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Q&A: COP25: Where do we go from here? (Includes interview)

With catastrophic climate change on the horizon, more than 60 countries have set goals to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, but the world’s largest emitters have remained relatively quiet.

To change this, representatives from 200-plus countries met in Madrid for the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference (also known as COP25) in hopes of reaching key agreements on international climate action. In order to limit the rising of the global temperature, worldwide emissions need to fall 50 percent by 2030. In order to reach this target, COP25 will need to focus on strengthening greenhouse gas reduction commitments from countries that are behind the target.

Shuli Goodman, Executive Director of LF Energy talks to Digital Journal about how while setting international climate targets is a necessary start, based on history these goals tend to be ineffective.

Digital Journal: How realistic are the international climate change targets?

Shuli Goodman: These international climate change targets are an obvious challenge, but I have faith that we will innovate and succeed.

Previously, it was a funny thing to say that humans would put a man on the moon, yet they did it. How realistic was it that we would create the internet or a global telecommunications network? Think about the world you have on your phone. All of these things were stretch goals. But we did it and meeting these international climate targets is what we now have to do.

DJ: Why are global climate change meetings rarely effective?

Goodman: For climate action there needs to be a strong alignment between policy and markets. And, we have not been able collectively at a planetary level to develop the will to respond. In general, humans are not very good at responding to imminent danger. Change is the tiger in the bushes, And, until the tiger jumps out, we aren’t very likely to respond as quickly as possible.

In my PhD, I asked the question, “why aren’t we changing?” and “why are we unwilling to jump into the unknown unless the house is on fire?” Uncertainty and the unknown is very challenging to us as a species. So in some ways, we are up against the way we are wired.

Also, as long as it is possible for oil and gas companies to continue to make profits, they are going to do everything they possibly can to mitigate the actions of response, even if there is a collective will.

Global climate change meetings are rarely effective because there’s no cost for failing to act. If these companies fail to meet the goals set in climate change meetings, what’s the consequence? Until they come up with a market-based plan around carbon, I think it is going to be very difficult. But I think we are on the cusp of it. There has to be a market solution and companies need to figure out how to hold others accountable.

DJ: Will COP25 have a significant impact?

Goodman: I believe that COP25 is the beginning of a transition that is starting to happen between arguing “do we need to do something” and now opening up a new decade where we have 10 years to essentially begin to decrease carbon emissions by 7.5% every single year. People are moving from “Do we have to do something?” to “What are we going to do?” That’s how COP25 will be seen as in the future when we look back, that it was the watershed where we actually started thinking about what solutions we are actually putting in place.

DJ: What are the main risks to the planet from climate change? What happens if countries fail to act?

Goodman: The biggest challenge climate change poses is the threat of extinction. We’ve reached the limits of being able to ignore the threats to our society and the size of the planet is going to shrink if we fail to act. Physically, the circumference isn’t going to change. But habitable places will shrink – the world will get much smaller, if you will. It will lead to tremendous instability of governments and economies as well as mass starvation. That will put hundreds of millions of people in the path of a massive migration which is impossible. It will lead to utter chaos for billions of people. That’s what we have to consider.

DJ: What do governments need to change?

Goodman: Governments need to set policy so that citizens and companies respond. Ideally, there should be a financial mechanism such as carbon taxes. I think that should affect businesses and individuals so they can see the impact that their consumption patterns are making on the environment. Depending on where you live, that’s more or less problematic. If you live in the U.S., it’s incredibly problematic. If you live in sub-Saharan Africa, your carbon impact is probably not high. If you live in Denmark, you are probably moving in the right direction but it’s still painful.

DJ: How about businesses, what should they be doing?

Goodman: This market mechanism can really drive what people will do. Electricity is typically a monopoly, but I do think it is possible to reach 100% decarbonization of electricity and 100% decarbonization of transportation. But, part of what makes that probable is the degree to which businesses and individuals respond. The most painful position that individuals have is the lack of feeling that what we do actually makes an impact. But, I do believe that individual actions do become and contribute to global solutions. I’ve seen this in my lifetime, when groups of people have been able to effectively change something that have fundamentally changed people’s lives, like gay marriage which was far out of reach 30 years ago. Individuals can make a difference.

DJ: What should system operators be doing?

Goodman: Stop trying to go it alone! We have to solve these problems together. Because system operators represent a natural monopoly, they have been regulated and dominated by the incumbent hardware vendors like GE, Siemens, Schneider Electric, and ABB. The vendors have a vested interest in blocking interoperability, and keeping software proprietary. They like their 50 year contracts! Of course they do, but it is suffocating innovation, slowing scaling, and there is not a single example of an industry transformation where proprietary has been left standing. If you speak to nearly any system operator, they will all share how they feel held hostage by their vendors. The only way to shift this is if end-users – utilities and commercial and industrial customers finally say “no”.

Join LF Energy. There is a place at the table for all of you. We can do this, together.

DJ: And what, if anything, can individuals do?

Goodman: Individuals need to vote with their dollars. Every dollar we spend is for that future. So, if you fundamentally shift where you are voting with your dollars every day, then you are positively affecting climate change.

Do you buy meat? Dairy? Do you buy organic? Do you buy local? Or do you own a gas guzzling car? Do you insulate your house or use renewable energy from your utility? All those choices and dollars are critical.

The most powerful leverage points individuals have is what they do with their dollars. That power gets translated to businesses who believe they can do whatever they want to do. The more active individuals are in communicating, the more effective change is. It’s kind of a no-brainer. You have to vote with your dollars.

That’s why I started LF Energy. Part of making climate harming companies irrelevant is making renewable energy and resources so cheap that no one wants to spend money fracking and mining for coal. It all comes down to economics. If we can provide renewable energy for net-zero cost, then it’s an obvious choice, individuals and businesses will make the transition.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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