Bringing Climate Solutions to Scale

Ken Alex believes in promoting all ideas to tackle climate chaos that have potential, without being blind to the reality.

He isn’t usually the most outspoken person in the room, but Ken Alex has wielded more influence in the California and US climate policy world than one would give him credit for.

A California native, Alex has spent 36 years in state service, starting with the environmental arm of the California State Attorney General’s office in 1985, just a few years after graduating from Harvard Law. He worked there in various capacities for 25 years and “learned pretty quickly that environmental law can be many, many things.” (“In 1985 we were not talking about climate change.”) From 2000 to 2006, he led the AG’s energy task force, investigating companies involved in market manipulations that led to California’s 2000-2001 energy crisis. He then spent eight years in more key roles: as a senior policy advisor to Governor Jerry Brown, director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, and chair of the Strategic Growth Council, focusing on climate, environment, and land use issues. Often the peacemaker, Alex has helped resolve several thorny negotiations, including over plans to restore the polluted Salton Sea and the siting of large-scale solar projects. He also pushed for regulating the use of toxic flame retardants in furniture and worked on subnational climate action plans between California and states in other countries.

Alex hadn’t initially set out to be an environmental lawyer, but over years of working on these issues, he has become “more and more aware of how central they were to the kind of society we build and how we govern ourselves or fail to govern.” Currently the director of Project Climate at University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment, he is focusing his efforts on moving promising climate solutions more quickly to policy and scale. I spoke with Alex, who is also an Earth Island board member, about his work, his thoughts on the Biden administration’s position on climate, and achievable climate goals. An excerpt.

You’ve said before that we do have a lot of solutions to climate change but we are not moving quickly enough in terms of scaling them up. Could you elaborate?

That is absolutely true. There actually are lots of climate solutions, but we need to reduce emissions to neutral or negative by 2050 or sooner. That’s a short time to change a single economy the size of California or the US, let alone the entire world economy. So we have to really accelerate solutions that can make a significant difference, and it’s a challenge. There are multiple reasons that things go slowly. Some of them are political. Some are technical. Some are financial.

Can you give some examples of these reasons?

There’s a really significant growing interest in this solution called regenerative agriculture, which increases the sequestration of carbon in soil and in agricultural land. Among [this solution’s] technical problems are things like: How do you measure the sequestration in soil where there’s a significant variability over a small area? And if you can’t measure it, how do you establish that it’s happening and therefore create a financial mechanism to compensate the farmers who are using these techniques? So that’s a combination of technical and financial roadblocks, conceivably, in just one solution.

And in terms of political roadblocks?

Politics, I would say, is the bigger problem. (Laughs) The technical folks, the engineers, and the people coming up with these ideas are amazing. If there’s a technical problem, it is usually solvable. The politics, however, can be really, really difficult.

The bigger set of political issues, of course, is that you have an entire political party in the United States that continues to deny the science of climate change. And even when they quietly acknowledge it, they are still not willing to do anything because they see a political expediency and ability to retain power, unfortunately, by opposing anything that would be significant change. That’s a really big problem.

But there are smaller sets of problems that are often equally challenging. For example: How do you get electric charging infrastructure in disadvantaged communities? Well, part of that is cost. But part of it is things like the siting of charging stations, which often faces local opposition because it reduces parking spaces and may increase traffic at the location.

How hopeful are you about the Biden administration when it comes to implementing climate solutions?

So far, I’m quite encouraged by the statements made by Biden and his folks. I appreciate the fact that the Biden administration is saying: Look, everything that we do from whatever agency of the federal government needs to consider climate. I’m kind of amazed. Long overdue, but still, what an incredible change!

There are a lot of things that can be done and are already being done in the executive branch, at the State Department, at the Transportation Department, at the Department of Agriculture, in places in government that you don’t always think about, like the Securities Exchange Commission. So it is really encouraging at that level.

“It’s going to be very hard to get anything that is specifically a climate piece of legislation through legislature.”

In terms of Congress, the fact that the Democrats have a one-seat majority will be particularly helpful in things like an infrastructure spending bill. Having Democrats in charge will allow them to push for infrastructure projects that prioritize resilience and climate. Having said that, it’s going to be very hard to get anything that is specifically a climate piece of legislation through legislature. The 50th vote for Democrats is Senator [Joe] Manchin of West Virginia, which, of course, is a coal state. And there are other conservative Democrats in the Senate. So I don’t expect any earth-shattering legislation. But in things like the budget and infrastructure, and around the edges of certain bills I think we will see some positives.

There has been some criticism from some quarters of the environmental movement about the Biden team’s approach to climate, which they say relies too much on market-based solutions.

On one hand, I think the criticism is appropriate and useful to a certain point. But I also think that the idea that we should ignore market-based solutions is short sighted. You have to be careful with market-based solutions. They can create inequities and have results that are not necessarily what we want. But I would say that’s true of almost every potential solution, including solutions that are not market based.

At the end of the day, we need some trillions of dollars of investment and that is not going to come from the government. It has to come from the market. We cannot ignore that. We have to do what we need to do with our eyes open, and we need to make corrections where inequities and problems are generated, but we have to work on multiple solutions.

Most environmentalists might seem pessimistic about what has been achieved in the past decade, but I’ve found that you seem quite optimistic.

There are some reasons to have optimism, but I’m not a Pollyanna. I do think we’re in serious trouble. But here’s my optimistic pitch, which I do like to present so that, you know, it’s not constantly doom and gloom.

“If you go back in time 15 years, and think about where we were, not just on climate but things technologically related to it, we’ve made, really, quite a lot of progress.”

If you go back in time 15 years, and think about where we were, not just on climate but things technologically related to it, we’ve made, really, quite a lot of progress. Back then, the solar industry had barely begun. There were almost no large solar installations. Wind was a bit ahead but not on a large scale, and offshore wind was not even in the offing. There was no Tesla. There was really no electric vehicle industry. Those two things, transportation and power, are 70 percent of emissions. And in battery storage, which has the potential to impact multiple industries — buildings, transportation, electricity — we’ve made a significant amount of progress. If you can replicate that in the next 15 years, there are some inflections that are possible.

California now says no sale of combustion engine vehicles after 2035. That’s 15 years! That strikes me as not only doable, but it probably can happen faster. There are possibilities that can create dramatic change in a fairly short time frame. That’s why I’m focused on trying to promote as many possible ideas that have that potential, without being blind to the reality.

So would you say the biggest gains have been made in the energy and transportation sector?

There are gains in a lot of other sectors as well that may not be as well known or publicized. But I focus on energy and transportation because those are the places where we really need to do a lot more.

I can make the other side of the argument as well. China’s continuing to do more coal fired power plants, and they’re doing that not just in China, but in the rest of the world through some of their investments. Banks continue to invest in fossil fuel. We continue to drill in places we shouldn’t be drilling. You just can’t make the progress we need without changing those things.

So while there’s plenty to be optimistic about there, there’s maybe more to be pessimistic about.

Project Climate, which you run, is pushing for regulations that would require corporations to identify their risks related to climate change. Could you talk a little bit about that?

One of the things that really helps the public and would help market-based solutions is to ensure that companies are transparent and forthcoming about the climate risks for their own assets, and the implications for their shareholders and for the market. As we switch quickly to non-combustion engines, oil companies could potentially strand billions of dollars of assets because we won’t need oil. That has not been transparently divulged to shareholders in the public.

Fossil fuel companies are an obvious [target of this proposed regulation]. But it’s much more important that companies that may not be so obvious are also much more transparent. For example, companies that ship all their products from China, they have very significant climate vulnerabilities. Same with companies whose manufacturing locations are at risk for sea level rise. There are a lot of risks that are not being divulged [by companies], which if made public, I think would force a different set of investment decisions.

“There are a lot of risks that are not being divulged [by companies], which if made public, I think would force a different set of investment decisions.”

This is a place where the Biden administration can do something fairly quickly through the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which sets rules for what is considered a material set of information that companies need to divulge. There needs to be legislation, and it’s something that we’re looking at with my project. At the federal level, the SEC can start that. But there needs to be a serious legislative effort at the state level as well. Two bills related to corporate disclosure of climate risk have already been introduced in California by senators Scott Weiner and Henry Stern.

Are there any other big issues and legislations you’re working on?

There’s the new law in California trying to move away from single use plastics, which is hugely important. Most people don’t realize that about 99 percent of plastic is made from fossil fuel. It doesn’t need to be. Plastic can be made from CO2. It can also be made from food waste and plants. It can be made to meet all the criteria for the plastics that we continue to use. Since it’s unlikely we’ll get rid of all plastics any time soon, we can at least source them from non-fossil fuel sources.

I’m interested in a legislative approach, based on California’s low-carbon fuel standards, that require an overall reduction to the greenhouse gas emission profile for fuels. I think you could use a similar approach to reduce the greenhouse gas profile of plastics.

At the international level, we’re working on a protocol to identify, contain, and reduce methane emissions based on California’s efforts to reduce methane emissions from three main sources — oil and gas operations (natural gas is mostly methane), agriculture (mostly from dairy), and landfills. California has been building rules to reduce emissions from all of those. This dovetails with something I helped get going with the Brown administration, which is setting up a network of low-orbit satellites that can detect point source emissions for methane. That is being done jointly by California, Planet Labs, Bloomberg Foundation, and some others. Those satellites should be hopefully in place in about a year.

In terms of international climate negotiations, what are the key things you think, globally, we should be focusing on?

None of this will be a surprise. Number one is, US, China, and India. They’re the three biggest [climate polluters] and they really need to step up. Number two, we’ve already talked about transportation and power, and I would add agriculture to that. Those are the areas where I think we can make significant progress. And then I would add methane, because it’s a short-lived climate pollutant. If we can take it out it actually gives us more time.

I come at this having worked for the State of California, so I see a lot of potential for [working with] subnational jurisdictions. There are states in India that, I think, would like to do more [than what the Indian government is doing]. So that’s one possible approach. Similarly, China’s going to be a tricky political problem for the Biden administration. They can’t simply say, Oh, we’re buddies with China. Having an entity like the Jerry Brown-led [California-China Climate] Institute may be a place where we can help. (Alex is an advisor at this Institute at UC Berkeley.) You know, we can do things, potentially, between California and China. We can show that there’s some things that work. We can provide space for dialogue that maybe does not exist at the presidential level.

I think states are often more nimble. It’s where the actual action takes place, where a lot of the focus on getting things initially to policy [stage] and then to scale happens. I want to continue to work in that space.

Of course, I see many roadblocks that have to be overcome. But, you know, that’s okay. When you identify [the obstacles], you can try to overcome them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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