Navigating Climate Change: Tools for the UN Summit and Beyond

by Gordy Slack

Outcomes from the Copenhagen conference in June will help focus the next U.N. Climate Change Conference.

In December 2009, delegates from around the world will convene in Copenhagen, Denmark, for the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference. At this conference, governments will agree on the treaty that will take the place of the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2013. That new treaty will set the regulatory course for addressing global carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases through the next decade.

While there is broad consensus that carbon emissions must be drastically reduced to avert substantial climate change, there is still no consensus among scientists or policy makers about how best to effect those reductions. Even if there is a will to improve the atmosphere at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, it will still be necessary to forge a way. Helping to navigate this task was the goal at this summer’s conference in Copenhagen, Innovation in Climate and Energy, which was co-sponsored by the Copenhagen Climate Council and CITRIS. Top representatives from governments, corporations, and universities discussed ideas and explored innovative models that would accelerate the promotion of carbon-reducing technologies and help ensure a successful transition to a low-carbon, low-fossil-fuel world economy.

The Copenhagen conference was unique in that it focused on the relationships among public policy, the role of business, and technological means that could be used to fight global warming.

“Broadly speaking, the mission of the conference was to explore the ways that technology, business, and public policy can work together to help reduce carbon emissions as much and as quickly as possible while doing the least harm to the world’s economies. That task taps directly into CITRIS’s greatest strengths,” notes CITRIS Acting Director Paul Wright.

A key objective of the conference was to facilitate networking among people from a wide range of academic, industrial, and governmental backgrounds. This was accomplished by bringing together policymakers to the brainstorming table with executives from large and innovative energy companies such as Vestas, Duke Energy, DONG Energy, and Novozymes, and with leading scientists, such as Professors Paul Wright, Laura Tyson, Daniel Kammen, and Steve Chu. That networking effort will continue in a new forum that represents one of the meeting’s biggest accomplishments.

“The question is, how can we develop and adopt policies to enable the productive interplay between technologies, policy, and business?” asks John Zysman, a UC Berkeley professor of political science and an organizer and presenter at the conference.

In an effort to create models of the relationships in business, policy, and technology to help guide innovative and rational decision making at the 2009 UN Summit, CITRIS and Denmark have launched a global collaboration to develop a suite of tools known as the Climate Navigator.

The Climate Navigator will have several interrelated parts and functions, according to Gary Baldwin, who will be leading this project as part of his role as Director of Special Projects at CITRIS. It will serve as an Internet-based community forum for researchers, policy makers, and business leaders, allowing politicians and others to direct questions to experts or open on-line discussions about specific proposals. It will also be a digital library, organizing the growing base of knowledge about how business models and policy can influence technology. In addition, the Navigator will employ new technology itself, including computer modeling applications developed by Dan Kammen’s lab at Berkeley.

The Navigator will give people a place where they can try out new ideas toward addressing climate change, both in text such as white papers and blogs, and in modeling tools such as the one developed by Dan Kammen’s group that models different biofuel scenarios, allowing users to see the carbon-emissions ramifications of various policy and investment strategies.

“The central challenge of the 21st century will be to replace the vast fossil-fuel infrastructure with a new economy based on low-carbon technologies,” says Kammen, Director of the UC Berkeley Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab. “The issue on the table is the need to finance clean energy research programs and to build markets where low-carbon technologies are rewarded.”

“We have some models that allow users to set greenhouse gas limits. The programs tell them what will happen to the planet given various numbers,” continues Kammen. “They can then work backwards to calculate what the US or China, or both, would have to do, or have the ability to do, to avert catastrophe.”

Kammen’s lab is now building a model that would allow users to look at how different carbon prices would impact the expected build-out of transmission lines. A similar model could compare the carbon advantages of investing in innovations in battery technology to investing the same amount in solar energy’s cost efficiency, for example.

A model Kammen built two years ago became the basis of California’s low-carbon fuel standards. “It had a direct route into policy and is a very widely used model,” says Kammen.

While new energy sources like biofuels, the development of wind, solar, and other renewables, more efficient engines and building practices, smart buildings, and other CITRIS-style innovations will be key to any long-term solution, Baldwin says, “technology alone cannot solve the climate crisis. Nor can governments alone, through public policy, solve the problem. And while good business practices will influence emissions levels, their full impact will only be felt if coordinated with technological innovation and policy.”