Efficiency is still a huge untapped resource

Interview with Jason Bordoff


Transitioning to a lower-carbon energy system is a complex task. As the World Economic Forum highlighted in its latest report, the energy transition has slowed down globally, questioning the adequacy of the efforts currently in place to decarbonize and diversify the energy mix.


We asked Jason Bordoff, Professor of Professional Practice in International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and founding Director of SIPA's Center on Global Energy Policy, his opinion on this pessimistic outlook.





In a recent report on energy transition by the World Economic Forum, analysts highlight the fact that, despite the urgency of the climate change challenge, the energy transition has slowed down globally. Do you agree with this outlook?


The WEF report is pessimistic because the growth in clean energy is slowing a bit but it’s still a very large growth rate. I think the outlook for growth in the renewable energy and electric vehicles and clean energy vehicle is still very bright, but that doesn’t mean we will see a rapid transition away from hydrocarbons. While renewables are contributing to the global energy mix, oil, gas and coal are still growing as well.



It seems that one of the obstacles is that economic growth is tied to increased energy consumption. Do we need to increase our efforts to decouple economic consumption and growth?


I think our focus should be on the energy intensity of GDP growth, and on becoming more efficient per unit of GDP. We should also want to change the energy mix so that the carbon intensity of GDP growth falls even faster than the energy intensity of GDP growth. That has been happening for decades. Energy intensity has been declining for decades, it just needs to decline faster. But it is difficult to decouple them, because energy use is part of the economic activity.


Why do you think that electrification so critical to de-carbonization is still only about 19 percent of the total consumption of energy?


Energy efficiency is a huge untapped resource to reduce greenhouse gas emission, and we are not doing nearly enough of that. I think part of that is better awareness and information so consumers are part of the policy and that gives people the right economic incentive. Part of that is mandates and regulation for things like building efficiency or automotive fuel efficiency standards.


Looking forward it only seems natural that future investments in energy infrastructure should go into renewable energy infrastructure. Do you see this happening in the U.S. where I know there are plans to modernize the country’s infrastructure but so far they have failed to become reality?


It is; we just had the largest ever auction for offshore wind leases in the United States. People are building transmission lines and expanding renewable energy. It is not happening fast enough and that is partly a function of economics, partly a function of permitting challenges. A lot of these projects, offshore wind or transmission lines face local opposition. And of course, we are continuing to build out our oil and gas infrastructure as well because U.S. production is growing incredibly quickly, to the point where we are producing more natural gas and oil than we are consuming and we will need that infrastructure in order to get that supply to the global market.


I look at countries in Europe, like Sweden and Norway, who are leading the way. Is there something similar happening in the U.S.? Are there states that are leading the way in renewable energy policy?


I think that California is the furthest ahead and New York as well; so several states are moving forward with policies to support that through a combination of carbon pricing, standards and regulations, but California is the furthest ahead by far.


It seems geographically it has a lot to do with policy and politics?


Absolutely, the energy transition does not happen without policies, period!


When it comes to climate change, what is the impact in terms of infrastructure? It is likely we are going to face more severe weather patterns. So what should be looking into in terms of infrastructure in your view?


Even if we are successful, the IPC 1.5 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report reminded everyone that even if we were to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Centigrade which is almost impossible unfortunately, we are still going to see climate change impact in the form of sea levels rising, more severe storms and weather, so we need to provide good information about that and we need to go not for the world today but the world of the future. And that means building in a more resilient way. So adaptation is going to be an important part of climate policy moving forward and we need to give individuals and businesses the right information and incentives to make they are building the right infrastructure to be as resilient as possible.


 by Manuela Mirkos