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Political climate stands in way of environmental change

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MAY 26, 2017

Policy and innovation are not always perfectly cohesive concepts.

The often arduous drill of getting a law enacted can be antithetical to the urgency of an issue. What happens when time is of the essence?

Campus researchers in climate and energy policy have attempted to answer that very question by turning to state-led initiatives, innovative interpretations of existing laws and creative technologies.

“Obama tried (to make the federal government a leader in climate change), but it was never sustainable,” said Ethan Elkind, director of the Climate Program at the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at UC Berkeley School of Law.

According to Elkind, the lack of “political support nationwide” is nothing new. Instead, the shift only spotlights a dynamic that was “always in place — that the federal government is never going to be a leader in climate change.”

Instead of relying on aggressive national policy, Elkind said he looks to the states for policy innovation. States have the market power and ability to introduce aggressive legislation to an extent the federal government never could, according to Elkind.

“It’s no question right now that it’s on states to lead the issue,” Elkind said, adding California leads the pack in this regard.

Romany Webb, a climate law fellow at Columbia Law School Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and previously a researcher at the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute, said Congress is now more divided than ever on the issue of climate change, but there is more activity at the state and local levels.

The previous presidential administration faced a different dilemma — in 2014, Webb authored a study, with then-Berkeley Law researcher Steven Weissman, titled “Addressing Climate Change Without Legislation.” In its second volume, the study drew on scientific data to examine how underserved areas of government like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, could utilize existing policy to make effective change, according to Webb.

Weissman said the FERC, which regulates wholesale electricity prices, “has a limited but very potent role to play.”

Webb and Weissman advocated for FERC to implement a “carbon adder,” a cost added  so that renewable energy generators are more able to compete with fossil fuel generators.

“We argued it cannot be considered just and reasonable for a generator to ignore the costs they are making by polluting against companies that are not creating those costs,” Weissman said.

These suggestions seem less likely to be implemented in the present day’s political climate, according to Webb and Weissman. FERC, which is led by up to five presidentially-appointed commissioners, currently has three open positions.

Within states like California, subsidies for solar photovoltaic panels could create a competitive edge for new sustainable energy sources.

The Center of Carbon Removal, an Oakland-based nonprofit, addresses other issues, such as pre-existing pollution. The Center was incubated at Berkeley’s Energy and Climate Institute, according to policy analyst Rory Jacobson, and launched in March 2015.

The center aims to connect scientists, policy makers and academics working on the issue of reducing “negative emissions” — those emissions already existing in the atmosphere.

According to Jacobson, there are many startups competing to sequester and reuse existing carbon through cutting edge technologies, such as saline reservoirs and synthetic trees.

“Negative emission technologies are not partisan necessarily, and so a lot of them can be deployed and researched during this administration even with a lack of climate policy,” Jacobson said.

Corrections: A previous version of this article misspelled Rory Jacobson's name.
Contact Audrey McNamara at [email protected].

MAY 26, 2017