Bill Clinton to COP21: Make sure you have more winners than losers

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton with Mayor Luis Castañeda Lossio of Lima and city workers at the Metropolitano bus depot in Peru. Photo by: Clinton Foundation

At the central station for the Metropolitano, the bus rapid transit system in Lima, Peru, the sounds of cameras and trumpets followed former U.S. President Bill Clinton as he strolled past a long row of city buses that run on natural gas.

Standing behind a podium to discuss what is next for the Clinton Foundation partnership with the city of Lima, Clinton thanked Mayor Luis Castañeda Lossio for setting “a global example of what it means to live in harmony with the earth, to empower the citizens to live better lives, and at the same time to reduce the threat of climate change.”

Following the signing ceremony, in the same city that hosted the 2014 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Clinton spoke with Devex about what he hopes to see from the next global climate gathering — the upcoming COP21 conference in Paris.

“If you let me write an agreement that was the best, you know on standards and all that, or you gave me the chance to set up systems that I thought would change the living patterns of a billion people, I’d probably take the latter,” Clinton said.

Get more aggressive on greenhouse gases

Clinton said he would be surprised if COP21 leads to the kind of binding agreement climate campaigners have hoped for, but he does see potential for a binding agreement on hydroflourocarbons.

While carbon dioxide is the largest contributor to global warming, Clinton said there needs to be an international support system for aggressive efforts on non-CO2 greenhouse gases like methane, HFCs and “black carbon,” otherwise known as soot.

“If you went to war against them — they all disperse in 12 years or less — it would buy the world 20 years to deal with carbon that hangs around for 50 to 100 years before the most destructive consequences of climate change,” he said.

Clinton said that while it is “not as sexy as a lot of what we do,” one example of a project that would have a major impact is replacing every indoor air conditioner around the world.

Provide countries with paths toward progress

Carlos Slim on how to scale what works in development

The fifth richest man in the world shares “the best way to fight poverty” during a Clinton Foundation trip to Peru. Joining fellow billionaire Frank Giustra and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Carlos Slim speaks to the intersection of business and development.

Just ahead of his trip to Peru, Clinton visited Panama as part of a tour of several countries with Clinton Foundation donors and supporters including billionaires Carlos Slim and Frank Giustra.

There, he visited the wind turbines resulting from a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to action by InterEnergy. As part of his Clinton Foundation Instagram takeover, he posted a video with an aerial view: “Pretty soon, these wind turbines will start turning and power a clean future for the country. — BC”

“At least so far as I am aware, there is no wind project which doesn’t materialize profits — even if you amortize the costs — in seven years,” Clinton told Devex.

He said he wants to convince every country in Central America and the Caribbean to develop a plan to transition to 100 percent self-sufficient clean energy. He cited this goal as the motivation for the Clinton Foundation partnership with Rocky Mountain Institute and Carbon War Room — two organizations that promote business solutions to transform global energy.

Clinton explained that doing the right thing almost always costs the same or less than staying where you are, but what the leaders gathered at COP21 have to do is figure out how to make money in this transition.

“Restructure the whole way the economy works so at least it’s revenue neutral,” he said, “but the truth is if you change the way you produce and consume energy nothing would do more to promote a whole economic revitalization.”

Make sure there are more winners than losers

Clinton reflected on the Kyoto Protocol, which set mandatory cuts in carbon dioxide emissions for the countries that signed on. While the former president signed the agreement while he was in the White House, it failed to find enough votes in the U.S. Senate.

“Even if we passed Kyoto, the truth is we didn’t have the infrastructure everywhere to know how to do it,” he told Devex, explaining that those countries that succeeded, like Germany, figured out how to “make sure there were more winners than losers economically.”

Clinton pointed to Sweden as another example development professionals should pay attention to in the weeks leading up to COP21. In 1991 the Scandinavian nation adopted, “the world’s first comprehensive carbon tax that was totally revenue neutral,” Clinton said, adding that the country made so much progress that it was told it could increase its emissions by four percent under the Kyoto Protocol. “That’s what the whole world needs to do. We’ve just got to retool ourselves,” Clinton said. “It’s an imagination and engineering problem with finance up front.”

Why climate change negotiators should look to cities

How can cities lead the way on reducing the impacts of climate change? Cities often offer a politically feasible, field-tested way to dramatically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions while saving money, writes Sam Adams, former mayor of Portland, Oregon, and director of WRI's U.S. Climate Initiative, in this #PlanetWorth guest commentary.

Clinton said he hopes COP21 will lead to further cooperation between governments, NGOs, and the private sector to address climate change. He pointed to the power of “operational agreements” like those made by Lima, Peru, and the 81 other cities committed to addressing climate change through the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

“We need to figure out how to multiply things that work, that require too many moving parts to do in any way other than city by city, country by country,” he said. “Unfortunately, there is no magic wand way to do that. You can’t have an international agreement that makes that happen.”

Direct capital to clean energy

“We need a systematic effort to get people out of generating electricity from bad sources,” Clinton said, emphasizing the need for market driven solutions for energy efficiency. “And it can be done, literally if you can harmonize the financing.”

As clean energy investments become more and more economical, the annual conference is well timed to focus on how to direct capital to clean energy for electricity and transportation.

Clinton mentioned the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, on the border of California and Nevada, as an example of how renewable plants can be financed at scale.

“It’s a 17-year payout, which is three years less than the nearest coal plant,” he said of the project of NRG Energy, a frequent partner with the Clinton Foundation in affordable clean energy work. “And now, if you built that very plant again tomorrow, it would be fewer years.”

The world will not decrease its emissions unless it sets up systems that work economically, Clinton said. And he hopes COP21 will accelerate the growth of granular efforts to expand distributed power, emphasizing solar power in particular.

“Take a place where nobody thinks anything good happens: Afghanistan,” Clinton said. “We started using solar power in Afghanistan, the military did, and it made for less travel, less stuff being trucked in, lower cost overhead, and fewer deaths. The potential for this everywhere goes way beyond fighting climate change.”

Strategize how to help everyday people adapt

Clinton acknowledged that the transition to a clean energy economy will have consequences, but he warned that “there will be far more casualties of innocent working families if we don’t do something about climate change.”

In a style reminiscent of a campaign speech, Clinton talked about job losses in West Virginia as the state transitions from coal to natural gas. He explained that in two West Virginia counties, the leading source of income for non college educated males is a disability check, then he noted the connection between job loss and prescription drug abuse in the state.

“Somebody has to figure out how the world can get much better at effecting economic transitions that are environmentally responsible for people who haven’t done anything wrong,” he said. “They just showed up for work and one day what they were doing couldn’t be done anymore. So what are they supposed to do?”

Clinton reflected how, as president, he told tobacco farmers in North Carolina that he was going to have to put them out of business but would also create a transition period for them.

“But it was easier for tobacco farmers than for people working in the coal mines,” he said. “We have been on notice for a very long time and we have not done a good job.”

Clinton said he thinks technology can help the global community ease these economic transitions toward an affordable clean energy future, both for the vested interests opposed to change and for the people afraid of losing their jobs.

“There needs to be some sort of funding facility to do these things in lower income countries and there needs to be some technical brilliance applied to it in higher income countries to figure out how to do this,” Clinton said.

“We do that, I think 10 years from now, we’ll be worried about something else.”

Stay tuned for #PlanetWorth, an online conversation exploring leading solutions in the fight against climate change. From Dec. 1 #PlanetWorth will shine a light on issues including resilience and livelihoods, urbanization and smart cities, innovation and profile those engaged in building a more sustainable future.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.