Jason Bordoff, cofounding dean, Columbia Climate School, founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy, and professor of professional practice in international and public affairs at Columbia University, leads a conversation on energy policy and efforts to combat climate change.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to today’s session of the CFR Fall 2021 Academic Webinar Series. I am Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
Today’s discussion is on the record. And the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We are delighted to have with us today Jason Bordoff to talk about energy policy and efforts to combat climate change. Jason Bordoff is cofounding dean of the Columbia Climate School, founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy, and professor of professional practice in international and public affairs at Columbia University. He previously served as special assistant to President Obama and senior director for energy and climate change on the National Security Council, and he has held senior policy positions on the White House’s National Economic Council and Council on Environmental Quality. He is a columnist for Foreign Policy magazine and is often on TV and radio. So, we’re really happy to have him with us today. So, Jason, thank you very much.
We are just coming off the COP26 conference that took place in Glasgow that started on October 31, I believe, and concluded last Friday, November 12. Could you talk about what came out of the conference at a high level, if you think that the agreements that were reached went far enough or didn’t go far enough, and what your policy recommendations are to really advance and fight the countdown that we have to the Earth warming?
BORDOFF: Yeah. Thanks. Well, first, thanks to you, Irina, and thanks to CFR for the invitation to be with you all today. Really delighted to have the chance to talk about these important issues.
I was there for much of the two-week period in Glasgow representing the Energy Center and the Climate School here at Columbia. I think it’s kind of a glass half-full/glass half-empty outlook coming out of Glasgow. So I think the Glasgow conference was notable in several respects.
We’ll look back on it, I think, and some of the things we will remember are—some of the things we’ll remember—(dog barking)—sorry—are the role of the private sector and private finance, I think, was much more prominent in Glasgow this year. I think there were commitments around some important things like methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, was much higher on the priority list in this U.N. climate meeting than in prior ones. You had pledges on deforestation and other things that are important. And then the final agreement did have some important elements to it, particularly around Article 6, how you design carbon markets around the world.
But the glass half-empty outlook is still we are nowhere close to being on track for the kind of targets that countries and companies are committing to: net zero by 2050 or 1.5 degrees of warming.
I think there were—there should be hope and optimism coming out of COP. The role of the youth—at Columbia, we were honored to organize a private roundtable for President Obama with youth climate activists. It’s hard to spend time with young people in COP or on campus here at Columbia or anywhere else and not be inspired by how passionately they take these issues. So the activism you saw in the streets, the sense of urgency among everyone—activists, civil society, governments, the private sector—felt different, I think, at this COP than other COPs that I have attended or probably the ones I haven’t attended.
But there was also for some I saw kind of we’re coming out of this and we’re on track for below two degrees. Or, you know, Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, tweeted that when you add up all the pledges we’re on track for 1.8 degrees Celsius warming. He’s talking about all of the pledges meaning every country who’s promised to be net zero by 2050, 2060, 2070, and at least from my standpoint there’s a good reason to take those with a grain of salt. They’re not often backed up by concrete plans or ideas about how you would get anywhere close to achieving those goals.
So it’s good that we have elevated ambition, which is kind of one of the core outcomes of the COP in Glasgow. But it is also the case that when you elevate ambition and the reality doesn’t change as fast or maybe faster than the ambition is changing, what you have is a growing gap between ambition and reality. And I think that’s where we are today.
Oil use is rising each and every year. Gas use is rising. Coal use is going up this year. I don’t know if it’s going to keep going up, but at a minimum it’s going to plateau. It’s not falling off a cliff. So the reality of the energy world today—which is 75 percent of emissions are energy—is not anything close to net zero by 2050.
It is the case that progress is possible. So if you go back to before the Paris agreement, we were on track for something like maybe 3.7 degrees Celsius of warming. If you look at a current outlook, it’s maybe 2.7, 2.8 (degrees), so just below three degrees. So progress is possible. That’s good.
If you look at the nationally determined contribution pledges—so the commitments countries made that are more near term, more accountability for them; the commitments they made to reduce emissions by 2030, their NDCs—we would be on track for about 2.4 degrees Celsius warming, assuming all those pledges are fulfilled. But history would suggest a reason to be a little skeptical about that. The U.S. has a pledge to get to a 50 to 52 percent reduction in emissions by 2030, and look at how things are working or not working in Washington and make your own judgment about how likely it is that we’ll put in place the set of policies that would be required to get to that ambitious level of decarbonization by 2030. And I think the same healthy dose of skepticism is warranted when you look elsewhere in the world. But even if we achieve all of those, we’re still falling short of below two degrees, nevertheless 1.5 (degrees).
And so, again, I think the outcome from COP for me was optimism that progress is possible—we have made a lot of progress in the last ten years—but acute concern that we’re nowhere close to being on track to take targets like 1.5 degrees Celsius or net zero by 2050 seriously. And we just need to be honest as a climate and energy community—and I live in both of those worlds; there’s a lot of overlap between them, obviously—about how hard it is to achieve the goals we are talking about.
Renewables have grown incredibly quickly. Optimistic headlines every day about what is happening in solar and wind. Costs have come down more than 90 percent. Battery costs have come down more than 90 percent in the last decade. But solar and wind create electricity, and electricity is 20 percent of global final energy consumption.
The outlook for electric vehicles is much more promising today. Lots of companies like Ford and others are committing to be all-electric by a certain date ten or twenty years from now. Cars are 20 percent of global oil demand.
About half of the emission reductions—cumulative emission reductions between now and 2050 will need to come from technologies that are not yet available at commercial scale and sectors of the economy that are really hard to decarbonize like steel and cement and ships and airplanes. We’re not—we don’t have all the tools we need to do those yet.
And then, in Glasgow, the focus of a lot of what we did at Columbia was on—we did a lot of different things, but one of the key areas of focus was the challenge of thinking about decarbonization in emerging and developing economies. I don’t think we talk about that enough. The issue of historical responsibility of loss and damage was more on the agenda this year, and I think you’ll hear even more about it in the year ahead. The next COP is in Africa. There was growing tension between rich and poor countries at this COP. I think a starting point was what we see in the pandemic alone and how inequitable around the world the impacts of the pandemic are. Many people couldn’t even travel to Glasgow from the Global South because they couldn’t get vaccinated.
We need, between now and 2050, estimates are—a ballpark—$100 trillion of additional investment in clean energy if we’re going to get on track for 1.5 (degrees)/net zero by 2050. So the question that should obsess all of us who work in this space: Where will that money come from? Most of it’s going to be private sector, not public. Most of it is going to be in developing and emerging economies. That is where the growth in energy is going to come from. Eight hundred million people have no access to energy at all. Nevertheless, if you model what energy access means, it’s often defined as, you have enough to turn on lights or charge your cellphone. But when you talk about even a fraction of the standard of living we take for granted—driving a car, having a refrigerator, having an air conditioner—the numbers are massive. They’re just huge, and the population of Africa’s going to double to 2.2 billion by the year 2050. So these are really big numbers and we need to recognize how hard this is.
But we should also recognize that it is possible. We have a lot of the tools we need. We need innovation in technology and we need stronger policy, whether that’s a carbon price or standards for different sectors. And then, of course, we need private-sector actors to step up as well, and all of us. And we have these great commitments to achieve these goals with a lot of capital being put to work, and now we need to hold people accountable to make sure that they do that.
So, again, I look back on the last two weeks or before, two weeks of COP, the gap between ambition and reality got bigger. Not necessarily a bad thing—ambition is a good thing—but now it’s time to turn the ambition into action. We need governments to follow through on their pledges. Good news is we have a wide menu of options for reducing emissions. The bad news is there’s not a lot of time at our current rate of emissions. And emissions are still going up each and every year. They’re not even falling yet. Remember, what matters is the cumulative total, not the annual flow. At our current rate of emissions, the budget—carbon budget for staying below 1.5 (degrees) is used up in, around a decade or so, so there’s not much time to get to work.
But I’m really excited about what we’re building with the first climate school in the country here at Columbia. When it comes to pushing—turning ambition into action, that requires research, it requires education, and it requires engaging with partners in civil society and the public sector and the private sector to help turn that research into action. And the people we’re working with here every day on campus are the ones who are going to be the leaders that are going to hopefully do a better job—(laughs)—than we’ve done over the last few decades. So whatever you’re doing at your educational institution—be it teaching or research or learning—we all have a role to play in the implementation of responsible, forward-thinking energy policy.
I’m really excited to have the chance to talk with you all today. Look forward to your questions and to the conversation. Thank you again.
FASKIANOS: Jason, that’s fantastic. Thank you very much for that informative and sobering view.
So let’s turn to all of you now for your questions.
So I’m going to go first to—I have one raised hand from Stephen Kass.
Q: OK. Thank you. Jason, thank you for the very useful and concise summary.
What specific kinds of energy programs do you think developing countries should now be pursuing? Should they be giving up coal entirely? Should they be importing natural gas? Should they be investing in renewables or nuclear? What recipe would you advise developing countries to pursue for their own energy needs?
BORDOFF: It’s going to need to be a lot of different things, so there’s no single answer to that, of course. And by the way, I’ll just say it would be super helpful if people don’t mind just introducing yourself when you ask a question. That would be helpful to me, at least. I appreciate it.
I think they need to do a lot of different things. I think I would start with low-hanging fruit, and renewable electricity is not the entire answer. The sun and wind are intermittent. Electricity can’t do certain things yet, like power ships and airplanes. But the low cost of solar and wind, I think, does mean it’s a good place to start, and then we need to think about those other sectors as well.
I think a key thing there comes back to finance, and that’s why we’re spending so much time on it with our research agenda here. Access to financing and cost of capital are really important. Clean energy tends to be more capital-intensive and then, like solar and wind, more CAPEX, less OPEX over time. But attaining financing in poor countries is really difficult and expensive. Lack of experience with renewable energy, local banks are often reluctant to lend to those kinds of projects.
And then foreign investors, where most of that capital is going to come from, view projects often in emerging markets and developing economies particularly as more risky. Local utilities may not be creditworthy. There’s currency inflation risk in many developing countries, people worry about recouping their upfront investment if bills are paid in local currency. There’s political risk, maybe corruption, inconsistently enforced regulations. And it can be harder to build clean energy infrastructure if you don’t have other kinds of infrastructure, like ports, and roads, and bridges and a good electrical grid.
So I would start there. And I think there’s a role for those countries to scale up their clean energy sectors, but also for policymakers and multilateral development banks and governments elsewhere—there was a lot of focus in Glasgow on whether the developed countries would make good on their promise made in Copenhagen to send $100 billion a year in climate finance to developing countries. And they fell short of that. But even that is kind of a rounding error, compared to the one to two trillion (dollars) a year that the International Energy Agency estimates is needed. So there are many other things besides just writing a check that government, like in the U.S. or elsewhere, can do.
The Development Finance Corporation, for example, can lend to banks in local and affordable rates, finance projects in local currency, expand the availability of loan guarantees. I’ve written before about how I think even what often gets called industrial policy, let’s think about some sectors—in the same way China did with solar or batteries fifteen years ago. Are there sectors where governments might help to grow domestic industries and, by doing that, scale—bring down the cost of technologies that are expensive now, the premium for low-carbon or zero-carbon cement or steel. It’s just—it’s not reasonable to ask a developing country to build new cities, and new highways, and all the new construction they’re going to do with zero-carbon steel and cement because it’s just way too expensive. So how do you bring those costs down? If we think about investments, we can make through U.S. infrastructure or other spending to do that, that not only may help to grow some domestic industries and jobs here, that can be its own form of global leadership if we’re driving those costs of those technologies down to make it cheaper for others to pick up. So I think that’s one of the places I’d start. But there are a lot of other things we need to do too.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
I’m going to take the next question—and let me just go back. Stephen Kass is an adjunct professor at NYU. So the next question is a written question from Wei Liang, who is an assistant professor of international policy studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. And the question is: I wonder if you could briefly address the Green Climate Fund and individual countries’ pledge on that.
BORDOFF: Yeah, I mean, it touches a little bit on what I said a moment ago about the need for developed countries to provide climate finance to developing countries. And so I think that’s—it’s important that we take those obligations seriously, and that we, in advanced economies, step up and make those funds available. And but, again, we’re talking—the amount we’re still talking about is so small compared to the amounts that are needed to deal both with the impacts of climate change, and then also to curb climate change, to mitigate climate change.
Because we know that developing countries are in the parts of the world that will often be most adversely impacted by climate impacts—droughts, and heat waves, and storms, and food security issues—from a standpoint of equity are the parts of the world that have done the least to cause this problem, responsible for very few emissions. If you look cumulatively at emissions since the start of the industrial age, about half—nearly half have come from the U.S. and EU combined. Two percent from the entire continent of Africa. So they are using very little energy today, haven’t therefore contributed to the problems, and have the fewest resources, of course, to cope with the impacts, and also to develop in a cleaner way.
Sometimes it’s cheaper to develop in a cleaner way. Renewables are often today competitive with coal, even without subsidy. But there are many areas where that’s not the case, and there is a cost. And we need to help make sure that, you know, we’re thinking about what a just transition looks like. And that means many different things for different communities, whether you’re a coal worker or an agricultural worker in California that may, you know, be working outside in worse and worse heat. But it also means thinking about the parts of the world that need assistance to make this transition. So I think we need to be taking that much more seriously.
FASKIANOS: Next question is a raised hand from Tara Weil, who is an undergraduate student at Pomona College.
So, given that developed nations are the largest contributors to carbon emissions, as you’ve said, how can larger powers be convinced as to the importance of addressing global inequality with regards to climate change? And thank you so much, also, for giving this talk.
BORDOFF: Yeah. Thank you for being here.
I don’t have a great answer to your question. I mean, the politics of foreign aid in general are not great, as we often hear in events at CFR. So I do think one—we need to continue to encourage, through political advocacy, civil society, and other ways, governments in advanced economies to think about all the tools they have at their disposal. I think the ones that are going to be—I’m reluctant to try to speak as a political commenter rather than a climate and energy commenter on what’s going to work politically. But part of that is demonstrating what—it’s not just generosity. It is also in one’s self-interest to do these things.
And just look at the pandemic, right? What would it look like for the U.S. to show greater leadership, or any country to show even greater leadership and help cope with the pandemic all around the world in parts of the world that are struggling to vaccinate their people? That is not only an act of generosity, but it is clearly one of self-interest too, because it’s a pretty globalized economy and you’re not going to be able to get a pandemic under control at home if it’s not under control abroad. Of course, the same is true of the impacts of climate change. It doesn’t matter where a ton of CO2 comes from. And we can decarbonize our own economy, but the U.S. is only 15 percent of annual emissions globally. So it’s not going to make a huge difference unless everyone else does that as well.
There is also the potential, I think, to—and we see this increasingly when you look at the discussion of the Biden infrastructure bill, how they talk about the U.S.-China relationship, which of course are the two most important countries from the standpoint of climate change. It is one of cooperation. That was one of the success stories in Glasgow, was a commitment to cooperate more. We’ll see if we can actually do it, because it’s a pretty difficult and tense U.S.-China relationship right now. So the question is, can you separate climate from all those other problems on human rights, and intellectual property, and everything else and then cooperate on climate? It’s been hard, but there’s a renewed commitment to try to do that.
But also, a recognition that action in the clean energy space is not only about cooperation but it’s also about economic competition. And you have seen more and more focus on both the Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle on thinking about the security of supply chains, and critical minerals, and the inputs in lithium and rare earth elements that go into many aspects of clean energy. To my point before about aspects of industrial policy that might help grow your own domestic economy, I think there are ways in which countries can take measures that help—that help their own economies and help workers and help create jobs, and that in the process are helping to drive forward more quickly the clean energy technologies we need, and bring down the cost of those technologies to make them more accessible and available in some of the less-developed countries.
So I think trying to frame it less as do we keep funds at home, do we write a check abroad? But there are actually many steps you could do to create economic opportunities and are win-win. Without being pollyannish about it, I think there is some truth to some of those. And I think we can focus on those politically as well.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
I’m going to take an international question from Luciana Alexandra Ghica, who is an associate professor for international cooperation at the University of Bucharest.
What type of topics do you think we should address immediately in university programs that provide training in climate, development, global policies, or international public affairs, so that a new generation of leaders really pushes forward the agenda on climate change?
BORDOFF: Yeah. Well, I’ll say a quick word about what we’re doing at Columbia, and maybe it’s relevant to that question, because Columbia has made this historic commitment to build a climate school. There are many initiatives, and centers, and institutes. There was not only a handful of schools—law school, business school, medical school, engineering school. And it is the largest commitment a university can make to any particular topic, is something on the scale of a school with degree-granting authority and tenure-granting authority, and all the things that come with a school. And it’s just the scale at a place like Columbia, and many other places, is just enormous.
That’s what we’re doing on climate. We have created a climate school. And I’m honored President Bollinger asked me to help lead it. And we’re going to build a faculty. We have our first inaugural class of masters’ students, about ninety students that are going through the program right now, and we have a building in Manhattan for the climate school, and on and on. The idea—but the question is, what is climate, right? Because academia has been historically organized into traditional academic disciplines. So you have people who you hire through a tenured search, and they go to the engineering faculty and build their lab there. And there’s law professors, and their business school professors, and on and on and on, social work.
But for climate, you need all of those, right? They all kind of need to come together. And, like, interdisciplinary doesn’t even sort of do justice to what it means to think about approaching this systemic—it’s a systemic challenge. The system has to change. And so whatever solution you’re talking about—if you want to get hydrogen to scale in the world, let’s—you know, for certain sectors of the economy that may be hard to do with renewable energy, or in terms of renewable energy and, say, green hydrogen.
You need engineering breakthroughs to bring down the cost of electrolyzers, or you need new business models, or you need financial institution frameworks that figure out how you’re going to put the capital into these things. You need the policy incentives. How are you going to—you need permitting and regulation. How do we permit hydrogen infrastructure? It’s barely been done before. There are concerns in the environmental justice community about some aspects of technologies like that or carbon capture that need to be taken seriously and addressed.
There are geopolitical implications, potentially, to starting to build a global trade in ammonia or hydrogen, and what security concerns—energy security concerns might accompany those, the way we thought about oil or gas from Russia into Europe. I have an article coming out in the next issue of Foreign Affairs about the geopolitics of the energy transition. So we need disciplines that come together and look at a problem like that in all of those multifaceted dimensions, so we can figure out how to get from a lab to scale out in the world. And so when we think about the areas of concentration here, climate finance, climate justice, climate in society, climate in international security—I mean, a range of things that I think are really important to help people understand. And that’s going to be a major focus of what we do at the climate school here.
FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Let’s go next to Sean Grossnickle, who has raised his hand. A graduate student at Fordham University.
Q: Speak now? Hi, this is not Sean but Henry Schwalbenberg, also at Fordham, where I teach in our international political economy and development program.
I went to a conference about a month ago in Rome. And there was a physicist from CERN. And he was a big advocate of something I’d never heard of, and this is this thorium for nuclear reactors. And he was going through all the pros, but I wanted a more balanced perspective on it. And I’m hoping that you might give me a little pros and cons of this thorium nuclear reactor technique.
BORDOFF: Yeah. I will be honest and say that nuclear is not my area of focus. We have a pretty strong team here that works in nuclear, and I think is optimistic about the breakthroughs we’re going to see in several potential areas of nuclear—advanced nuclear technology, that being one of them, or small modular reactors, and others. At a high level, I will say I do think if you’re serious about the math of decarbonization and getting to net zero by 2050, it’s hard to do without zero-carbon nuclear power. It’s firm, baseload power. It runs all the time. Obviously, there are challenges with intermittency of solar and wind, although they can be addressed to some extent with energy story.
Most of the analyses that are done show not necessarily in the U.S. but in other parts of the world significant growth in nuclear power. The International Energy Agency just modeled what it looks like to get to net zero by 2050, and this pathway that got a lot of attention for saying things like we would not be investing in new oil and gas supply. The world has to change a lot pretty quickly. And they have about a hundred new nuclear plants being built by 2030, so that’s a pretty big number. So we’re going to need all tools—(laughs)—that we have at our disposal. And unfortunately, I worry we may still fall short. So I think at a high level we need to think really hard about how to improve nuclear technology. The people who know that really well I think are optimistic about our ability to do that. And I will follow up on thorium in particular with my colleagues at Columbia, and happy to follow up with you offline about it.
FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to take a written question from Stephen Bird, who’s an associate professor of political science at Clarkson University. He thanks you, and he wanted you to talk a little bit more about political will. The overall dollar amounts are clear. Much cheaper to address climate change than to ignore it.
That said, countries are, clearly, lagging. Is it a case of countries just don’t want to take action now because of issues of fairness or because of lack of domestic political support, i.e., citizens aren’t convinced that they should pay costs now with payoffs that come later, and what might we do to improve that issue in terms of persuading or arguing for more political will?
BORDOFF: Yeah. It’s a question for, you know, a political scientist as much as an energy or climate expert, and I wish I had a better answer to it.
I think it is—climate is one of the trickiest problems for so many reasons but one of those is there is no acute event now that you sort of respond to, hopefully, and pull everyone together. It’s a set of things that, you know, of course, there would have been storms and droughts before but we know they’re intensified and made worse. It’s hard to rally public support. We often respond to a crisis kind of proverbial, you know, frog in the boiling water kind of thing.
So that makes it hard. There are huge issues—we talked about a just transition a few minutes ago—there are huge issues with intergenerational equity when we talk about climate. There are, clearly, climate impacts and damages today but some of the worst will be in the future, including for people who may not be born yet, and we don’t do a great job in our political environment about thinking about those and valuing them today and how you do that, and from an economic standpoint, of course, there are questions about discount rates you apply and everything else.
I think, politically, one of the things that has mobilized stronger climate—support for climate action, so it is encouraging that if you look at polling on climate change, the level of urgency that the public in many countries, including the U.S., broadly, ascribe to acting on climate has gone up a lot. It’s higher today than it was, you know, a decade or so ago.
That’s a result of people seeing the impacts and also advocacy campaigns and political campaigns. It is often tied to—it’s like a win-win. Like, President Biden says when he thinks of climate he thinks of jobs, and so we’re going to deal with climate and we’re going to grow the economy faster and we’re going to create jobs, and there is truth to that.
It is also the case that there are costs. The cost of inaction are higher, but there are costs associated with the transition itself. So if you survey the American public, I think, climate, according to the latest YouGov/Economist poll I saw, you know, it was number two on the list of things they cared the most about. That’s much higher than in the past. And then if you ask the American public are they willing to pay $0.25 a gallon more at the pump to act on climate, 75 percent say no.
And you look at the challenges the Biden administration is having right now sort of thinking about a really strong set of measures to put in place to move the ball forward on climate, but acute concern today about where oil prices are and inflation and natural gas prices as we head into the winter. If the weather is cold then it’s going to be really expensive for people to heat their homes in parts—some parts of the country like New England, maybe.
So that’s a reality, and I think we need to—it was interesting, in the roundtable we did with President Obama with climate activists, that was a message he had for them. You know, be impatient, be angry, keep the pressure on, but also be pragmatic. And by that he means, like, you know, try to see the world through the eyes of others and people who are worried about the cost of filling up at the pump, the cost of paying their heating bills.
They’re not—some of them may not be where you are yet. They may not have the same sense of urgency with acting on climate that many of us on this Zoom do and need to take those concerns seriously.
So I think that’s a real challenge, and it can be addressed with good policy, to some extent, right, if you think about the revenue raised from a carbon tax and how it could be redistributed in a way that reduce the regressive impacts. I’ve written about how, at a high level—I’ll say one last point—if we get on track for an energy transition, which we’re not on yet, right. (Laughs.) Oil and gas use are going up each and every year.
But imagine we started to get on track where those were falling year after year. It’s still going to take decades, and that process of transition is going to be really messy. It’s going to be really volatile. We’re going to have fits and starts in policy from Obama to Trump to Biden. We’re going to make estimate—we’re going to make bets on technologies and maybe get those technologies wrong or misunderstand the cost curves, the potential to shut down investment in certain forms of energy before the rest are ready to pick up the slack.
If it’s messy and volatile and bumpy, that’s not only harmful economically and geopolitically, it will undermine public support for stronger climate action. So you see, like, in Washington they’re selling off the Strategic Petroleum Reserve because we’re moving to a world beyond oil and also we have all this domestic oil now with shale.
We need more, not fewer, tools to mitigate volatility for the next several decades if we’re serious about making this transition, and I think the same is true for thinking about sort of buffers you could build into geopolitics, foreign policy, and national security, because there will be—in a post-oil and gas world, you know, you may say, well, we’re not going to worry as much about the Middle East or about, you know, Russia’s leverage in Europe.
But there will be new risks created and we can talk about what some of those might be, and we need new tools of foreign policy to mitigate those potential foreign policy risks.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question. Raised hand from Chloe Demrovsky, adjunct instructor at NYU.
Q: Hey, can you hear me?
BORDOFF: Yes. Thank you.
Q: Hi. Chloe Demrovsky, adjunct at NYU and president and CEO of Disaster Recovery Institute International.
Thanks for being with us, Jason. So my question is about the feasibility and your thoughts on artificially altered clouds or solar geoengineering. What are the ethical and geopolitical implications of, perhaps, using this to buy a little time for our energy transition? Thanks.
BORDOFF: Yeah. A super interesting question, and I will say, again, I’m sort of—think of myself as an energy expert. So that is where I spend more time than thinking about tools like solar geoengineering.
I guess, it seems there’s, obviously, huge risks associated with something like that and we need to understand them. We need to do research. We need to figure out what those risks may be. There are global governance concerns. It’s actually pretty cheap to do solar geoengineering.
So what happens when some country or some billionaire decides they want to start spraying stuff into the atmosphere to cool the planet? And for those who don’t know that, you know, solar—I mean, you think of after a volcano the planet cools a little bit because of all the particulates up in the atmosphere.
When you model in an energy system model how much phasing out coal will reduce warming, you, obviously, have much less carbon dioxide emissions but that’s offset slightly—not completely, of course—it’s offset a little bit by the fact that you have less local air pollution, which is a good thing from air pollution. But air pollution has a slightly cooling effect, because you have these little particles floating around that reflect sunlight.
So the idea is can we create that artificially and cool the planet, and you can imagine lots of reasons why that could go wrong when you’re trying to figure out what—how much to put in there, what unintended consequences could be.
You still have other impacts of carbon dioxide like ocean acidification. Maybe you go too far in one direction, that’s like you’re setting the thermostat. That’s why one of the companies doing carbon removal is called Global Thermostat. You’re kind of figuring out what temperature it should be.
But I will say so it’s an area that needs research and I think, given how far we are away from achieving goals like 1.5 and net-zero 2050, I guess what I would say is in the same way that when I worked in the Obama administration it was—I wouldn’t say controversial, but there were some people who didn’t want to talk about adaptation because it was kind of a more—there was a moral hazard problem there. It was, you know, less pressure to mitigate and reduce emissions if we thought adaptation was a solution. People worry about that from the standpoint of solar geoengineering.
But the likelihood—I hope I’m wrong, but the likelihood that we roll the clock forward, you know, later this decade and we realize we’ve made progress but we’re still pretty far short, and the impacts of climate change in the same way the IPCC 1.5 report said, you know what, 1.5 is going to be pretty bad, too, and that’s even worse than we thought, the more we learn about climate the more reason there is to be concerned, not less concerned. It seems very plausible to me that we will kind of come to a growing consensus that we have to think about whether this technology can, as you said, buy us time.
This is not something you do permanently. You need to get to net zero to stop global warming. But if you want to reduce the impacts of warming on the rate of Arctic sea ice melt and all the rest, can you buy time, extend the runway, by doing this for some number of decades. And I think—I don’t have a strong view on the right answer to that.
But I think it’s something we, certainly, need to be thinking about researching and understanding what the consequences would be because we’re going to have to figure out how to take more abrupt actions to close that gap between ambition and reality unless the reality starts to change much more quickly than is the case right now.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I saw a raised hand from Maya but she lowered it. So if you want to raise your hand again, please do so.
And in the meantime, I’m going to take a written question from Jennifer Sklarew, who’s an assistant professor of energy and sustainability at George Mason University. Was CCS/CCUS, which carbon capture and storage/carbon capture utilization and storage, to write out those acronyms, promoted as a climate change solution in Glasgow and was there a pushback against this technology option as both a climate change solution and a support mechanism for continued fossil fuel use?
BORDOFF: There was some pushback but, I think, actually, more in the other direction. So I think there has been a growing recognition from many in the climate world that carbon capture technology, carbon removal technology, need to be part of the solution. I think there’s almost no climate model at this point that shows how you would get to 1.5 degrees or net zero—1.5 degrees without huge amounts of negative emissions—carbon removal.
Some of that can be nature based, but a lot of it will be—some of it will be technology based as well and focusing on what we care about, which is the emissions, is the most important thing. So and this is not, I don’t think, the primary thing you’re going to do. You want to do the things that are easiest and cheapest and present the fewest risks.
So putting a lot of renewables into the grid, getting electrification into the vehicle fleet—there’s a lot of things that you would do before that. But if you think about some of the sectors in the economy we talked about before that are hard to decarbonize like steel and cement, it may well be the case that carbon capture is part of the technology there.
There was a big announcement yesterday from the NET Power Allam Cycle gas plant in Texas that they had finally come online with delivering net-zero power to the grid. It was sort of a milestone in that technology.
So we need to advance this technology and figure out how we’re going to—how we’re going to get where we need to be. We need to hold that kind of technology accountable to make sure that it’s actually meeting the standards we’re talking about so that it actually is very low, if not zero, carbon.
But if you look at, you know, most of the scenarios I’m aware of, whether it’s—Princeton did the study “Net-Zero America,” how we get to net zero by 2050 in the U.S. The International Energy Agency, as I said, did it for net zero globally.
There is a meaningful role for carbon capture, to some extent, in the power sector in these heavy industry sectors like steel and cement, and then making, say, hydrogen some of that will be blue hydrogen. Most of it, eventually, will be green, but there may be some role for blue hydrogen, which is—which is gas with carbon capture.
So I think, if anything, there’s been a growing understanding that we need all tools on deck right away and, again, I fear even with all the tools we may still fall short.
FASKIANOS: Great. There’s a written question from Laila Bichara, who’s at SUNY Farmingdale, international business. There was a New York Times article, “Business Schools Respond to a Flood of Interest in ESG,” talking about the issue of the scarcity of skills in recent graduates to help with social impact, sustainable investments, climate finance, and social entrepreneurship. And she wanted to know if there are resources that you could point the group to in terms of foundation courses or certification that would provide all students with a basic foundation.
BORDOFF: Yeah. That’s a really good question and it’s a growing area of focus and I think universities should be doing more in. The Tamer Center of Columbia Business School does a lot of work in ESG. We hosted a really interesting roundtable at the Center on Global Energy Policy yesterday on ESG and actually been doing a lot of work thinking about that in the context of state-owned enterprises and national oil companies, which we don’t talk about enough.
But they’re a really, really big part of the problem we’re talking about. We tend to focus more on these very well-known private sector companies or financial institutions in places like New York.
So there—Bloomberg Philanthropies has done a huge amount in this space. I think there’s some really good educational programs with some universities and business schools that have done a lot in the ESG space. But I think it’s a need, to be frank. I mean, the fact that you’re asking the question and I’m pointing to a few examples, but not a huge number, and it is something that universities need to educate themselves about but then is an opportunity for us to educate others. Maybe a revenue one, too, with executive education or something.
But there’s a lot of companies and financial institutions that want to understand this better. I worry that while there’s a huge growing focus on climate, which is a good thing, in the financial community, the phrase ESG kind of means so many different things right now.
It’s this alphabet soup of regulations and standards and disclosure requirements, and some may make a difference and some may not and it’s hard to figure out which ones matter, and for people who want to do the responsible thing what does that really mean.
That’s an area where research is needed. I mean, that’s a role for what we do every day to think about if the SEC is going to regulate what makes a difference and what doesn’t, if you’re going to create green bonds. If you’re going to call everything green in the finance community, what’s real and what’s not? What moves the needle? What doesn’t? What are the returns for greener portfolios? How is that affecting the cost of capital for clean energy versus dirty energy? You know, on and on. I think those are important research questions for us to take on and then it’s our job to help educate others as well.
FASKIANOS: Great. So the next question I’m going to take from—oh, OK. Good. Maya Copeland (sp) has written her question. She’s a political science major at Delaware State University.
Do you believe developed nations like the U.S. have done a lot in reference to climate change or mostly talk? If you believe nations like the U.S. have dropped the ball in this aspect, what do you think it would take to get those powerhouses serious about environmental change?
BORDOFF: I think advanced economies have done—many have done a lot. I mean, the European Union has taken climate seriously and has reduced emissions and has pretty strong measures in place with a carbon market, for example, with a pretty high carbon price right now.
The politics of this issue are not quite as favorable in the U.S., but the U.S. has seen emissions decline more than most over the last decade and a half, in part because of policy measures that have, you know, advanced renewable energy and brought the cost of that down as well as cheaper natural gas displacing coal for a while.
But at a broader level, you know, have we done enough? The answer is no one’s done enough—(laughs)—which is why emissions are still going up every single year. So that—so the answer is no, we haven’t done enough. Almost no country has done enough at home to be on a trajectory for net zero 2050.
You saw the announcements from countries like India saying, we’ll get to net zero by 2070, and, you know, people said, oh, well, that’s terrible. They’re not saying 2050. And implicit in that is sort of saying, well, if you want to get global to net zero by 2050 we’re not all going to move at the same speed, right.
Some countries have advanced with the benefit of hydrocarbons since the Industrial Age and some haven’t. So, presumably, the pathways are going to look different, right. And, you know, that’s not always how countries in the advanced—in the developing—in the developed world talk about it. The commitment from the Biden administration is net zero by 2050.
So I would say there’s been—there are some models to point to of countries that have taken this issue seriously but we’re not doing enough and partly because the political will is not there and partly—I come back to what I said before—this problem is harder than people realize.
So you say which countries are doing enough, like, point to some models, right, and somebody might point to Norway, which, you know, the share of new vehicles sold that are electric in Norway went from zero to, I think, it’s 70 percent now. I mean, that’s amazing. Seventy percent of new car sales are electric. And if you go back to the start of that trajectory, about a decade or decade and a half, oil demand is unchanged in Norway.
So we can talk about why that is and it’s because a lot—as I said earlier, a lot of oil is used for things other than cars, and it’s increased for trucks and planes and petrochemicals. It takes time for the vehicle fleet to turn over. So when you start selling a bunch of electric cars, you know, average car is on the road for fifteen years so it takes a while before that—the vehicle stock turns over.
So I saw that kind of mapped out on a chart recently, just two lines—one is electric vehicle sales going straight up and then the other is oil demand in a flat line. It’s a reminder of how unforgiving the math of decarbonization is. The math of climate is really unforgiving, like, you know, the kind of harmful impacts we’re going to see with even 1.5 degrees warming.
But the math of energy and decarbonization is really unforgiving, too. It’s—and we just need to be honest with ourselves about what it takes to get where we need to go. Because I think it’s good to have optimism and ambition, but I worry there should be optimism but not happy talk. We should recognize that there’s a lot of work to do and let’s get to work doing it.
FASKIANOS: Great. So there are several questions in the chat about China. I’m going to start off with Andrew Campbell, who’s a student at George Mason University. Is LNG—liquefied natural gas—a bridge toward renewable energy still being considered? If not, how are India and China’s expected growth and increase in coal use going to be addressed?
And then there are a couple of other comments or questions about China. You know, what’s your take on China as the biggest emitter and return somewhat to coal? Can we actually even make stated and adequate new goals? And, you know, given the relationship between U.S. and China, which is contentious, you know, what is the cooperation going to be between U.S. and China on climate?
So there’s a lot packed in there, but I know you can address it all. (Laughs.)
BORDOFF: Yeah. I think the China question is really hard, as I said earlier, this kind of, like, competition and cooperation and we’re going to try to do both, and I think there was a hope early on—Secretary Kerry said it—that climate could be segmented from the broader challenges in the U.S.-China relationship, and I think that has proven harder to do than people had hoped, in part, because, you know, you need both parties to want to do that.
I think China has signaled it’s not necessarily willing to segment cooperation on climate from lots of other issues. And then these things bleed together where, you know, there’s measures being taken in Washington to restrict imports of solar panels from China, that there were concerns that were made with—in ways that have human rights abuses associated with them with forced labor or maybe have unfair trade practices in terms of subsidies.
China is—you know, the leadership in China takes climate seriously. This is a country that recognizes, I think, climate change is real and that needs to be addressed. They have a set of national interests that matter a lot, obviously, to them in terms of economic growth, and the pathway to get there is challenging.
So it’s a country that’s growing clean energy incredibly quickly, as we’re seeing right now, in part because there’s a(n) energy crunch throughout Europe and Asia. They are ramping up the use of coal quite a bit again, but also taking some pretty strong measures to advance clean energy and, over time, hopefully, move in a lower carbon direction for reasons both about concerns over climate but also local air pollution, which is much, much worse in many parts of China than it is here and that’s a huge source of concern for the public there.
So when it comes to things like coal they need to figure out how to address those air pollution problems. And then for reasons of economic competition, like I mentioned a minute ago. I mean, China dominates the global market for refining and processing of critical minerals for solar panels, and there are economic and national competitiveness and strategic reasons to do that. So all of those things motivate them to move in the direction of clean energy, but they need to be moving faster to phase down hydrocarbon energy for sure.
And then you ask a really hard question about—not hard, but one of the most contentious questions is about the role of natural gas in the transition, and we can have a whole separate session about that. I think there is a view of many in the climate community and many in developing countries—in developed countries that there’s not space left in the carbon budget for natural gas, and you saw the Biden administration recently declare through the Treasury Department that, except in very rare cases of the poorest of the poor like Sierra Leone or something, they would not finance natural gas projects through the multilateral development banks.
The vice president of Nigeria, I think, responded—speaking of CFR—in Foreign Affairs by writing that this was not fair and you need to think about a viable pathway for a country like Nigeria to develop and it just—it doesn’t work to get there that fast. There has to be a bridge.
The role of gas looks very different in different parts of the world. It looks different in the U.S. than it does in an emerging or a developing economy. It looks different in the power sector, where there are a lot more alternatives like renewables than it does in heavy industry or how we heat our homes. It looks different for, say, in the Global South, where you’re talking about people who are still using coal and charcoal and dung for cooking to think about solutions like liquefied petroleum gas.
So all of those things are true, but we need to think about gas also with the carbon budget in mind. I mean, the math is just the math. (Laughs.) If you’re going to build any gas infrastructure and not have it blow through the carbon budget, it’s going to have to be retired before the end of its normal economic life and you need to think about how that might look in different parts of the world.
So you need to be fair to people, to allow them to grow, but also recognize that the math of carbon, you know, is what it is.
FASKIANOS: Great. I just want to credit those last—the China questions came from Lada Kochtcheeva at North Carolina State University and Joan Kaufman, who’s director of Schwarzman Scholars based in China.
We are really at the end of our time—we started a couple minutes late—and I just wanted to go back to—there are students on the call who are following with a professor on the webinar who wanted you just to comment on blue hydrogen, whether or not it is contributing or helping to reduce greenhouse gases.
BORDOFF: I think the answer is it can. You just need to make sure that it actually does. So the question of—and by blue hydrogen we mean, you know, using gas with carbon capture to create hydrogen. It needs to have very low methane leakage rates. It needs to have very high capture rates, and we know that is technically possible. It doesn’t mean it will be done that way.
So if people are going to pursue blue hydrogen as part of the solution in the—particularly in the near term, you need to make sure that it’s meeting those standards. I think in the long run my guess and, I think, most guesses would be that green hydrogen is going to make more sense. It’s going to be cheaper. The cost is going to come down.
And so if we have a significant part of the energy sector that is hydrogen and ammonia in, say, 2050, more of that’s going to be green than blue. But there can be a role for blue if you make sure it’s done the right way. You just have to actually make sure it’s done the right way.
FASKIANOS: Great. And, Jason, we are out of time, but I wanted to give you one last, you know, one-minute or thirty seconds, whatever you want, just to say some parting words on your work at the center or, you know, to leave the group with what they can do, again. So—
BORDOFF: Well, I would just say thanks for the chance to be with you all and for the work that you’re doing every day. You know, I think Glasgow was a moment when the world came together to elevate ambition and roll up our sleeves and say this is—this is the decisive decade. Like, we’ll know ten years from now—(laughs)—if we got anywhere close to making it or not.
And so it’s time for everyone to kind of roll up their sleeves and say, what can we do? We’re doing that, I think, at Columbia with the creation of this new climate school. We do that every day at the Center on Global Energy Policy. And so just in all of your institutions, you know, what does that mean for you?
What does it mean for the institution? What does that mean for your own research and time and how you allocate it? How do we step up and say, what can we do in the biggest and boldest way we can? Because we need—we’re creating a climate school because I think the view is—you know, a hundred years ago there were no schools of public health and now it’s how would you deal with a pandemic without a school of public health?
So I think our view is decades from now we’ll look back and wonder how we ever thought it was possible to handle a problem as complex and urgent as climate change without universities devoting their greatest kind of resource to them.
And the measure of success for universities has to be research and new knowledge creation. It has to be education. It has to be serving our own communities. For us, it’s, you know, the community here in New York, Harlem. But also are we focusing the extraordinary resources and capacity and expertise of these great institutions to solve humanity’s greatest problems? That has to be a motivating force, too, for much of—maybe not all of but a lot of what universities do.
So I’d just ask all of us to go back and think about how we can do that in our own work every day. and we have to do it through partnerships. I think universities don’t work together as well as they need to. But this is only going to work if we work together.
FASKIANOS: Great way to end.
Thank you very much, Jason Bordoff. We really appreciate it. We’ll have to look for your article in Foreign Affairs magazine, which is published by CFR. So, we are excited that you continue to contribute to the magazine.
You can follow Jason Bordoff on Twitter at @JasonBordoff. Very easy to remember. Our final academic webinar of the semester will be on Wednesday, December 1, at 1:00 p.m. (ET). Michelle Gavin, who is CFR’s Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies, will talk about African politics and security issues.
So in the meantime, follow us at @CFR_Academic. Come to CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues, and we look forward to continuing the conversation with you.
BORDOFF: Thank you.