bonds make capital available at attractive rates for borrowers and encourage investment in environmental infrastructure.
The existing environmental policy includes a few green lights, but their success as incentives has been mitigated by uneven implementation. For example, renewable electricity tax credits have failed due to uncertainty over whether Congress will continue to fund these programs. Unpredictability and unreliability undermine business confidence in the value of incentives.
Just as drivers will act with caution on a road with failed traffic lights, clean energy investors will back down in the face of uncertainty surrounding government incentives for clean energy.
When I became commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the state had a target of 20% renewable energy by 2020, but had made little progress towards that goal.
It became clear that the state needed better incentives and green lights. In response, we launched the country’s first green bank and pledged to use limited public funds to leverage private capital to scale up innovation and deployment of clean energy.
To further stimulate the development of clean energy production and reduce the prices of renewable electricity, the department launched a new market-based strategy in 2011: we offered a 15-year power purchase commitment. to the developer of the project who promised the lowest prices for clean energy energy.
This explicit “green light” – the presence of a 15-year power supply contract – made the projects bankable and provided far more certainty than the mere promise that Connecticut One day receives 20% of its electricity from renewable sources. With that green light in place, the share of renewable energy sold in Connecticut has increased from 5% in 2010 to about 22% in 2020.
Our current political approach has not brought about the change we need to prevent catastrophic forest fires. A serious response to climate change requires a new national commitment to sustainability as a core value that underpins American life and public policy going forward. Stopping climate change is the long-term imperative to stop uncontrollable forest fires, but to achieve the emission reductions needed to do so, we need “green lights” that provide certainty about the future. regulatory future.
Forest fires have already claimed lives, property and our sense of security. They have the potential to get stronger, last longer, and be more damaging than ever if we don’t take action. We must face the threat – and the current reality – of climate change now and redouble our efforts to lay the foundations for a sustainable future.
Daniel C. Esty is Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University, former Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and Editor-in-Chief of “A better planet: 40 big ideas for a sustainable future.“