Climate action today: Where we're going and how we reach results – despite current roadblocks

Fred Krupp

Not long ago, I attended a briefing about some of the ways innovation is driving environmental progress. It came during a visit to Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, where I heard from scientists who are developing fast-charging electric vehicle batteries that will help overcome range anxiety.

Breakthroughs like these will help scale the solutions we need to turn the corner toward a safer and more stable climate.

New technologies are empowering people to protect the environment in other ways. Cheap pollution sensors and data analytics can make hidden health threats visible – and actionable.

Times are tough, but there’s still progress

In Oakland and Houston, we’re working with Google Earth Outreach to map air pollution block by block. No longer can governments or big businesses choose to conceal pollution from people; we can measure it ourselves, and use social media to make it public.

Transparent environmental data allow us to hold laggard companies accountable and celebrate the stewardship of corporate environmental leaders.

This wave of innovation is just one of the trends that makes me hopeful about our environmental future, even at a time when America’s bipartisan legacy of environmental safeguards is under assault. I also draw hope from the progress we’re making with states, corporations and other countries.

We worked with California this year as the state extended and deepened the ambition of its groundbreaking cap-and-trade program, which Environmental Defense Fund cosponsored.

We’re also helping Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, achieve an extraordinary commitment: removing 1 gigaton of climate pollution from its global supply chain. That’s more than Germany emits annually.

And in China, we are working with the government as it phases in what will become the world’s biggest emissions trading system for carbon.

As we approach the end of President Trump’s first year in office, it’s worth taking stock of how much has changed, and where leadership can still be found. My colleagues at EDF have been doing just that – adapting to a changing landscape by drafting a new strategic plan called Pathways 2025.

Here are a few of the conclusions we’ve reached.

Trump’s policies hurt his own voters

Among the many factors driving the 2016 election outcome was a profound sense of voter pessimism – a rejection of elites and mistrust of expertise driven by the sense that the rules of the game have been rigged.

There are valid reasons for people to feel this way, but the populist wave only succeeded in electing a president who is making the problem worse. With his administration’s attacks on clean air and public health standards, regular people are getting hit harder than ever.

A price on carbon: Still a key priority

Fairer and more transparent rules of the road can help restore public trust. When it comes to climate change, for example, United States markets are badly broken. They let corporations pollute our common atmosphere for free.

The way to fix them is by putting in place a price and limit on carbon pollution – and this remains EDF’s No. 1 climate policy objective.

This may seem like a dark time to talk about climate progress in Washington. But the Trump administration has inspired a rebirth of environmental activism, with support for EDF and other groups at an all-time high. Hundreds of thousands marched on behalf of climate action and sound science this year.

Polls show Trump’s environmental agenda is deeply unpopular.

Note to Congress: Citizen action soars 

Together with our allies, we help amplify this upwelling of citizen action by giving voice to our two million members and activists, our Moms Clean Air Force affiliate with more than a million members; and Defend Our Future, a burgeoning initiative to engage millennials.

We want Congress and the administration to understand that attacking bedrock environmental standards carries the same political risk as cutting Social Security. 

Even as the impacts of climate change become more damaging, we remain confident that our solutions, if scaled in time, can help turn the corner to a safer climate, cleaner air and healthier communities.

A new focus: Resilience in a warming world

However, even with ambitious greenhouse gas reductions, considerable warming is inevitable. That’s why a new focus of our work is helping people and natural systems become more resilient in the face of the changes we cannot avoid.

Our Oceans, Ecosystems and Health programs are pursuing several climate resilience initiatives:

  • Oceans: Well-managed fisheries are better able to withstand the stress of climate change, improving the fortunes of people everywhere.
  • Health: Climate and human health will benefit from our work to reduce conventional air pollution.
  • Ecosystems: The climate will benefit from work to reduce fertilizer overuse, curbing the amount of nitrous oxide entering the atmosphere. And building natural infrastructure, such as wetlands and barrier islands, helps make coastal communities more secure in the face of change.

EDF has also embraced an important new goal known as “net-zero emissions.”

It means not just reducing emissions, but eventually reaching a point of balance when the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases we’re putting into the atmosphere are matched by those we’re taking out through measures such as reforestation and agricultural practices that increase carbon in soils.

Technologies that pull carbon from the atmosphere are also promising and may become economically viable in years to come. A carbon recovery pilot project called Climeworks is up and running in Iceland, but remains too expensive to scale.

The net-zero point of balance is the place where we stop doing more harm to the climate, and begin to heal it. It’s a long way off, but it’s critical that we have a strategy for both where we’re going, and – despite the current politics – how we will get there.

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I am a monthly donor, and will continue to be one for a few more months while I am searching for a credible organization that is more outspoken about the need to support nuclear energy to achieve the goals you clearly articulate. The only way to achieve zero carbon emissions in a rapidly developing world that needs more energy is to embrace nuclear. EDF needs to say so -- clearly.

Kathy Kenyon
December 13, 2017 at 10:24 am

Thanks for your comment, Kathy. EDF cares deeply about reducing our CO2 emissions in a rapidly developing world, and we have been outspoken about supporting struggling nuclear plants in specific regions where nuclear may be replaced with dirtier alternatives. We have also supported subsidies for nuclear as part of larger deals to adopt more clean energy solutions, as was the case in Illinois.

However, there are economic and environmental considerations that argue against blanket support for all nuclear power. Nuclear is one of the thirstiest and most expensive energy sources, and isn’t competitive against cheap, abundant renewable energy. Rather than picking winners and losers, EDF supports a well-designed carbon limit or tax that improves the economics of all zero- or low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear. Thanks again for your support.

Here’s a recent blog post on this issue: Why We Still Need America’s Nuclear Power Plants — At Least for Now

Eric Pooley
December 14, 2017 at 11:00 pm

In reply to by Kathy Kenyon

Renewables deserve support, but they will never provide reliable energy at the levels needed to help much of the world grow out of poverty. While the most obvious need in the US right now is to keep existing sources of clean nuclear energy, it also seems clear as a policy matter that nuclear energy needs to grow, especially in the Third World (where the Russians and Chinese will meet the demand, probably less safely, if the US does not). The science and evidence, as I understand it, would not support your statement that nuclear is more expensive than renewables, which have enjoyed subsidies and favorable policies not available to nuclear. EDF should consider supporting a technology-neutral policy that supports the end goal of clean energy in the US and the developing world.

Kathy Kenyon
December 15, 2017 at 12:39 pm

In reply to by epooley

I think what everyone is doing to help the environment is wonderful and we should all do our part. What l don’t like is all the Trump bashing, which makes a lot of people turn off. President Trump is not against our environment; he lives on this same Earth as well as his family, too. What he is against is the US footing the majority of the bill and having to immediately implement most of the restrictions on the good citizens of our country without other countries having to follow the same protocol immediately. I know we produce a lot of impact but when you flew to your conferences, did you consider telecommuting or any other media available to your groups to help reduce your emissions? Anyone talking about population control for all countries? Anyone addressing the lack of clean water for all? Let’s hear about all the good that everyone is doing and stop pushing a political agenda. I think you would get more cooperation and less pushback [that way].

Norma Lewis
December 30, 2017 at 12:45 pm

Nuclear has never met its price targets. Ever. And even when it’s decommissioned, like the San Onofre nuclear power plant, it will cost $4.1 billion dollars and take 15 years. The cost of that one plant represents a lot of solar and wind that could have been built instead. Plus, what are you doing with the 500-plus pounds of nuclear waste produced by each plant per year?

John Michael
December 31, 2017 at 8:52 am

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