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At The Atlantic Magazine‘s Green Intelligence forum, which has become an annual event in Washington, D.C., Carol Browner, who was very recently climate change “czarina” at the White House and once head of the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.); Jim Connaughton, Constellation Energy, and former head of the Council for Environmental Quality under President George W. Bush; David Hawkins, Natural Resources Defense Council; and Dave McCurdy, American Gas Association, all emphasized the need for a national renewable energy standard given no big climate change and energy legislation will be coming out of Congress in the next 18 months to 2 years. A new national standard, many said, could also help achieve many of the goals of the failed 2010 climate change and energy legislation. As Senator Amy Klobuchar noted in an earlier speech that day, Minnesota’s “aggressive” renewable energy standard (25 percent renewable energy by 2025) had led to skyrocketing growth in wind, solar, and biofuels in her state.

No Big Climate Change Legislation Coming Soon

Asked by Ed Luce, The Financial Times, how the debate in Washington could get steered back to climate change, the panelists punted a bit. Browner said “we could pass legislation, but not large legislation anytime soon.” She said there’s a set of tools available to the administration, including new rules and standards, which are now being used to ensure cars hit 54 mpg by 2015. Browner noted that 65 percent of total emissions in the U.S. can be dealt with through existing laws, regulations, and administrative tools.

For Connaughton, who is said to be Mitt Romney’s choice as the head of the E.P.A., there are already “six different types of regulatory programs” in the U.S., including the mandatory cap and trade program approved in California. Also, at the Federal level, the House and the most recent administrations, through their many attempts to pass major climate change legislation, have already laid an important “foundation.” This solid base has led to “10 billion tons in carbon reductions.” He said the foundation is now in place for moving many smaller pieces of legislation, like a national renewable energy standard, that would help with the climate.

NRDC’s David Hawkins thought the big climate change legislative failure in 2010 was due to the economy, the slogan that got associated with climate change – it’s “a jobs-killing energy tax,” and the growing belief that “this is not a problem that needs to be addressed.” He thinks these issues are just a “dam and not a permanent fixture in the U.S. political economy,” meaning all these obstacles can be overcome.   

According to Dave McCurdy, American Gas Association, which has been promoting fuel efficiency, there are “more opportunities on efficiency,” including fuel economy standards. He wants smarter incentives that can push firms to work with state governments and environmental groups, and said there needs to be a stronger emphasis on state action.

What Does Solyndra’s Failure Mean?

Will the failure of Solyndra, a major U.S. solar panel producer, which received nearly half a billion in recovery funds, do permanent damage to the case for investing in clean energy in the U.S.?, asked Luce. Browner said the U.S. has been making investments in energy and technology for more than 100 years, including long-term investments in the oil industry and nuclear power. “If we want a different future, we need to use the appropriate incentives.” She added that 100 years of pro-oil tax policies “have been enough.” Incentives, in the form of a national renewable energy standard, could lead to “huge investments” in cleaner energy. Connaughton basically argued that Solyndra was an “unfortunate, sad lesson” but it doesn’t change the overall program of government investment in clean energy.

For Hawkins, the government played its role. “Governments don’t give loan guarantees to companies that have no risk. If there was less risk, the private sector would do it.” He said Solyndra, which set its business model on rising prices for solar panels, was the “victim of progress in the solar industry.” Prices came down dramatically, which is good for the solar industry and consumers, but “bad for them.” McCurdy thought it was the “dynamic of the stimulus funds,” which had to “push lots of money out the door fast.” The result: some projects “fail, spectacularly.”

What Can Happen in the Near Term?

Connaughton says Congress was already questioning the value of big investments in clean energy before Solyndra failed. He wants mandates that are “performance-based,” meaning incentives that can enable the market’s competitive forces to do their stuff.

“Waxman-Markey (the 2010 comprehensive climate change and energy legislation) got too big, there were too many add-ons.” Interestingly, he added that cap and trade was ”originally a Republican idea,” but in this instance got swamped by excessive add-ons so the legislation lost its shape. He sees “phased-in standards” organized by sector as the way to go, then a process of “national simplication” to align the sector standards into a bigger picture.

He used a range of examples to show how “market structures have had impact on energy efficiency.” Browner seemed to agree in part, but added that what’s really key is ”incentives, investments, and creating demand so the private sector can make the changes needed. “

Hawkins reminded everyone that some Republicans are set on limiting the powers of the E.P.A. to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. “We can’t dismantle these tools that exist” while hoping to make progress through standards and other approaches.

Interestingly, none of the panelists mentioned two of the most important recent stories that should figure in this conversation. The world’s population recently hit 7 billion, which means a complete “rethink of climate approaches” is needed, saysNational Geographic. According to its Newswatch site, climate change, population, and food production are all deeply linked: “Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, famous for his book The Population Bomb, said people will have trouble feeding themselves as climate change worsens. But it’s a catch-22, he said, because we need to expand agriculture, but as it’s practiced today, it is also one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases.”

Also, according to The Guardian, World Energy Outlook 2011, a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, was very negative on the prospects of global energy system making the necessary changes to effectively combat climate change. The report said that ”the world is likely to build so many fossil-fuelled power stations, energy-guzzling factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that it will become impossible to hold global warming to safe levels, and the last chance of combating dangerous climate change will be ‘lost for ever.’”

Image credit: Biomass power plant, Cadillac, Michigan / We Are Michigan