Today’s guest is Dan Lashof, Director of World Resources Institute, United States. He coordinates WRI’s work in the United States across climate, energy, food, forests, water and the sustainable cities programs. We have a great discussion about WRI's work, how they are different, the thorny climate change problem and best ways to solve, and some of Dan's ideas on the most impactful levers we have and how to accelerate our progress. Enjoy the show!
Today’s guest is Dan Lashof, Director of World Resources Institute, United States.
He coordinates WRI’s work in the United States across climate, energy, food, forests, water and the sustainable cities programs. This includes overseeing the work of the U.S. climate team, which aims to catalyze and support climate action by states, cities, and businesses while laying the groundwork for federal action in the coming years.
Dan has been working to promote solutions to climate change for more than two decades. Before the World Resources Institute, Dan was the Chief Operating Officer of NextGen Policy Center and previously served as the Director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
His focus is developing federal and state regulations to place enforceable limits on carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants. He has participated in scientific assessments of global warming through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and has monitored international climate negotiations since their inception. He was a member of Governor McAuliffe’s Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission, and has testified at numerous Congressional and California legislative hearings.
Dan earned his Bachelor's degree in Physics and Mathematics at Harvard and his Doctorate from the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley.
Dan is married to Diane Regas and has three adult children. When not working Dan enjoys bicycling, hiking, eating, and cheering for the Golden State Warriors.
In today’s episode, we cover:
Links to topics discussed in this episode:
You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at firstname.lastname@example.org, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
Enjoy the show!
Jason Jacobs: Hello, everyone. This is Jason Jacobs, and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change, and try to figure out how people like you and I can help. Today's guest is Dan Lashof, director of World Resources Institute. Dan coordinates WRI's work in the United States across climate, energy, food, forest, water, and the Sustainable Cities program. Dan's been working to promote solutions to climate change for more than two decades. Before World Resources Institute, Dan was chief operating officer of NextGen Policy Center, and previously served as the director of the climate and clean air program at the Natural Resources Defense Counsel. Dan's focus is developing federal and state regulations to place enforceable limits on carbon dioxide, and other heat trapping pollutants. As someone who's been in the climate fight as long as Dan has, I really appreciate his perspective.
Jason Jacobs: We cover a lot in today's episode, including an overview of WRI and the work that they do, the four pillars, that in Dan's view, we should focus on to most effectively solve our decarbonization problem. We talk about how WRI is similar, and how it's different than the other large NGOs, some specific examples of programs that they've worked on recently, and how they measure success. And finally, my favorite part of the discussion is when we get into a meaty discussion about a bunch of thorny topics as it relates to decarbonization, the role of specific technologies, the role of fossil fuels and the big oil majors, the role of adaptation, the role of policy, the role of nonprofits, versus innovation, versus the public sector, and of course Dan's advice for how you and I can help if we want to maximize our own impact on the climate problem. Without further ado, let's bring him on. Dan Lashof, welcome to the show.
Dan Lashof: Thank you. Good to be with you.
Jason Jacobs: Great to be with you as well. It's funny, we met, I think it's got to be a few months ago now. I was pretty early in the journey, and it's only been a few months, so I'm still early in the journey, but I feel like I'm a lot less early than the first time that I was in your office.
Dan Lashof: Yeah, I think you've talked to a lot of people since we talked a couple months ago, which is great.
Jason Jacobs: I have, but it's one of those things where the more you learn, the more you realize that you don't know. So I don't know that I'm... I feel like I actually might know less, percentage wise, than I thought I did seven months ago when I got into this, but I have learned a lot. But I'm definitely excited to talk to you, because you've been doing this a long time, and WRI is a big player in this world, and you've spent a bunch of time at NRDC, and have done different very relevant things, and you've also seen some cycles with the environmental movement, as things have evolved over the last several decades, and I have not. So I feel like I have a lot to learn from you.
Dan Lashof: Another way of saying I'm pretty old.
Jason Jacobs: Rings around the tree, yeah. Not aged, rings... experience.
Dan Lashof: Okay.
Jason Jacobs: So maybe just tell me a bit about WRI, and what the organization does, and about your purview within WRI.
Dan Lashof: Sure. So I've only been at WRI for about a year, but I've known about and worked with WRI since it was founded in 1982. And WRI, its mission is literally to make the world a better place to live. So that's pretty great. And it's really a data driven think tank, but it doesn't stop with research. It develops policy solutions that are pragmatic, and engages with policy makers and thought leaders to try to get those adopted. So it's a really wonderful platform. As an organization, it's very global, and it's really grown internationally over the last few years, so about half our staff is outside the US now, and offices in China, and India, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, Europe, and Africa. I think I got them all. But my purview is the US, programs that are really aimed at influencing what happens here in the United States.
Jason Jacobs: And what are the key areas that those programs are meant to serve?
Dan Lashof: So globally, we work on climate, energy, water, food, forests. My focus really is primarily climate, but we also in the US have programs that are related to water, food, cities, restoration of ecosystems. But in my mind, all of that is intimately connected to climate, so that's the lens through which I look at all of our work.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, it's a challenge I've been having, because when you say... Like if you're looking at deep decarbonization, for example, which in my mind, and this may be the right or wrong way to think about it, but it's kind of synonymous with the climate change problem, it's like, "Oh, well let me get up to speed on deep decarbonization." It's like, well in order to do that, we need to decarbonize every sector across the economy, and then... So you essentially mean let me get up to speed on every sector throughout the economy, so is it kind of a climate vertical, or is it like an everything vertical?
Dan Lashof: Yeah, it can seem daunting, right? So I think clearly the goal has to be net zero emissions as soon as possible, mid-century at the latest, if we're going to prevent warming of more than one and a half degrees centigrade. And we've learned over the last year, from the scientific community, that there's a world of difference between just 1.5 and 2 degrees, so that's really upped the urgency, I think for everybody's work in this space. I like to think about how you get there in four buckets that maybe make it a little bit easier to deal with.
Dan Lashof: The first one, and this is where a lot of progress is being made, and a lot of focus, is decarbonizing electricity generation, going to high percentage of renewables, but we're probably also going to need other zero carbon technologies to fill out the portfolio. So zero carbon electricity, that's kind of fundamental to how we tackle the problem. Then we use that electricity to electrify everything we can electrify, so that's step number two. Step number three is, we want to be as energy efficient as possible, because that makes every part of the task easier to do. And the fourth one, which is... I used to talk about three. And the fourth one that really emerges when you focus on this net zero by mid-century goal, is actually taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, capturing CO2 from emissions, but also direct air capture, reforestation, other technologies to actually start pulling CO2 out, and keeping it out of the air.
Jason Jacobs: I'm going to say those back to make sure that I've internalized it. So there's electrifying everything is one. There's the underlying, doing that in a zero carbon way, is two. There's the pulling carbon out of the atmosphere at scale, is three. And the fourth is efficiency?
Dan Lashof: Yes. Yeah.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. [crosstalk 00:07:10]
Dan Lashof: In whatever order.
Jason Jacobs: I switched the order around.
Dan Lashof: Yeah, it doesn't matter. A lot of people would start with efficiency, because that's sort of the low hanging fruit. Doesn't matter what order. You have to do them all simultaneously. I think what's important is, and this is a conversation that really has changed over the many years I've done this, and just in the last few years. Thinking about that goal changes the way you go about the problem, versus just making incremental reductions.
Jason Jacobs: And that goal being zero carbon.
Dan Lashof: The goal being zero carbon. Yeah. So once you say, "Hey, we really have to get to zero," that really changes. So you might think about technologies which have the potential to reduce emissions by 20 or 30%, that's great. But if it leads to a dead end that doesn't create a pathway to get to zero, that's probably not where we should be investing our time and resources.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. So you mentioned those four pillars. Within that, what does your team actually do to mobilize and help make progress in those areas?
Dan Lashof: So, in the US right now, I mean, the action, by necessity, is at the state level, and cities, and the private sector, and we work on all three of those. We also engage with congress to seize any near term opportunities that there are, on a bipartisan basis right now, and to lay the groundwork for what we hope is an opportunity to do much more ambitious things soon, like 2021. But let's start with the states.
Dan Lashof: States have a lot of authority in the United States, you know canonical laboratory of innovation, and they've really stepped up in the last couple years. So we now have 25 states that are part of the US Climate Alliance, which is a coalition committed to the goals of the Paris climate agreement, and we're working with them in a number of ways. One is actually helping them think about longterm planning for deep decarbonization. We're doing a webinar series for state officials, developing sort of a best practices guide for them, as more and more states start to really take that target seriously, and try to figure out what their policies are to get there. So that's a pretty exciting project.
Dan Lashof: We're also supporting what the states announced last year, called the Natural and Working Lands Challenge, so this is looking at the landscape, and ways in which forests and soils can keep carbon out of the atmosphere, remove carbon from the atmosphere. States have committed to improving their measurement of that, because it's not trivial to figure out exactly what's happening on the landscape, and then adopt policies to preserve and enhance the ways in which those natural systems are helping to remove carbon. So that's one bucket of work, and a lot of progress is being made. I mean, just in the last few months, we've had... New York state passed what they call the Green New Deal, which sets a target of zero net emissions by 2040. California has a zero net emissions goal for economy wide, Hawaii does. And then a bunch of other states have zero carbon electricity targets. Some are soft targets. Some are actually in law. In New Mexico, for example, a state you might not think of as leading the pack, just enacted a law that requires zero emissions from their electricity sector by 2050. So a lot of progress is being made in the states, and that's really exciting.
Dan Lashof: Cities also are stepping up in a lot of ways. We're running a renewable electricity accelerator for cities, 25 cities that are formally part of it, but a much bigger network of city sustainability officers that are benefiting from learning from each other about how cities can acquire renewable electricity, and use it for their own operations, and depending on the structure also, for citizens of their cities. So that's a piece that's going on there. And then I'd mentioned in the private sector level, WRI has a program called Science Based Targets that we cooperate with other NGOs on, and this is really to get companies to adopt internal targets that they commit to publicly, and commit to measure, that are consistent with preventing warming, to keep warming well below two degrees. So that's a flavor of what we're doing here in the US.
Jason Jacobs: So is a big piece of what you guys do, then, around knowledge sharing and education of people that are in positions to bring about change for their town, for their city, for their state, for their country?
Dan Lashof: Yeah, that's right. I mean, it's technical assistance, policy analysis, sharing that knowledge, bringing people together, convenings, and everything we can to get the word out. But really, our role, different than other NGOs in this space, is particularly to help companies, or cities, or states execute on goals they've adopted. And so it's great when a governor steps up and says, "I'm committed to the Paris Agreement. We're still in. We're going to meet those targets." Then the next step is, they turn around, and they're like, "How do we do that?" And in most states, they don't have a deep team to turn to, and we can help with that. And that's one of the things that we're here for.
Jason Jacobs: Given that that's a big piece of what you guys do, which is important work, how do you know if you're making progress? How do you know if you're on the right track?
Dan Lashof: Well, we certainly look at what's happening sector by sector, in terms of emissions. I mean, the ultimate measure of progress is what's happening in the atmosphere, and the news there is not good, so... If my performance review was based on whether CO2 is going up in the atmosphere, I would have been fired a long time ago. But I think what we can look at is whether our knowledge products are used by decision makers, and that's really what we can contribute. And so we look at our states actually implementing on the targets that they've set out. What steps are they taking? What specific concrete policies are they adopting to move things forward? How many companies have adopted science based targets? There's now over 500 globally, over 100 US based companies. Once they commit to adopt the target, then they have to actually implement it, and we monitor their reporting on progress towards goals. So we actually have a lot of data platforms that monitor what is actually happening, both on emissions, and targets, and implementation.
Jason Jacobs: And is that proprietary to you, or is it a shared resource?
Dan Lashof: It's a shared resource. Most of it's all public on our website. Resource Watch is one of the products that's out there that collects a lot of data. We have Global Forest Watch. There's a Global Forest Watch Pro version that is a subscription service for companies that want to go deeper in the data, but the vast majority of it is just totally open public access.
Jason Jacobs: Great. We'll link to those in the show notes as well, so that if any listeners want to find them, they can. And so given that you haven't been at WRI that long, what was it that was unique and special about this opportunity, that convinced you that it was the right place for you to spend the next chapter of your career?
Dan Lashof: So it was a great opportunity to lead the US team at a time where I think this is a critical period to lay the groundwork for the next chapter of federal policy. And one of the things that I came in really wanting to do is help think through about what the strategy is to get ready for that, and also how federal policy, the next chapter, should be designed to really work with, and support, what's happening at the state level, at the city level, and at companies. So that it is complementing those efforts, and encouraging them to go further, and not supplanting them. Because this is an urgent situation that we have. We need all hands on deck.
Dan Lashof: We can't afford to have states slow down because they think, "Oh, under the next administration, the Federal Government is going to take over." And we can't afford to have the Federal Government come in and say, "Well, we're going to take the lead on climate, so let's take over for what these state programs are." We got to figure out how to most efficiently get these things to work together, and that is different than I think the mindset a decade ago, the last time the Federal Government really made an effort to pass legislation, where states had some policies in place, but they hadn't really implemented them. They hadn't gone nearly as far as they have now, and so I think there was more of a sense that, well if the Federal Government is going to have a comprehensive program, maybe the states could step back. I don't think we're in that situation anymore.
Jason Jacobs: Uh-huh (affirmative). I've been spending some time with various NGOs. I haven't done the full tour yet, but I did a couple episodes from EDF with Nat Keohane and Susanne Brooks. I'll be speaking with David Doniger from NRDC later today. So I guess if you just take those two as examples, because they're top of mind for me, where is WRI similar, and where is it different? And maybe take each of those separately, just to kind of clarify for me how to think about one of the... I don't know if you guys call each other super powers or what, but the larger NGOs just... Where are they the same, and where are they different? So those are two good examples.
Dan Lashof: So I'm a big believer in NGOs working together, we've got to do that, but also, in each NGO playing its own position. We can't afford to play bunch ball and all go after exactly the same things. So one thing that distinguishes WRI is that we do not have a team of lawyers doing litigation. We do not have a political operation affiliated with WRI. Both NRDC and EDF have that. That's super important. I think the lawyers at NRDC have sued the Trump administration about once a week to stop the rollbacks of critical environmental standards. I think that's super important. We don't do that. We are able to focus really on nonpartisan analysis, policy development data, and to be a trusted source of information across the political spectrum. So that's our niche in the environmental community. Other things like politics, litigation, absolutely important. There's no question. Elections matter. It's just not what we do.
Jason Jacobs: One thing I've been trying to get my brain around is the relationship between the NGOs and the innovation community, as one example, or just kind of in the overall picture, because it seems like in some areas, there's strong collaboration. And then in other areas, maybe there's a bit of tension. And one way... I mean, I'm still... My worldview's still forming, but one way I've been thinking about it is that there's kind of a spectrum in the NGO world from pragmatist to purist, and that as you get further down the purist side, everybody aspires to do the same thing, which is deep decarbonization. So I think everybody's heart's in the right place. It's more just about the how, and whether it should be...
Jason Jacobs: Purist, I would say, is more renewables, and if we don't need things like nuclear, then why would we use them, and more trees, and reforestation, versus maybe more synthetic ways to replicate that, or things like that. And the pragmatist is more like, "Yo, have you read how behind we are, and the stakes? And it might not be pretty, but perfect is the enemy of good enough. And we need to do everything we can, and if it's dirty, if it's ugly, whatever. Brute force, and we just need to get it done." Right? And there's not necessarily a right or wrong, but I guess I'm just curious for you to react, and I'd be really interested in how you think about that, given that I'm kind of fresh coming into the space, and you've been in it a long time.
Dan Lashof: Yeah. No, that's a... It's an important area of discussion, certainly among NGOs. I guess I would characterize myself as a pragmatic purist. That is, I'm a purist in terms of the goal. We've got to get to net zero as quickly as possible. But to me, that means we need to have all the tools in the toolbox available, and adopt them based on what's going to make the quickest contribution to the goal, and not take anything off the table for other reasons. Which isn't to say that we shouldn't care about other environmental concerns like nuclear safety, but we don't believe we should be preemptively taking nuclear off the table as an option. Now, it may well turn out, and I think recent experience suggests, at least the current generation of nuclear reactors just aren't competitive with other zero carbon sources. But that's, to me, the question. Can it contribute to getting us to zero, not, should we exclude it because we have some preference for wind on some ideological basis. Yeah, I'm a big believer in this is urgent. We need to be working on all the tools.
Dan Lashof: I think the other element behind this is, there's some tension around the idea of should we just be focused on deploying the technologies we have, versus do we need to have innovation and research and development to bring new technologies in order to get where we need to go. And I think some people have that concern that if you're promoting research and development, that can be used as an excuse not to focus on making progress with what we have in hand. And again, I think it's got to be all of the above. We should definitely be deploying wind and solar at scale, electric vehicles. These are technologies that are available now, and they can take us a long way. But to get to net zero in a way that is affordable and politically acceptable, we're also going to need a lot of innovation. So we think that innovation isn't just R&D. Right? One of the things that pulls innovation is policy that starts deploying things so people learn by implementing. So I think that there's a lot of false distinctions that get made in this space, but yeah, we need every tool we can possibly throw at this, plus some tools that haven't been invented yet.
Jason Jacobs: Well here's my early worldview that's starting to form, and it's not formed, but I'm putting it... As I told you before we started recording, I put out my worldviews as a way to pressure test them, and to expand my worldview, or shift it based on what I learn along the way. This is a journey. And so my early worldview is that if you look at, let's say, a decade or two ago, that the NGOs, the larger ones, primarily were purist in words, and purist in action. Right? And that now, over time, there's been... Well, progress is debatable depending on what you believe, but there's been a shift in the words to be more pragmatic, in terms of all hands on deck, and don't take anything off the table. My worry, though, is that the words are more pragmatic, but the actions, in terms of where the larger NGOs are allocating their resources, are still towards the things that the words used to be all about. And so the words have started to shift, but the actions have not. That's my impression. And I'm not saying with WRI. I'm saying with everybody.
Dan Lashof: Yeah. I guess I'm not sure I see it quite like that. I don't know that there's really been a shift. Like I was at NRDC for a long time, and NRDC's position on nuclear, for example, while some people characterize it as antinuclear, it was never pure ideologically antinuclear. You could argue that its actions were, in practice, more antinuclear than its words. But I don't think it's shifted, really. I think the position has stayed the same. I think what shifted over time, more than anything else, is one the urgency of the problem, just because we didn't act as quickly 20 years ago as we needed to. And so back when I started in this field, we were talking about, you know, let's reduce emissions 10 or 20% in the next decade. I think the conversation now is talked about much more rapid reductions being needed, and the focus on net zero.
Dan Lashof: The other thing that's shifted is technology, and actually solar electricity costs have dropped 90% in the last decade. Wind has dropped 70%. That's actually revolutionary in terms of the ability to deploy those technologies. And I think that's led some groups to say that's all we need. And our analysis suggests that they can take us a long way, but when you look carefully at the full system integration problems, probably somewhere between 60 and 80% of our electricity can come from those kind of variable sources, maybe more. We keep learning new ways to integrate them. But that we're very likely to need other technologies, and whether that's nuclear, or natural gas with carbon capture and storage, or some other technology that maybe hasn't been invented yet. I don't know. But again, we certainly think that there's a long way we can go with what we have in hand that's cost effective today, but that we also need to be investing strongly in an innovation agenda.
Jason Jacobs: So when I was a startup founder, I read a book that was really enlightening for me. It was called The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Ben Horowitz from Andreessen Horowitz wrote it, and it talked about the distinction between a peacetime CEO and a wartime CEO. Right? And that it's two different profiles, and that oftentimes, a great peacetime CEO is not a great wartime CEO because it's like a completely different mindset, and modus operandi, if I got that word right. And when I hear terms like sustainability and conservation, we'll just take those terms, I think they're really wonderful terms. They're important terms. They're important areas. Right? And in peacetime, they would be enough. So environmentalism used to be... I feel like, and again, I'm new, so if caveat is everything, it's like this is all fresh and new, and I'll probably look back in three months at what I'm saying now and be embarrassed, and then same thing three months later than that. Right? But that in peacetime, it's like things are in harmony, and we're just kind of managing to the index of keeping things great.
Jason Jacobs: But I feel like the planet's in wartime, where we're in a time of crisis. It won't be that way forever hopefully, because we'll kind of come out the other side and survive. But I feel like we need a wartime mindset, and so to me, that means that it's not just that we're not taking anything off the table, but we're actively investing in whatever... Because if you look at the total percentage of resources that are allocated towards any of this stuff, super small. And then you look at where people in climate spend their time, and it's like debating, should it be this one, or should it be that one, with the .01% of resources that are allocated here. Whereas for me, I feel like we'd get far more leverage, all of us, if we just focused on growing that .1% or .01% to 10%. And then just grow all the resource, and then all the different shots on goal, and don't take anything off the table, but actually resource to all of it as well.
Jason Jacobs: And that would mean deploying nuclear more aggressively. That would mean investing in R&D for solar geoengineering, just to understand it better, so we know if we need it, how do we think about it, and we hope we never use it. That would mean carbon removal direct air capture. That would mean the people that understand the hydrocarbon... or carbon better than anybody else, the hydrocarbon companies embracing them, and knowing that we need their help looking forwards, instead of looking backwards and searching for accountability. Not that there shouldn't be accountability, but we're in a time of crisis. We've got to look forwards and get out of this. So I'll get off my soapbox, but I'd love for you to just respond, react. What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? Tell me how I'm thinking about that right or wrong.
Dan Lashof: Well, I definitely think we need to scale by orders of magnitude what we're investing, no question about that, in climate solutions. But we're never going to have infinite resources, so we still will have to make choices. On the R&D side, totally agree. We should be looking at all these things, nuclear, carbon removal, artificial leaves, all kinds of ideas that... and we should just be investing far, far more to create a pipeline of new innovations. When it comes to actually deploying things, I think you do have to be a little bit careful to focus on technologies that are the most cost effective, because if you spend a lot of money building things that cost $1,000 a ton to remove CO2, that means you're going to remove less CO2 than if you invest in things that cost $50 a ton to reduce emissions. So that's, I guess, one perspective on it.
Dan Lashof: But I think this question about how we deal with the urgency of the problem is something we struggle with. I guess I'm not totally convinced that the wartime analogy is super productive. Like during World War II, I think we shifted 20% of our GNP into the war effort, which was sustainable over a period of a few years, because everybody was... it was an existential threat in the short run that everybody was behind. For climate, first of all, when we do the math, I think we're talking about 5% of GDP that needs to be directed towards investments and climate solutions, which is, again, in order of magnitude, bigger than we have now, but a lot less of a burden on the economy than the war effort. And it's got to be sustained over decades, not just a handful of years. I'm not totally convinced that the war analogy is the right one.
Dan Lashof: Recognizing that this is both an existential threat, and requires immediate scale-up, but that it also requires a sustained effort, how we communicate that, and how we organize to make that happen, I think is something we are all struggling with. I don't think we have the right answer for that.
Jason Jacobs: Part of the purist and pragmatist thing that I was pushing on, like another example of how it manifests, and this is not an NGO thing. This is more just something I've... I think this tension is something I've observed throughout the climate fight. And it's a tension. It's not like there's heroes, and villains, and people that are... It's more just a tension that we're all trying to sort through. But for example, take like a price on carbon. And you've got all these different groups working on a price on carbon, and this one wants it to be revenue neutral, and this one wants to take the revenue and apply it to this set of things, or that set of things, or... And there's all these competing interests.
Jason Jacobs: And then the words coming out of some organizations' mouths might be, "Well of course. We need a price on carbon. We support it." But then anytime a proposal comes, it's like that's not good enough. There's not enough in there. There's too much this. There's not enough that. And so all the cycles we're spinning, kind of striving for perfect, is the enemy of good enough. It's like anything is better than nothing, and forward motion, and we're just sitting here paralyzed, wasting precious time, giving ourselves a steeper and steeper hole that we need to dig out of with every passing day, as emissions keep rising.
Dan Lashof: Yeah. So there is definitely a tendency in the climate policy community to get overly focused on the details of the mechanism rev, and how you make progress. And I think it's really important not to do that. Whether it's a carbon tax, or cap and trade, whether all the revenue is given back to the people, or whether it should be invested in infrastructure, or used in some other way, I don't think we can afford to have a hard and fast position on any of that. We can express preferences, and thoughts about what the best approach is, but ultimately you have to put together a coalition with enough votes to get it done. Now in the near term, it's just not going to happen with our current congress and the current president. So maybe you can afford to have some of these debates. But when this gets real, people are going to have to get pragmatic, and be willing to compromise on their preexisting priors about what's the best approach. The best approach, in putting a price on carbon, is the one that can get enacted, and move us forward.
Jason Jacobs: Yes. That. That's how I've been feeling more, and more, and more. In fact, I'm feeling like a rallying cry emerging that I hadn't thought about before, or vocalized, that's just coming out of... I mean, it's coming out of many discussion as building blocks, but it's like manifesting from this discussion, like right here right now, which is like... When I was running a startup, the answer in startup world, if there were two or three choices, and you had imperfect information, and you were sitting pulling your hair out trying to figure out which was the right one, oftentimes the answer was, you know what? Instead of obsessing about which is the right one, pick one of them, the one that feels best, and then iterate based on what you learn, but don't back yourself into this paralysis mode where you pick nothing, because every moment that you're not picking is a day that you're not making progress. And then progress of doing shots on goal is how you learn. And then you iterate quickly.
Jason Jacobs: So it's like, I'd love to see... And granted, I've never worked in government. The reason I don't function well in government, and big companies, and things like that, is because I don't like bureaucracy. I like to just do stuff. So I don't like those constraints. And I know that there are these constraints, which are inevitable, that I'm sure I'm taking for granted and trivializing. But as a planet, we need to get a lot more nimble with how we're going about making progress. And I'd love to see more of those startup lessons get applied, in terms of moving quickly, taking shots on goal, learning, iterating, evolving, instead of getting hung up on striving for perfect.
Dan Lashof: Yeah, no. I totally agree with that. We've got to make progress in whatever way we can, and that means that not only should we not be hung up on the details of how a price on carbon is designed, but that's not the only policy that can move us forward. And even if you could get a good price on carbon, it's not the only policy that we need. We need a suite of policies, and we should be advancing whatever we can advance, when we can advance it. The challenge, I think, and one of the differences between government and the startup world, is government is not good at iterating quickly. It does iterate, but it iterates really slowly. I don't know how to solve that, but that-
Jason Jacobs: Don't we need to?
Dan Lashof: We do. We do, and you know-
Jason Jacobs: Instead of just adapting ourselves to capitulate to how the government works, if it's not going to get us to where we need to go as a species, don't we need to find a way to think differently as a species? I'm not talking about as WRI, or as Dan, or as Jason. But we need to figure this out. And if we stay on the current course that we're on, we are not going to figure this out. That's my impression.
Dan Lashof: I think so. I mean, this is one reason why we feel really strongly that we need to be working at all these different levels, private companies adopting targets and making things happen, cities, states. That is one way in which you can get innovation, rather than focus only on what the Federal Government can do. But having said that, there's also no substitute for having a Federal Government that has a strong climate policy that's moving in the right direction, both because of its ability to mobilize resources, and because of the leadership that the world still looks to the United States to provide internationally. We've got to make all these pieces work together, and much more quickly than we ever have before.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. So if you could wave your magic wand then, on the policy front, and enact one policy that would have the biggest impact on deep decarbonization, what would it be?
Dan Lashof: Well, if I had to pick one policy, I would probably set an overall cap on heat trapping pollution that cranks down every year until we get to zero, by 2050. And then have to make that binding, and enforceable. And then there's a bunch of other policies that I think would flow from that, that would help you get there. But that's, to me, and again, that sort of policy of the day is switched back and forth between caps, and taxes, and I think there's really less difference in practice, when you start designing the details, than maybe meets the eye initially. But that's the target. We need to adopt it, make it mandatory, and then put all of our resources to iterating towards that target.
Jason Jacobs: And then I'll ask you a broader question, which is, so not just policy. Now you could change anything. It could be policy. It could be innovation. It could be structural. It could be whatever. What would that one thing be to maximize the impact on deep decarbonization? And I'd love it if you answer two different ways, with a US centric view, and globally. And I know US is your focus, so if you want to stick to US that's okay. If you feel comfortable doing a global one, I'd love to hear that one as well.
Dan Lashof: So I think we are going to need to remove carbon from the atmosphere to prevent really out of control global warming, and I think we're making good progress on the electricity sector. We need to speed that up. We need to, as we talked about, use electricity to electrify cars, and homes. We have more work to do on the technology side for industry, and for things like aviation, so there's innovations there. But at the end of the day, we're still going to need to remove carbon from the atmosphere. And so I guess if I could pick one magic bullet, if we could actually commercialize that technology, and get the cost down to less than $100 a ton of CO2 removed, then I think we just simply require that every ton that goes into the atmosphere has to be offset by a ton that gets pulled out, we could actually solve this problem.
Jason Jacobs: And are you talking about CCS, direct air capture, all of the above, any of the above?
Dan Lashof: All of the above, but I think direct air capture has to be part of the mix, because when we look at what... For example, there's a lot of interest, and for good reason, in planting trees. Planting trees are great. Trees are a great way to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. They can be pretty cheap. But there's only so much land in the world, and we also have to grow food for 10 billion people, and so we don't think there's going to be just enough space to get the scale of carbon removal we need from trees alone. The nice thing about direct air capture is, it's in principle, infinitely scalable. Once you have the technology cost down, you can build it where you've got abundant renewable electricity options, whether that's solar, or offshore wind. You can put it where there's an opportunity to sequester that carbon underground. So I think that ultimately has to be part of the mix.
Jason Jacobs: Didn't you just recently join some advisory committee for direct air capture?
Dan Lashof: I did, yeah. Yeah. A bipartisan group from the Bipartisan Policy Center, and I think that the purpose of it is really to just raise the profile, and say this is a part of the solution set that there's actually broad agreement on, and there needs to be much more resources going into bringing that into reality.
Jason Jacobs: And is that an area that WRI focuses on?
Dan Lashof: It is. One of our projects' sort of national landscape is to look at carbon dioxide removal technologies, and to look across the full spectrum, from tree planting to direct air capture, and more exotic things that are on the horizon, some of the mineralization ideas, ocean opportunities, the full spectrum, and try to assess them in a realistic way, coming at it without any preconceived ideology of trees are good, and getting the oil industry involved is bad. Again, we paid the oil industry trillions of dollars to pull carbon out of the ground. If we're going to end up having to pay them to take some of the carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back underground, I'm okay with that if we solve the problem. Right? So yeah, that's one of our projects, is to really try to do an objective assessment of what the options are, and again bring that information to the public, to policymakers to help people understand what those options are.
Jason Jacobs: So what are your views on the short-term and longterm role for natural gas?
Dan Lashof: That's a really good question. I think natural gas... The role natural gas has played in replacing coal definitely had short-term benefits in terms of public health, because the emissions from coal, the full suite of emissions, not just the CO2, but particulates, coal production, all that, huge problem. So there's been a big win. How big a climate benefit it is depends pretty critically on how much methane is leaking in the process. I think the best assessment is that it's still better than coal, but we have to get at those methane leaks. We need to cut those down.
Dan Lashof: But the fact is that uncontrolled natural gas consumption is not compatible with getting to zero net emissions in a cost effective way. And I think there's a pretty strong case that we've built most, if not all, of the new gas infrastructure that was needed to back out coal, and now because renewables have become so much cheaper than they were even five years ago, we should really be focused on going from coal directly to zero emission sources, [inaudible 00:44:09] renewables. And if we are going to use gas, we're going to have to use it with carbon capture.
Jason Jacobs: So is there any world where natural gas should be more than just a bridge?
Dan Lashof: I think if it is coupled with carbon capture and storage, it could be part of the longterm mix for balancing variable renewables. We also need a source of carbon for making chemicals in plastics that I don't think we're going to do away with, but we have to do that in a way that is not adding net emissions to the atmosphere. So whether that means that it's coupled with direct air capture to compensate for any emissions, or whether you're blending some kind of waste... or taking carbon from the atmosphere as your source of carbon that goes into chemicals, or biomass that comes from sources that are not competing with food production. I don't think we know what that ultimate mix looks like. The bottom line is, net zero is net zero. It means any carbon that we're pulling out of the ground, whether it's in natural gas, or oil, or coal, has to be compensated by carbon that we're pulling out of the atmosphere and storing securely. So that's the longterm that we have to design for.
Jason Jacobs: And I mean, in this world, if we're looking at things like direct air capture, or CCS paired with natural gas, or things like that, it means working closely with the hydrocarbon companies. So I guess what... Do you have any confidence that the hydrocarbon companies will embrace this transition? And if not, then what gives you any confidence that they're going to be viable partners to help bring this stuff to life in the timescales that we need?
Dan Lashof: Clearly, we need policy to make sure hydrocarbon companies and other companies are living within the constraints of where we need to be to protect our climate. I think different companies have different approaches. I think several of them are at least starting to hedge their bets. Particularly European based oil companies tend to see the world a little bit differently than US based oil companies. But there are other oil companies that actually are in the business currently of, for example, using CO2 for enhanced oil recovery, that see a potential future where they can make money in carbon management. So there's diversity there. I don't think it's a monolith, but I would say you've got to get the rules right, because companies are by nature designed to make returns for shareholders. So the only way to make sure that they're doing that in a way that's compatible with having a livable world is to have rules that make sure that that's the profitable thing to do.
Jason Jacobs: Some of the grassroots advocacy that's been occurring to put pressure on the large pension funds and things like that, to divest, is that a productive endeavor?
Dan Lashof: You know, I think every tool to put pressure to move the system is important. I think shifting investments to clean energy is extremely important, and we're seeing some of that. I think divestiture by itself perhaps is more of a rallying cry than a effective mechanism, because it seems like there's always some other investor who's willing to buy the stock if a university or somebody else divests, which isn't to say that it shouldn't be done. I think there is a messaging around, here's the direction society needs to go in that's important, but certainly I wouldn't say that we can rely on shifting investments as the only tool that moves the needle.
Jason Jacobs: And if you divest, then you have less control than if you're a shareholder.
Dan Lashof: Right. And I think there's a good argument from those who say, "We'd rather retain our shares, and then be active as shareholders in getting companies to disclose what their climate strategies are." So I think different institutions will answer that question differently, and I think that's fine.
Jason Jacobs: Other than an advice question to listeners, which I'll ask after this last question, the last question is just if you had a big pot of money, say 100 billion dollars, and you could allocate it towards anything to maximize this impact on decarbonization... I asked you the policy thing already, which you answered. Now we're talking about just cold cash. It's yours, but you have to allocate it toward something, and it needs to be allocated in a way that maximizes impact on deep decarbonization. Where would you put it? How would you allocate it?
Dan Lashof: Right now, I would allocate it towards building out a zero carbon electricity grid as quickly as possible, and then infrastructure for electrifying transportation. We're going to need, in addition to solar and wind, we were going to need a more robust transmission system, high voltage, DC lines, probably need to bury those in a lot of places, which is going to cost more, but if that means you can build it, versus being blocked by people with legitimate concerns about not having big power lines through the landscape that they care about, let's put it underground. So there's an infrastructure piece on transmission. There's an infrastructure piece on recharging for electric vehicles. I think those are all ripe for large scale investment right now.
Jason Jacobs: Where does adaptation fit into the mix?
Dan Lashof: Yeah. Adaptation has to be done. Miami is investing millions of dollars in pumps, because it literally floods when the sun is shining during high tides.
Jason Jacobs: Haven't seen those, but I heard about that just recently. It's crazy.
Dan Lashof: No, it's insane. Water literally comes up through the streets on full moons.
Jason Jacobs: And the streets are higher than the storefronts to the left and to the right.
Dan Lashof: Yeah.
Jason Jacobs: Their way of dealing with it that I heard was-
Dan Lashof: They're raising the streets, and then installing pumps to try to get water out of their system as quickly as possible. I think 20-30 years ago, we worried about whether... If we talked about the need for adaptation, whether that might let people off the hook in terms of making the investments in reducing emissions that need to happen. We don't have that luxury now. Climate change is here. We've got to prepare for its effects, sea level rise, more intense storms, wildfires. We've got to make those investments at the same time that we're investing in reducing emissions. One area that I think is particularly promising is to think about ways in which those two pieces can go together.
Dan Lashof: For example, if you are in a coastal area that is vulnerable to intense storms, then a solution that is both adaptive to that, but also an emission reduction solution is to have a solar microgrid that allows you to power your city with clean energy, and normally it's connected to a broader grid so that you can take advantage of moving electricity around to get advantage of renewables from elsewhere. But in an emergency, you have the ability to sort of island your system and continue to operate on a reduced basis with your local resources. So we've got to look for those kinds of win-win investments where the investments we're making, and the adaptation are also helping us with solving the problem.
Jason Jacobs: Are there any NGOs of consequence focused squarely on adaptation?
Dan Lashof: Not that I know of that are solely focused on adaptation. We at WRI have launched a global commission on adaptation because we felt that it is an issue that has gotten too little attention, and there needs to be a higher level discussion of the importance of making those investments. I think there's more and more NGOs that have a portfolio that includes adaptation.
Jason Jacobs: Gosh, that seems like an opportunity and a need. Someone should make it their only thing, in addition to the support from people that are doing many things, and have a portfolio. I'm just thinking about loud. Yeah, last question is just any advice to listeners for if they're listening, and they care about this problem, and they want to help, but they're not really sure how to find their lane, either with their time, or their resources, or both. What advice do you have for them?
Dan Lashof: Well, I think the most important thing is to be an engaged citizen on climate. There's certainly things that we can all do as individuals to reduce our own carbon footprints, and we should do that, whether that's improving energy efficiency, or putting solar on the roof, getting an electric vehicle. All those things are good. But we also need to have comprehensive policy solutions, and that means voting for climate champions, and then not just voting, but continuing to be engaged because once somebody's elected, what they focus their time on depends on what they're hearing from their constituents about. So being an active citizen, ultimately, I think is the most important thing.
Jason Jacobs: Dan, thank you so much for coming on the show today. And one point I also want to emphasize is I feel like I asked you some hard questions, and I did that in the spirit of trying to get to the truth. But make no mistake, I feel deep respect and gratitude for the work that you guys do at WRI, which is very important, but also the work that you've done throughout your career. And I just wanted to point that out explicitly, and make sure that that's clear.
Dan Lashof: Well thanks for that. And I mean, these are hard questions, and I've been doing this for a long time, but that doesn't mean we've figured this out. So there's a lot of need for new people, and new voices, and new ideas to solve this problem.
Jason Jacobs: Well great. Thanks again. You've been a great guest.
Dan Lashof: Thank you.
Jason Jacobs: Hey, everyone. Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey, you can visit us at MyClimateJourney.co. Note that is dot CO, not dot com. Someday we'll get the dot com, but right now, dot CO. You can also find me on Twitter at @JJacobs22, where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode, or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear. And before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend, or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.