Welcome to the world’s first unofficial Climate Change Week. The People’s Climate March on September 21 was the biggest climate protest on the planet and the largest social demonstration of the decade, with hundreds of thousands of people (400,000 in New York City alone) taking to the streets in more than 100 counties. On September 22, tens of thousands continued the movement in NYC with Flood Wall Street, staging a mass sit-in and march in the city’s Financial District, and more than 120 heads of state gathered in New York at the U.N. headquarters for climate talks. All of which begs the question: Now that we’re all finally talking about climate change, what should be actually be doing about it?
Cathy Zoi may know better than anyone. A consulting professor at Stanford University, Zoi served as Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) at the U.S. Department of Energy in the Obama administration, and was Chief of Staff in the White House Office on Environmental Policy in the Clinton-Gore administration. She’s also has also served as a manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where she pioneered the Energy Star Program.
“I’m more optimistic than usual that we’re going to come to an international agreement on climate change,” Zoi says. “Partly because the technology solutions already exist, we can spread the use of them. And partly because almost everybody is feeling palatably that things are changing in the environment.”
Here, Zoi breaks down 10 things the UN Climate Summit needs to focus on:
1. Get off coal for good. Forty percent of our emissions come from burning coal to make electricity. No more coal plants should be built anywhere on earth. This doesn’t mean depriving the developing world of electricity, rather starting them on renewables from the get-go. Existing coal plants should be replaced, worldwide, with solar or wind.
2. Hurry up. The transition has already begun. In places like the U.S. and China, more renewable energy plants are being built than coal plants. But that transition needs to be accelerated, and happen everywhere. We have the technology now to make a huge difference, but taking decades to deploy it will be futile.
3. Build fewer power plants period. Even the renewables. The ultimate goal is to consume less energy as a society by investing in energy efficient technology and lifestyle. As individuals, we can promote the rise of the sharing economy – things like Uber and Airbnb.
4. Upgrade. We have the technology that both improves quality of of life and reduces emissions. Right now. It’s a matter of using it. Look at computers. A giant noisy desktop used to consume 300 watts. Now, most people use a sleek portable laptop, at about 10 watts. Energy Star air conditioners use three times less energy than old models. LED light bulbs use 10 to 20 percent less energy than incandescents.
5. Eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels. There’s antiquated laws that still exist, like giving corporations tax breaks for exploring new places to find oil. There are also 40-year-old safety regulations that need to go, like those that tie automobile manufacturers to using steel instead of new materials like carbon fiber, which are just as safe (and produce lower emissions) but are excluded solely because they did not exist at the time the regulation was written.
6. Create public transportation in urban centers. Include rapid transit in all city planning. In places where it’s too cost prohibitive, look at alternatives like creating a bus system with continuous bus lanes (which has been very effective in Colombia).
7. Build energy efficient. The technology exists to create super energy efficient homes and buildings. But most people are going to need a push from government ordinances to go that route. Leave it the policy wonks to figure out whether that incentive will be a stick or a carrot, but for now there needs to be consensus on green building as the only route going forward, and a plan to retrofit all existing construction.
8. Modernize agriculture. Why do it the old way, why fertilize and water en masse when there are now easy soil tests that can determine exactly how much of each to use? Adopting new practices like precision agriculture will reduce the amount of chemical and water inputs by double digits, resulting in fewer emissions, and like icing on the cake, improve crop yield.
9. Get everyone to the table. Climate change is a global challenge and it needs to be addressed globally. The U.S., India, China, Russia, the EU, Brazil, Mexico, Rwanda, Indonesia— everyone needs to be part of the conversation. And it’s not all about restrictions. There are economic growth opportunities for every country.
10. Bust the myths. Technology is moving so quickly that former renewable energy red flags are now obsolete. So-called “variable” energy sources like solar can now be stored for use when the sun isn’t shining. Solar and wind are now cost competitive with coal in most places in the U.S., and sometimes it’s even cheaper to go solar. In many cases, being green no longer equates to making sacrifices.