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Policy Hub

Why I'm Optimistic About the Future of Sustainability Legislation

Published February 9, 2024
Co-founder and CPO
By Josh Griffin Co-founder & Chief Policy Officer
Polar Bear ice

Before serving in the Nevada Legislature, I managed political campaigns from the early '90s through the 2000 election. In 2002, I decided I was done managing campaigns and wanted to become a candidate myself. I was fortunate to be elected to the Nevada State Assembly. Transitioning from delivering 30-second partisan soundbites to crafting actual legislation required not only working with the other party, but also finding compromises that various interests could agree upon. Throughout this process, I discovered two significant things.

First, I found the legislative process more fulfilling than partisan politics and campaign management.

Second, I realized that prioritizing good policy over partisan politics was not a universal approach. Despite everyone's interest in effective legislation, their methods differed significantly. I preferred focusing on the best policy outcomes rather than political ones – to find like-minded individuals in the legislature, across both parties and within the Executive Office.

Prevalent Attitudes Toward Sustainability and Climate Legislation at the Time

In 2003, the energy transition was a priority in Nevada, though not a high one. There were a handful of climate activists, but the focus was mostly on leveraging this transition for economic development. Given Nevada's abundant sunshine and vast open land, utilizing these natural resources became a priority over emissions or climate change, which were not major issues for voters at the time. Thus the goal was to harness our strengths in solar energy to drive economic growth and reduce energy costs.

Nevada was one of the first states to implement a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), mandating utilities to procure a certain amount of renewable energy, including solar, wind and biomass. When I joined the legislature in 2003, the RPS was already in place, but we worked to expand it.

In 2005, I decided not to seek re-election. Instead, I collaborated with large companies to enhance the role of solar energy as a key economic driver in Nevada. We aimed to capitalize on Nevada's solar development potential and explored how state policies could incentivize renewable energy as a domestic power source. Despite it not being top-of-mind for either voters or many legislators, a small group, including myself, saw its importance and began the work to advance it.

Observations and Changes Over the Years.

From the early to mid 2000’s, the focus was on incentives for LEED design, renewable energy incentives and enhancing the renewable portfolio standard. These initiatives were aimed at demonstrating the feasibility of an energy sector focused on low-impact, sustainable practices.

However, about a decade ago, the focus accelerated globally due to growing international cooperation, highlighted by a series of global events like the Conference of Parties and the Paris Climate Accords. This period marked a transition from the idea of sustainable energy as a possibility to a necessity. The U.S. Climate Alliance, which involved states in climate action, and the increasing demand for carbon-free energy are examples of this shift.

This change was driven not just by government cooperation but by the escalating severity of climate disasters, including prolonged droughts, severe flooding, intense heat waves, wildfires, melting polar ice caps and methane release. The rapid industrialization in many parts of the world has exacerbated these issues.

As a result, sustainable energy solutions have become critical. This urgency is now reflected in both public policy and corporate action. Large companies, under the scrutiny of boards of directors, customers and investors are increasingly focused on reducing their environmental impact. This shift signifies a recognition that sustainable practices are no longer optional.

Challenges and Success in Driving These Policies

We currently live in a world where many countries are experiencing the benefits of industrialization. This progress, which requires a substantial amount of energy and electricity, is pivotal for developing essential infrastructure such as clean water systems, healthcare facilities, educational institutions and transportation networks. Such developments, long established in many Western nations, represent a legitimate and understandable goal for other regions around the world. This pursuit brings with it an increased reliance on electricity. It's a challenge to advocate for a halt in fossil fuel usage when there's a global demand for electricity.

The relationship between energy demand and affordability became evident when the popularity of energy transition was high. However, when gas prices soared, priorities shifted, highlighting the fickle nature of public opinion and policy. This doesn't mean the situation is hopeless; it just underscores the need to accelerate the energy transition in a way that still allows for the comforts people desire.

A concerning aspect is the existence of a significant, though shrinking, population that denies climate change or believes it's exaggerated. On the other end of the spectrum is climate hysteria, where every natural disaster is attributed to manmade climate change. While denial has more severe consequences, it's important to balance these extremes with reason and facts, emphasizing that a transition is both possible and necessary. We can decarbonize, but it requires effort, work, and investment. The opportunity lies in deploying existing technology and developing new capabilities to accelerate the net-zero transition. 

Reflecting on my own advocacy journey, I've worked with companies like Barrick, MGM, Switch, and Amazon, which take climate issues seriously. This experience has been a milestone, proving that businesses do care about sustainability while managing their bottom lines.

In my role as Chief Policy Officer at NZero, I am encouraged to see numerous government leaders, from mayors to governors and the White House, committed to tracking, reporting and sharing their carbon outputs and plans for achieving zero emissions. This transparency is a vital step forward. Rather than punitive measures, we should reward those making progress in the right direction. Sharing these journeys and trajectories are crucial for fostering a culture of positive change.

Public Awareness Influence the Pace and Nature of Policy Making

The evolving attitudes of voters towards climate change are encouraging. Despite some persistent skepticism, the number of voters who doubt the reality of climate change is steadily decreasing. This shift is evident even among traditionally conservative groups. For example, the Conservative Climate Caucus, comprising mostly Republican legislators in the U.S. Congress and Senate, acknowledges this change in their constituency. They advocate for clean energy legislation, balancing their approach to meet their perceived necessities. Polling data they reference indicates a growing recognition among Republican voters of the importance of conservation, renewable energy and the reality of climate change. This change in voter attitude is a positive sign, suggesting that while there may be disagreements on the methods of addressing climate change, there is an increasing consensus on the need for action.

Another crucial aspect is the need for more coordinated planning and cooperation between various levels of government. It's essential to have consistency in the policies and actions of different federal agencies and between states. Such alignment is vital for effective climate action.

Additionally, if governments are to mandate companies to follow, track and reduce their carbon emissions, it's imperative that these governments also lead by example. Fortunately, we are beginning to see more of this leadership in action. The increasing commitment of governments to participate actively in combating climate change, alongside the private sector, is a promising and upward trend.

There's a significant shift in how companies worldwide, including in the United States, are addressing sustainability. Many are now including sustainability plans in their board reports, detailing their strategies, actions, and reasons for pursuing sustainability. This includes investments to make buildings more energy-efficient and adopting technologies like electrifying heat pumps to reduce emissions. The importance given to these initiatives is evident from the fact that they are being discussed in end-of-year reports and board meetings, indicating a strong commitment from the top levels of these organizations. 

Moreover, there is an increasing effort to educate and empower consumers to make informed choices. As a result, consumers are becoming more selective, supporting companies that align with their values, particularly regarding environmental responsibility. This consumer shift is influencing companies to adopt more sustainable practices.

Looking Ahead

The future of policy making will focus on concrete evidence of reducing environmental footprints and moving beyond mere estimations. Policymakers at various levels — national governments, states, cities, and multinational corporations — are expected to implement strategies that tangibly lower impacts. This involves investing in sustainable aviation fuels, green hydrogen and increasing the use of solar, wind and storage technologies. The goal is to shift from merely slowing the growth of environmental impacts to actively declining them.

In the next decade, policymaking will likely incorporate tracking mechanisms, incentives and potentially taxes or fines for non-compliance. For instance, California has taken a significant step by passing legislation that will require businesses to report their emissions and demonstrate reductions.

NZero's role, as I see it, is crucial in this context. Long has been our motto "You can't change what you can't measure," which underscores the importance of accurate and consistent measurement of environmental impacts. Establishing a clear baseline and tracking progress against it is essential. NZero aims to serve as a 'speedometer' to gauge the pace of progress in reducing emissions.

The criticality of data in shaping and implementing sustainability goals cannot be overstated. Addressing environmental challenges is impossible without detailed, accurate data that is universally accessible and agreed upon. This data must be immune to manipulation, similar to how financial accounting standards provide a consistent framework for evaluating a company's financial health. Like these financial standards, climate data needs to be universally accepted and adhered to for effective decision-making by regulators, investors, customers, legislators and policymakers. This universal standardization of climate data is where NZero can play a significant role, ensuring that all stakeholders operate with a shared understanding and clear metrics.

For sustainability leaders, by sustainability leaders.