Clean Energy’s Critical Role in Global Climate Action

Clean Energy Leadership Institute Fellows at the Global Climate Action Summit

Clean Energy Leadership Institute Fellows at the Global Climate Action Summit

By Taryn Akiyama

Last month on September 13-14, over 4,000 leaders in government, business, and civil society from around the world convened in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit to demonstrate how the tide has turned in the race against climate change, celebrate our climate achievements to date, and make bold commitments for the future.  

The Summit focused on how subnational actors – such as cities, states, businesses, and non-profit organizations – can take accelerated actions and pressure nations to make deeper commitments to the Paris Agreement and bend the curve of emissions by 2020, which the world’s top scientists predict will help prevent dangerous impacts of climate change.  

Central to achieving this goal is the energy transformation – a global shift toward clean and equitable energy and mobility systems. As one of the Summit’s five themes, the healthy energy systems session featured expert panelists discussing 100 percent renewable electricity, zero emission vehicles and infrastructure, and the next frontier in energy transitions: heavy industry and transport.

Helen Clarkson, the CEO of The Climate Group, commenced the session by saying, “The energy system is currently undergoing its most radical transformation in over two centuries as we start to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and move to a future that’s based on renewable energy, new storage technologies, electric mobility, and smart grids. But we know we have got to go farther, faster.” One way in which to go farther, faster is to find creative solutions and collaborate across sectors.

For example, one of the session’s key takeaways was the intersection between energy and public health. Dr. Aparna Bole at the UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital emphasized, “As a pediatrician, I understand the imperative to transform toward a clean energy future as essentially a public health imperative.” She explained why the health sector is uniquely positioned to lead on climate change: the health sector is a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, health organizations are essential for health care access and climate resilience, and health organizations have a moral platform and trusted voice.

Dr. Bole announced that 18 organizations have committed to 100 percent renewable energy – representing 10 countries, 1,200 hospitals and health centers, and 23 million annual patients – which will result in their facilities generating 3 billion annual kilowatt hours of renewable energy.

Another industry that is making surprising strides is the heavy transport sector, which has traditionally been more difficult to regulate, transform, and scale. Janet Lamkin, Regional President of United Airlines, declared, “United Airlines is the first U.S. airline to make a public commitment to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions: a 50 percent reduction by the year 2050. Achieving that goal would eliminate 21 million metric tons of CO2 in the atmosphere per year, or the equivalent of 4.5 million cars off the road. That’s all the cars in Los Angeles and New York City combined.”

She added the next day United would achieve another industry milestone and “operate the longest transatlantic biofuel flight to date,” from San Francisco to Zurich.

This stream of announcements created a groundswell of climate action. Atypical to most conferences, the Global Climate Action Summit prompted its attendees to make bold pledges across governments, businesses, and civil society including:

  • Almost 400 global companies, health care providers, cities, and states, which collectively total over $2.7 trillion, now have 100% renewable energy targets;

  • More than 60 state and city governments and multinational businesses pledged a 100% zero emission vehicle future;

  • 23 multinational companies representing more than $470 billion in revenue committed to accelerating the electric vehicle transition by 2030;

  • Over 3.5 million zero emission vehicle charging points will be installed by 2025.

But perhaps what was most energizing was to be surrounded by thousands of participants from a multitude of countries, sectors, and backgrounds, all committed to solving this imminent threat. More than 10 of our very own Clean Energy Leadership Institute (CELI) fellows were selected as youth delegates, whose achievements run the gamut – from leading on energy efficiency efforts across a school district in San Francisco to founding a training center for female solar engineers in Zanzibar.

With regard to her personal experience, Jess Lam, Program Manager of the Clean Power Program at ClimateWorks Foundation, shared, “Attending the Global Climate Action Summit with a CELI cohort was invaluable because I kept learning well after the speakers left the stage. Being able to process, analyze, and build upon the concepts presented throughout the Summit with a group of enthusiastic and talented, young clean energy leaders created a unique sense of camaraderie and strengthened my commitment to advancing innovative climate change solutions together.”

Reflecting about the importance of the Summit on a broader scale, Noelani Derrickson, Program Manager for Regulatory and Government Affairs at First Solar, expressed, “As a young clean energy professional, seeing California’s dedication, leadership, and ability to pull together unity at the Global Climate Action Summit despite federal division was inspiring and cemented my commitment to combating climate change. It confirmed the wave of support from global actors working to solve this challenge and the need to work collectively. Now it’s time for the ambitions and goals set at the Summit to trickle down to policy makers, entrepreneurs, and activists to keep up the momentum.”

 While the Global Climate Action Summit has ended, the implementation of the commitments made has only just begun. The Summit preceded an alarming special report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in which scientists heeded warnings that we are almost out of time to act on climate change. Striving toward limiting of global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius is possible “but doing so would require unprecedented changes” across energy, land, industry, buildings, transportation, and more.

So, in the spirit of CELI’s mission to cultivate the next generation of clean energy leaders, let’s think creatively, work collaboratively, act urgently – and let’s bridge the gap between clean energy and climate change.

About the Author

Taryn Akiyama is a CELI fellow from the fall 2017 cohort who specializes in global climate policy. She serves in California Governor Brown’s Office of Planning and Research, where she led on youth engagement under 30 and Climate Trailblazers for the Global Climate Action Summit.

Liz Dalton