Turning Energy Promises into Action

Secretary Chu Brings Together 20 Nations for Clean Energy Ministerial

Getting started with implementing clean energy solutions is just as important as setting national carbon emission targets, write Julian L. Wong and Arpita Bhattacharyya.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, pictured here, will host the first Clean Energy Ministerial in Washington, DC starting July 19. (AP/Cliff Owen)
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, pictured here, will host the first Clean Energy Ministerial in Washington, DC starting July 19. (AP/Cliff Owen)

Energy ministers and stakeholders from over 20 countries will come together in Washington next week for the first-ever Clean Energy Ministerial. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu is hosting the event with the objective of helping major emitters develop more concrete global energy policies that they can bring to the next round of U.N. climate negotiations.

The ministerial takes place at a critical time in the United States. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is expected to introduce new energy and climate legislation later this month in the final days before recess and going into election season. Yet consensus among the international community is that a binding global deal on combating climate change is at least another year and a half away. The success of clean energy initiatives in individual countries, including the United States, depends on the global development and exchange of clean energy technology. And the ministerial should help reframe the highly contentious global negotiations in terms of tangible, job-creating clean energy solutions rather than allocating blame and focusing on the burden of implementation.

The Clean Energy Ministerial functions as the next key step in the global cooperation started by the Major Economies Forum, a partnership of the 17 largest economies, which emit over three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gases. The Bush administration started the MEF to give the appearance of leadership when it was a less-than-willing participant in the international climate negotiations. But the forum has evolved under the Obama administration into a significant vehicle for negotiating climate and clean energy action among the world’s highest emitters.

The MEF created the Global Partnership in March 2009, which is dedicated to developing global clean energy strategies. The partnership published its Technology Action Plans in December 2009 that include energy sector overviews and best practices for 10 technologies including advanced vehicles, smart grids, and solar energy. The ministerial in Washington will start the important conversation about how to begin implementing these plans.

The U.N. conferences have tended to focus on top-down national emission reduction targets and global systems of financing and technology sharing. They have also become extremely politicized, as global equity issues take center stage with developing nations refusing limits to their economic development that developed nations never faced. The conferences are overwhelmingly framed in the context of the cost of tackling climate change. They focus less on clean energy solutions that have numerous benefits, besides the obvious environmental gains, such as the creation of sustainable and highly skilled jobs.

A report put out by the Global Climate Network identifies as many as 19.5 million energy-related job opportunities that policies to reduce carbon emissions could create between now and 2020. The ministerial’s focused discussion on actions that major emitters need to take should help build international momentum from the bottom-up through the technology action plans, paving the way for more productive and effective negotiations at the U.N. climate conferences that include all 194 countries.

Each year of delay in coming to a climate negotiation adds an additional $500 billion to the investment needed in the energy sector between 2010 and 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. The U.N. climate conferences have failed after two decades of negotiation to deliver the kind of global treaty that will ignite a clean energy revolution. The MEF and now the Clean Energy Ministerial serve as a necessary supplement to the U.N. climate change conferences.

The major obstacle facing the Clean Energy Ministerial will be investment and financing for the international global energy structure in light of the dire state of public finances, especially in EU nations and the United States. The MEF plan offers best-case scenarios that would allow all countries to globally reduce their emissions, but it does not offer guidance on how to finance such plans. Global energy development among the major economies will require public-private partnerships based on supportive government policy and incentive structures to mobilize private sector investment.

An important parallel effort is the G-20’s commitment to phase out subsidies on fossil fuels over the next decade to help level the playing field for clean energy solutions to compete economically with cheap, dirty energy sources. The ministerial, which will include many of the same countries, will be the venue to develop effective and concrete steps toward the MEF’s technology action plans. The ultimate goal will be to help participating countries bring a developed and successful set of energy policies to the U.N. climate negotiations in Cancun and beyond.

A successful meeting next week will be one where the leaders commit to making the Clean Energy Ministerial an ongoing forum that meets on a semiregular basis to build momentum on global clean energy deployment. Success will also depend on whether the leaders are able to develop effective strategies that consist of concrete and actionable next steps for the next one to three years. The ministerial’s legacy will be judged not by the number of pages that it uses to describe each technology action plan, but on its ability to deliver plans to bring politically substantial, carbon-reducing projects to scale.

The Clean Energy Ministerial, after two decades of international discussion and negotiation on climate change, can be the new venue that brings together the world’s emitters to concretely and resolutely move forward into a global clean energy economy.

Julian L. Wong is a Senior Policy Analyst and Arpita Bhattacharyya is an intern at the Center for American Progress.

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Arpita Bhattacharyya

Policy Analyst