Leading voices in research, business, government, and the media convened in October 2022 at the Net-Zero Economy Summit, hosted by Resources for the Future to mark the organization’s 70th-anniversary year. The daylong event explored the challenges, opportunities, and transformative decisionmaking involved in creating a net-zero economy.
In kicking off the Net-Zero Economy Summit, White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi laid out the climate challenge facing the United States: “We are in a moment of crisis—and in a moment of tremendous opportunity.” The Inflation Reduction Act had passed just a few months earlier, providing $369 billion in public spending for clean energy and climate measures—the most significant climate action in US history.
Zaidi addressed an audience of leaders in government, research, business, and the media in the Skylight Pavilion at the REACH, a spacious expansion of the Kennedy Center alongside the Potomac River in Washington, DC. Zaidi closed his keynote address with a prompt toward implementation: “The question is: What do we do with the rest of this decisive decade?”
The Net-Zero Economy Summit, a conference hosted by Resources for the Future (RFF) in October 2022 to celebrate the organization’s 70th anniversary and convene top minds in the energy and environmental space, provided a forum to discuss the decisions we can make moving forward that justly and equitably confront climate risks and build resilience. More than 300 attendees gathered at the REACH to join the discussion.
“Conversations at the summit will examine both the opportunities and the challenges of delivering a net-zero economy,” said Richard G. Newell, RFF president and CEO, in his welcome remarks. “We’ll tap some of the best thinkers in the United States and internationally to uncover the system-wide transformations that are needed to build a net-zero economy through solutions that are effective, efficient, and equitable.”
The result was a composite sketch of the transition to clean energy—the road to a net-zero economy, in which the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by humans into the atmosphere equals the emissions captured from the atmosphere. The summit featured one-on-one conversations with leaders in the energy transition, along with panel discussions that got into the nitty-gritty of decarbonization, such as grid permitting reform, international carbon tariffs, and climate change communication.
Highlighting Insights from the Net-Zero Economy Summit
The Justice Forum amphitheater down the hall from the Skylight Pavilion housed the other half of the day’s programming. Geraldine Richmond, Under Secretary for Science and Innovation at the US Department of Energy, explained during a panel discussion on industry and fuels why a continual process of innovation is “the seed corn to the decarbonization effort.”
“It’s not like a relay race, where you do the discovery science, then you pass it on to the application, and then you pass it on to deployment,” said Richmond. “There are always going to be problems along that string. If you don’t keep a cycle of life going, so that you’ve got teams on one end that can come back to the beginning, so that you can go even further, it’s not going to work.”
Another key element of decarbonization, the integration of renewable energy sources and increased transmission capacity into US electricity markets, was a focus of the panel on electric power. “Offshore wind is probably one of the biggest places that the US Northeast really, really needs to benefit from not only cohesive policy, but also leadership by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and by the US Department of Energy,” said Doreen Harris, president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, “not only to advance the analysis and market rules to deploy these technologies, but frankly to help our regional transmission organizations come together in interregional planning.”
Where Government Fits In
Government decisionmakers at the summit stressed a desire to enable entrepreneurs to help spearhead innovation and collaborate on the broad deployment of nascent, high-potential technologies. In conversation with RFF Board of Directors Chair Susan F. Tierney, entrepreneur Jigar Shah, who directs the Loan Programs Office at the US Department of Energy, said that the federal government can nurture the seeds of innovation by getting capital into the right hands.
“The goal for us is to pay attention where commercial banks are not paying attention,” said Shah. “We’re supposed to be a bridge to the commercial banks … If [an applicant] makes it through our office, they’re more likely to get picked up by a bank for their next project.”
State and local governments, though unable to bankroll quite so many projects, often are responsible for implementing federal funding. Coordination among levels of government on the distribution of funding has become especially relevant, following the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, noted Samantha Medlock, senior counsel for the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis in the US House of Representatives. “We need to be working with state and local leaders to ensure that their land use decisionmaking and their building codes and standards are steering federal infrastructure money to the right places.”
Sea level rise and more frequent extreme weather events, among other climate impacts, additionally could strain the ability of government to prepare and react if clear direction is absent. “There is a need for a national climate adaptation and resilience strategy,” said Medlock during the panel discussion on climate risks and resilience. “We see progress at the federal, state, local, and sector level, but what we’re lacking is a unity of purpose that a national strategy would provide.”
Collaboration among states on regulations for various clean energy technologies also would smooth the road to net zero. David Strickland, a vice president at General Motors, highlighted the importance of harmonious regulation during the panel discussion on transportation.
“It can’t be different sets of rules for different agencies, in different states, all at the same time,” said Strickland. “Investment [in electric vehicles] has to be distributed effectively and thoughtfully. If you’re trying to play in different parts of the world or in the United States, it’s more resource intensive to get there.”
Community-level and Private-sector Engagement
The theme of engagement and buy-in came up in many of the panel discussions. Speakers generally agreed that a top-down approach to decarbonization is more likely to encounter resistance from participants, whether individuals, communities, industries, state governments, or local governments.
In the panel discussion on land use, forestry, and agriculture, American Forest Foundation CEO Rita Hite noted that the nature of forest ownership demands buy-in on a granular scale: “Forests are a huge piece of the current carbon sink, and we have the potential to double that. But we have to focus on inclusion: we have to engage the small forest landowners, who make up a majority of US forests.”
The theme of engagement involved a focus on environmental justice. For many communities in the United States, especially lower-income communities and communities of color, energy policy and local energy industries historically have delivered pollution and negative health outcomes. “There needs to be positive interaction to meet the concerns of the environmental justice community,” said RFF Senior Fellow Alan Krupnick about possible opposition to the expansion of hydrogen and carbon dioxide pipeline networks in the United States. The US Department of Energy has begun walking the talk on this front by requiring funding applicants from the agency’s hydrogen fuel initiative to include a community engagement plan in their applications, said Krupnick during the panel on industry and fuels.
Many of the speakers accepted that opposition to specific climate policies and programs is inherent to the decarbonization process. Effective communication could soften some of that opposition. During the climate risks and resilience panel, Brookings Institution Fellow Carlos Martín responded to a question from an audience member about how to discuss climate change: “Some of the most effective climate adaptation and resilience communication strategies have focused on health … I think we’ll see a lot more of that strategy in [the United States] moving forward.”
Concluding the Summit on a High Note
For the full day of the summit, panelists and speakers discussed policies, technologies, and partnerships—the necessary components of achieving net zero. The day’s final speaker, poet Harold Green III, was contemplative; he considered the immediate climate challenge in the context of the relationship between humans and nature.
At the day’s end, Tierney and Newell toasted RFF’s 70th anniversary and the collaboration that took place at and in the lead-up to the summit. For RFF scholars, the toast and the reception that followed the summit were opportunities to both celebrate decades of good work and reflect on continuing with their mission, which Newell summed up in his opening remarks: “We need the economy to work for the climate.”