At a well-attended 2013 MIT Energy Conference, an expert panel explored the “big picture” questions surrounding climate change providing updated insights on pros and cons of available actions.

While Sandy has made clear the critical state of the environment – more so than 4 years worth of IPCC reports, notes Dr. Kerry Emanuel (Professor of Atmospheric Science, MIT) – international and domestic efforts to enact policies against climate change continue to stall.

At a federal level, major regulation is not foreseeable in the near future because it will not receive bipartisan support. However, according to Dr. Joseph Aldy (Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School), a carbon tax policy project is more possible now than ever before. Dr. Gilbert Metcalf (MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change) supported this view noting that fiscal problems faced by the US are driving government to seriously consider a carbon tax that will generate around $100 billion in revenue.

Most of the regulation within the next few years will probably be generated at a state level, where the new EPA director, Gina McCarthy, will closely work with states to create new approaches to tackle the climate change problem. As underlined by Obama during his 2013 State of the Union address, this effort will include setting standards for new emission sources and, at the same time, regulating existing ones.

Dr. Richard Lester (Founding Director & Faculty Co-Chair of the MIT Industrial Performance Center) thinks US also needs to focus on innovation and rethink its innovation system. Ultimately, this system needs to be decentralized because US regions have different energy priorities and it is demonstrated that innovation works better in local and regional hubs. Lester thinks that the US should focus on improvements in the energy efficiency of buildings first, because the technology exists and is ready for commercialization.

While we need to reduce CO2 emissions as soon as we can, we also need to invest in natural gas in the short run. In the past few years, natural gas contributed to the reduction in the share of coal in US energy generation from 50% to 38%. However, natural gas is not the long-term solution. If we were to displace all coal plants with natural gas – and we are far from doing so – the effect will be reducing US CO2 emissions by only 20%. In order to achieve 80% reduction by 2050, we will have to rely on renewable technologies within the next 3-4 decades.
State and federal initiatives are important but they cannot solve the global issue of climate change alone. International effort is critical and, as Dr. Metcalf pointed out, the US needs to support and lead the international cooperation on this topic.

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