The Tipping Point for Climate Action: Revolutionary Optimism?

Sue Hall
A #cleanenergyu conversation with Mark Kenber, CEO Climate Group.

For 25 years, Mark Kenber, CEO at the Climate Group, has been pursuing his own clean energy vision: to engage business and policy leaders to commit to the clean energy revolution. And, as the international Paris Summit approaches this fall, Mark believes we face a promising tipping point where real results to address climate change are now attainable.

Really, you ask? Even in the US?? Yes, according to Mark …

Intrigued to learn why? Skeptical and want to challenge his optimism? Wondering what actions you can take to deliver on such a 2025 clean energy vision?

Read on …

And join Mark during our #cleanenergyu live tweetathon on April 22 starting 12 ET / 9 PT to ask him your own questions by posting them now with hashtag #cleanenergyu/@MarkKenber …

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Sue Hall: So why is CG driving the clean energy revolution – and why should students and others act now?

Mark Kenber: Next year world leaders will meet in Paris to agree a global climate deal. The UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) 2015 Conference of the Parties has enormous potential to deliver a charter for cohesive and collaborative action on climate change, but it is contingent on the political will of government leaders. Without precedent at the domestic level, the scope of a bold global deal is dramatically reduced.

So now is the time for students, campuses and clean energy leaders to make the case for bold action to drive the Paris accord. Evidence that the low-carbon economy is booming is all around us. Wind and solar energy are the fastest growing renewable electricity technologies worldwide, while green bonds issuance soared to almost $14 billion in 2013.

When one in every 142 US jobs last year was in the solar industry and the UK’s green markets are growing faster than the rest of its economy, there can be little doubting the economic power of this alternative clean energy revolution.

SH: What’s the significance of the Paris climate summit in the fall?

MK: In December, heads of state and government will gather in Paris for the global COP21 climate talks to attempt to hammer the final details on a new and binding international climate treaty.

So this year things are different: the world is watching.

Over the last 20 years … we’ve made an incredible amount of progress, but we haven’t made the game-changing transformation we all know is needed.

This year can – and must – be the tipping point for climate action.

SH: So do we rely on government leaders to act for us?

MK: No. It isn’t just governments who must act now. The Paris meeting itself is a signal – to the business community and the public alike – that there is no turning back.

So innovative business leaders can also turn climate change into a valuable opportunity, by supporting a successful outcome at COP21.

There has never been a better time to talk about the benefits of what I call the “clean industrial revolution.” The proof is in the markets

SH: So what’s industry leaders’ business case? What’s the market proof?

MK: So here’s their solid business case.

Today the global low carbon economy is worth an impressive US$5 trillion. And it grew on average 11.8% per year in 2007-2010, compared to only 2.4% for the global economy as a whole. Clean technology is commercially viable and ready for scale-up.

“Today the global low carbon economy is worth an impressive US$5 trillion. Clean technology is commercially viable and ready for scale-up.”

Forward-looking businesses are already seeing the benefits of their low carbon investments. A 27% internal rate of return on average to be precise, according to a recent We Mean Business report.

Inevitably, economies that moved early are now leading the way. China is the world’s biggest investor in clean energy, spending a record US$89.5 billion last year to account for almost 29% of the world’s total renewables investment.

Then there’s the extraordinary global job creation. The International Renewable Energy Agency reports close to 1 million renewable jobs were created in 2013 alone, led by the solar industry. What’s more, the UN says the low carbon economy could bring 60 million more jobs over next 20 years.

Research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows global investment in clean energy last year was U.S. $254 billionEven though this is still only 15 percent of overall energy supply investment, renewables are expected to represent two-thirds of power investment by 2030.

SH: Is there a similarly compelling case even here in the US?

MK: Well, a White House report published in July estimated that delaying policy action on climate for a decade would increase total mitigation costs by approximately 40 percent, with no action at all risking ‘substantial economic damage.’

The New Climate Economy report reveals that if we continue on our current path, in the US alone, US$66-106 billion worth of coastal property will likely be below sea level by 2050.

But its authors also explain that boosting investment in energy efficiency, smart infrastructure and clean technologies in cities would not only lower pollution, but save more than US$3 trillion in investment costs.

“Boosting investment in energy efficiency, smart infrastructure and clean technologies in cities would not only lower pollution, but save more than US$3 trillion in investment costs.”

To put it simply, there are three choices: do nothing and face economic and environmental meltdown; wait and perhaps prevent dangerous climate change but at a significant cost; or act now and create a high-value sustainable economy. Put like that, there’s obviously only one sensible option.

SH: You sound optimistic, Mark — and have often stated recently that we’re now facing a “tipping point” towards real action. Why?

MK: Well, beyond the business case which is compelling in its own right, let’s look at what we learned in New York City last fall throughout Climate Week NYC: we witnessed a series of converging tipping points: the public pressure, the acceptance of the science and an increasing recognition that both the economics and the technology are in place to embrace a clean revolution. This makes it now inevitable that we take things forward.

Let me share just a few examples of these converging tipping points from many sectors:

  • 1,000 businesses and investors signaled their support for pricing carbon in a declaration published by the world bank.
  • A coalition of institutional investors committed to de-carbonizing US$100 billion by December 2015 and to disclose the carbon footprint of at least US$500 billion in investments.
  • 10 multinationals committed to 100% renewable power, as part of a new Climate Group campaign.
  • A new Global Mayors Compact, representing over 2,000 cities pledged new commitments on climate action supported by new funding from public and private sources.
  • A new Compact of States and Regions committed to provide an annual account of their climate commitments and progress.

So what really made a difference for me during the UN Climate Week 2014 were the concrete plans brought to the table by the corporate sector and sub-national governments with the money to invest behind them. Finally, we are seeing shift here from words to action.

SH: Are you even optimistic about US clean energy leadership? We don’t have such a progressive track record here, surely?

MK: Well, even in the US there’s reasons to be optimistic: for example, last June the Obama Administration set new regulations limiting carbon emissions from US power plants, which is central to Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Power plants currently account for about 40% of America’s total carbon emissions. 

The announcement from America shows the kind of leadership and commitment needed to secure a global climate agreement in Paris.

As Gina McCarthy said in the announcement, we can turn risks of climate change into business opportunity, even in the US! The performance of clean energy and technology stocks demonstrates again and again that there is a strong economic case for climate action. The average return on investment from clean energy technology is over 30% within a 3-year period. One of her predecessors once said, it’s the economy, stupid. This is Obama stating, it’s the low carbon economy, stupid.

“The performance of clean energy and technology stocks demonstrates again and again that there is a strong economic case for climate action.”

And he’s right: working with American leaders in government, business and society, the Climate Group has demonstrated the undeniable business case for an American Clean Revolution that boosts growth and creates jobs.

By the Obama Administration placing climate change front and center today it could be the butterfly moment that sparks a chain of events that ripples across the globe and builds momentum for the international climate negotiations, the US–China bilateral relationship on climate talks which could deliver a global agreement.

SH: So what can universities and students contribute?

MK: Universities in the US have already been leading in some pretty spectacular ways. Take a look at their results: the top 15% of ACUPCC reporting campuses have achieved more than a 5% annual average absolute reduction in energy-based GHG emissions. This is the demanding performance threshold under which they can qualify for carbon credit capital – to help accelerate that performance still further. Chevy’s campuses are proof that this level of leadership is not only possible but pays handsome returns.

So these results are stunning. Just compare them to the leadership targets that President Obama just announced for the US and for his government agencies, as “openers” for the Paris Summit: government agencies, if they deliver on Obama’s goals, will have averaged 2.35% annual reductions during 2008/25. The broader US economy wide goals are just 1.35% annual average reductions.

So campuses and students should not only applaud their recent actions and lead towards even more challenging 2025 clean energy visions – they should raise the profile of their leadership far more publicly! Campuses are havens of clean energy innovation and leadership in almost every major city in the US. Their leadership can be used to spur others within their community towards similarly challenging goals to up the pace of innovation in US so that its performance can match those which campuses have already proved is possible!

SH: So what’s your personal bottom line?

MK: My bottom line?

There is really is no excuse for inaction now.

Because action saves money – and inaction costs money. A lot of money. 

We know the technology is proven, reliable and profitable. We also know that if we don’t act now the costs will be unbearable. The stage is set, we just need to act…

Cue Paris.

Cue industry’s clean energy investment, innovation …

And cue leadership from campuses across the world which have been the quiet, persistent revolutionaries that, in the US, have really been leading the charge!

Let’s lead the clean revolution – this year – together.

Feeling more inspired or optimistic now?
Interested to learn more?

Join Mark Kenber live in conversation during our tweetathon at #cleanenergyu, 12 ET 9 PT on April 22 to ask him your questions!   He’ll respond with his characteristic verve and thoughtfulness. Cross link your #cleanenergyu post to his @MarkKenber twitter handle to get into conversation with him! Questions/comments/reflections are all welcome now through April 22 …


Looking forward to hearing from you again at #cleanenergyu!

Sue Hall
CEO, Climate Neutral Business Network