Climate Change

Our Way of Life Depends on Building a New, Just Energy System

May 5, 2022  • Jason Bordoff

Jason Bordoff is ​a co-founding Dean of the Columbia Climate School, founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy, and a Professor of Professional Practice in International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He agreed to answer some of our questions before taking the stage at Aspen Ideas: Climate.

Why do you focus on the intersection between economics, energy, national security, and the environment? How are these connected?

If you track the growth of human society, it is a story about energy. Every expansion of wealth has been accompanied—and driven—by an expansion of energy use. The society we’ve constructed and the comfort we enjoy today are built on our use of the earth’s energy resources. The problem is that we’ve built this energy system in an unsustainable way. We know that the combustion of fossil fuels—to power our electricity, heat our buildings, and run our cars—is driving greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere up to dangerous levels, and if we continue to do so, we face a dire scenario. At the same time, our reliance on a globally-interconnected energy system means that events around the world that disrupt the market for energy threaten our livelihoods and therefore our national security.

Building an energy system that balances economic, national security, and environmental needs is an extraordinarily complex task, but it’s absolutely vital to get it right because our way of life depends on it. Policymakers need fact-based, unbiased guidance on how to build this system. That is why I study this subject, and that is why I founded Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy and am now working with colleagues to build the nation’s first Climate School. The events of the past few months have only reinforced how important this undertaking is.

How are you training future climate leaders to bridge the gap between academic research and policy so they can appeal to broader audiences?

My favorite thing about being a part of the Columbia community is that I get to interact with brilliant and inspiring students. Columbia is a global leader in climate education, across many different fields, including engineering, social justice, energy policy, and business.

As soon as I depart Aspen Ideas: Climate, I’ll return to New York to attend—in my capacity as co-founding dean—the commencement ceremony of the Climate School’s first class of graduates, a phenomenal group of students who will go on to shape how our society deals with the climate crisis. Meanwhile, over at the Center on Global Energy Policy, student research assistants are working with our scholars to publish reports and studies on a variety of energy and climate issues, even as we host regular roundtables and public events to encourage greater engagement and understanding. And this year, CGEP will launch its Global Energy Fellows program, through which a highly qualified group of graduate students will be given opportunities to expand their professional network and build careers in energy.

In each of these programs, we expose students to a variety of viewpoints and subject areas with the understanding that a holistic view is vital to untangling the complex energy challenges that lie ahead. I consider it my great privilege to facilitate this dialogue between the climate leaders of today and the climate leaders of tomorrow.

What are some of the climate impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Russia’s war with Ukraine has had a devastating impact on countless lives throughout the region. And with no end in sight, it’s impossible to tell what the full impact will be. What I do know is that we need the right policies in place to meet the energy needs of today without derailing our climate goals for the future. I think it is more likely than not that we’ll look back on this crisis as actually accelerating a clean energy transition. At its most basic level, this conflict underscores the need to accelerate the energy transition; as long as economies are dependent on fossil fuels, they cannot be energy secure. Already, we are seeing governments stepping up their renewable energy ambitions to prevent future vulnerability.

The Russia/Ukraine conflict has shrunk the global supply of oil and driven up oil and gas prices to eye-popping levels. Responding to this energy crisis and rapidly decarbonizing the economy presents an extraordinarily complicated balancing act. In my view, the success of the energy transition will hinge on the ability of governments and producers to guarantee the security of supply today, which means ensuring that consumers have enough oil and gas to meet their needs. The trick will be making sure that these actions don’t “lock in” fossil fuel use for years into the future.

Historically, when climate and affordability have come into conflict, climate has lost out. I worry that high energy prices might dampen enthusiasm for decarbonization, so it is important that governments take the current affordability crisis seriously.

Recently, you wrote about the tension between energy reliability/affordability and climate ambition. How is this currently playing out, and what can global leaders do to rein in the demand for oil and gas during this crisis and beyond?

In the long term, the need for sustainability and the need for security overlap. A decarbonized energy system relies less on fossil fuels and therefore is less vulnerable to market volatility and manipulation as we are seeing today. So the current energy crisis only underscores the need to accelerate the clean energy transition.

Unfortunately, we are a long way from decarbonizing our energy system. As long as demand for fossil fuels stays where it is, the short-term response to a supply crunch like today’s is to find other fossil fuels to fill the gap. Without a steady supply of Russian oil and gas, many economies are turning to other countries to step up their oil and gas production, or even turning to coal instead. This is harmful to the climate if it persists in the long term.

The livelihoods of people around the world depend on a reliable supply of fossil fuels today, but it’s vital that this supply comes with a clear exit route, one that retires fossil fuel infrastructure before the end of its useful lifetime, and one that provides clear policy signals to reduce demand for these fuels in the long term. As the IPCC’s latest report pointed out, there is no time to waste.

What is needed to put the world on a fair and just path to climate action?

Justice needs to be at the heart of the energy transition. There are at least five dimensions to ensuring a just transition. First, the wealthiest countries are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, yet the impacts of climate change will be felt disproportionately by those in parts of the world with the fewest resources to cope with them—this means dealing with adaptation, in addition to mitigation, and ensuring developed nations help developing nations with the costs of coping with and curbing climate change. Second, developing countries need greater access to energy to grow their economies. Third, the benefits of the energy transition—including new jobs and economic opportunities—must be shared fairly, with a particular focus on the communities that are bearing the brunt of the impacts of climate change and the pollution from the hydrocarbon economy. Fourth, governments need to support the communities who rely on the fossil fuel economy for their livelihoods, ensuring that they are not unfairly penalized for their role in supporting our energy system. And lastly, climate action needs to be designed in ways to avoid disproportionately burdening those least able to afford those costs—for example, a carbon tax can be regressive unless the revenues from it are used to offset those regressive impacts.

Basic decency demands adhering to these principles of a just transition. But they are also a key component of the energy transition’s political economy. Thus, without a commitment to justice, there is no energy transition.

The views and analysis expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Aspen Institute.

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