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From China to the US, the Clean Revolution is underway

07 October 2011
From China to the US, the Clean Revolution is underway

By Jim Walker, International Programmes and Strategy Director, The Climate Group.

I’ve recently returned to China after a few weeks over the summer working on the US West Coast. I was pleased to be able to meet with a with a few of our friends, partners and stakeholders in California, including California EPA and Air Resources Board, Idealab, the C40, Stanford University, Warner Brothers, the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, Philips Lumileds and Bloomberg LLP.

I also participated in Accenture’s Global Energy Board meeting in San Francisco, chaired by Lord Browne of Madingley (MD of Riverstone and also chair of our International Leadership Council) which provided some very interesting insights into current thinking in the energy sector internationally. The meeting was conducted under the Chatham House Rule but the general discussion addressed the huge uncertainties faced by companies in the sector in a world ‘awash with change’ from the Arab Spring to shale gas to the rise of China and social media.

My visit coincided with the start-up of the US election machine, beginning the long haul to the 2012 elections with some early campaigning from prospective candidates.

The next two years could see leadership changes in some of the world’s most powerful economies – not only the potential for a new Administration in the US (if not a new President), but also a transition in leadership in China and elections in India. It’s fair to say that whist it is still early days in the US, climate change as an issue is not faring well in the debate – with challenging candidates seemingly competing to dismiss the scientific basis for action, and using some negative and emotive language around the community of scientists and activists engaged in research and campaigning for change.

Working for a bipartisan organisation that strives to remain politically neutral in the US and internationally, I strongly believe that the basis for action on climate transcends politics. So it is surprising and a little disheartening to see how far the issue has become politicised in the US. I recently read a very good analysis of our global slide from faith in ‘the science’ around issues towards constructing arguments to fit our predetermined world views – a trend incidentally that is not the preserve of either end of the political spectrum.

The community of leaders that we work with around the world similarly spans the political divide – I recall when we first established The Climate Group, the US states whose progressive policies we sought to highlight and support were almost exclusively under Republican leadership (including one of today’s Presidential hopefuls) at a time when a Republican White House was widely seen as the primary blocker of progress internationally. Through getting to know some of the leaders in our wider network I’ve seen as many right-of-centre arguments as left-of-centre in justifying action and change. In particular the potential of technology to improve our energy systems continues to unlock a wave of innovation and leadership mainly driven by the pursuit of new business models, profits and economic growth. Some of this is driven by climate-friendly policy, some by good old resource efficiency and cost savings.

In San Jose I was presented by Philips Lumileds with an example of the first commercially available 60W-replacement LED light bulb, winner the DoE L-Prize. It uses just 12.5 watts for the same amount of light and, back home in Beijing, it is also the first LED light bulb in the Walker household that my wife has not made a bee-line to remove as soon as she noticed it… the light it produces is actually very good quality and warm.

Later in the evening after the Philips visit, Amy Olay and her colleagues from San Jose’s city government demonstrated the city’s smart LED streetlighting system by dimming the lights around us from a laptop in the car – the system can save up to 80% in energy costs. A few days later in Pasadena, Bill Gross at Idealab talked me through Energy Cache an extremely innovative approach to energy storage that struck me as a stroke of genius and which could significantly improve the economics of renewable energy.

Perhaps these examples are just a fit for our world view that leading the Clean Revolution is good for today’s economy as well as tomorrows, but the world view is at least a bipartisan one, and these are examples of US companies, municipalities and entrepreneurs that are taking the lead on creating a more energy efficient economy.

Some may be driven by the fate of polar bears, but I suspect many more are driven by economic opportunity, and I believe this is a good thing. In today’s world ‘awash with change’ the rise of a low carbon economy is a change to embrace.

Back here in China we are awaiting the release in September of the government’s detailed plans for its seven strategic emerging industries (SEIs) under the 12th Five Year Plan, the lion’s share of which consists of clean technology plays.

Like the West Coast venture capitalists, China is betting on low carbon technology to drive economic growth and development alongside resource efficiency and environmental improvement – the race is on.


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