Jennifer Wilcox is Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management at the U.S. Department of Energy, an office she reshaped from the former Office of Fossil Energy. The shift represented a re-alignment of the Executive Branch toward working with the energy industry on carbon reduction.
What is the single most important action you think the public, or a specific company or government, needs to take in the next year to advance the climate agenda?
Our changing climate is a result of our relationship with energy. We need to move away from singular solutions that restrain a broadened portfolio of energy resources. For society to universally meet affordable energy needs, we should engage with communities and regions in ways that are specific to their needs. Each region has a unique portfolio of energy resources and necessities. Each requires a uniquely designed set of solutions that will minimize environmental and climate impacts of energy resource production and use, and provide financial structure to enable implementation.
Recent U.S. legislation, the bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, are enabling the demonstrations of first-of-a-kind clean energy technologies. Since many of the leading energy companies are international, for those that are investing in the U.S. as a result of these coupled legislations, it will be vital that they bring any lessons learned regarding energy and climate improvements to other nations. By investing in costly first-of-a-kind clean energy demonstrations and from learning by doing, these technologies will ultimately move down the cost curve, make clean energy approaches affordable outside of the U.S., and enable other nations to reach their required climate goals. There should be increased focus on the Global South—where climate impacts are being felt first and worst.
What is a climate technology that isn’t getting the attention or funding it deserves?
Climate technologies have focused on methods to decarbonize our energy resources and, more recently, on carbon dioxide removal (CDR) to remove the accumulated CO2 out of the atmosphere. These are exciting, but there are several other technologies that could play an important role in reducing the impacts of our changing climate. For example, afforestation within or nearby cities, which could lead to cooling within cities in addition to re-introducing biodiversity.
A second example is employing building materials for roads, roofing, and other construction surfaces that lock away carbon, have an increased reflectivity, and induce cooling rather than the warming effect of conventional materials. These alternative materials exist, and need to be employed at wide scale, globally.
A third example is using alkalinity such as magnesium to locally offset ocean acidification. Given the scale of the ocean, it will be difficult to broadly change the ocean’s chemistry in the short-term through the addition of alkaline materials, but regional impacts could help preserve fish populations in addition to coral at risk of extinction in localized areas. Although the primary focus of these technologies would be to assist in adaptation to our changing climate, additionally each would help to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
What’s the most important climate legislation that could pass in the next year?
The National Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategy Act of 2022. This bipartisan bill would require the U.S. President to identify a Chief Resilience Officer who would direct a government-wide effort to build resilience to the vulnerabilities of climate change. The Officer would work within a team to submit a strategy to the U.S. President and Congress that would outline how to address vulnerabilities to our changing climate. There’s very little attention given to approaches that would mitigate the impacts of increased warming—sea-level rise, increased storm events, and ocean acidification—and enable adaptation to our changing climate. Embedded in this legislation should be incentivized nature-based approaches, of which there are many, including durable carbon dioxide removal coupled with rigorous monitoring, reporting, and verification.
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