We recently caught up with Anne Kelly, Senior Program Director in Public Policy for the non-profit Ceres, to discuss the prospects for businesses and states banding together to try to meet our Paris agreement commitments despite threats from the Trump administration to scrap the Clean Power Plan and pull out of the international climate pact. Since its formation in 1989, Ceres has been working to mobilize investor and business leadership to build a thriving, sustainable global economy. The group recently made waves when it announced that more than 700 American companies large and small had signed onto a letter calling on President Trump and our other elected leaders to uphold U.S. commitments to the Paris climate accord and continue with existing low-carbon policies. Kelly spoke with us via telephone from her office in Boston…
EarthTalk: Tell me a little bit about what Ceres has been up to lately and what the group’s top priorities are now that Trump has assumed the presidency…
Kelly: Yeah sure, and of course, you are talking to me from the public policy perspective and that’s the team that I run. We are certainly gathering as much information as we possibly can. We are looking strategically at those areas that very much need to be defended. First and foremost, as you know, we put out the Paris Defense Statement that called for the continuation of development of the low carbon economy and for the U.S. to keep its role in the Paris agreement. We now have over 700 companies and investors signed onto that statement. We’ve had two releases: one right after the election and one just before the inaugural. We are also looking at other regulatory reforms that are being contemplated. We are weighing in where we can. Where it is most strategic to try and defend those [regulatory reforms]. We have a number of letters contemplated, and we also have our bench of investors and companies taking private action by talking to lawmakers behind the scenes and expressing their concerns. Particularly because these are leadership and investor companies that are quite committed to a clean energy economy in the U.S. They have their own publicly stated goals, and many of them are quite interested in making sure that the U.S. doesn’t get behind and fall back on the many gains we have made in the last eight years.
E: Is there any chance the U.S. could still meet its Paris climate accord commitments in terms of overall emissions reductions through efforts by states, municipalities, companies, investors etc. even if Trump pulls out of the international agreement and cancels the Clean Power Plan?
Kelly: Well, of course I am speculating here, and as I have stated earlier, we and our company members feel strongly that the U.S. should stay with the agreement. We feel that we would lose credibility, that we would lose a competitive advantage by leaving the agreement. Yes, is the answer. Especially given the leadership, of as you say cities and states, and in particular the private sector. We are encouraged by the increased momentum in the private sector around the procurement of renewable energy. I mean, you could just look at the trends and the statistics. Many of the companies I have spoken to have said “We didn’t set these energy goals because of who was in the White House.” So, many of those procurement plans are in place. They are moving forward. Business planning has already projected the purchase of renewable energy in many of these companies with 2030, 2040, and 2050 goals, and those are going to stay in place. Companies are not going to suddenly rollback their ambitions or their leadership because of this particular administration.
So I would say that it is possible that we would meet those goals not because of the Trump administration but really in spite of whatever the administration might do. Now, obviously, there is a lot of variables, for sure, and that is why we stand by strong rules and regulations at the federal level.
But we are also encouraged by seeing leadership at the state level, and we are going to continue to encourage strong renewable energy portfolio standards at the state level, and to do what we can to remove barriers for companies that are seeking to procure renewable energy. As I said, they are doing this at increasing rates and, of course, much of that is attributable to the lower prices of renewable energy. We think those trends will continue, and we would like to highlight those trends at the municipal level, too. All that is very exciting, and I don’t see that changing.
E: Could American companies band together to play a larger role in helping meet our Paris commitments regardless of federal support?
Kelly: Yes, absolutely. I think we saw over the last couple of years that many of the major companies are, in fact, not only for admissions reduction, but they are starting to “walk the talk” and “talk the walk.” You know about the 156 or so companies that took the American Business on Climate Pledge under the Obama administration. We know that there are almost a 100 companies that have taken a pledge to operate from 100% renewable energy with the RE 100 Campaign. Please note that these companies transcend the political spectrum. There is a full range of companies and a full range of sectors that have done the math, and figured out that the smart, economic move for them to do is to simply shift (to as great of an extent as possible) to a renewable energy model. It is interesting that the low carbon Paris support letter which we put out for signing … 48 hours after the election and within two days we had a 190 companies. We did the press release in four days and we ended up with 365 [companies]. We reopened it because so many wanted to sign on that hadn’t been able to, and at the last release we were at 630 and as I speak to you we are over 700. I mean, folks are continuing to sign on even though we aren’t actually advertising it now.
What is also important is that they cover 44 states so this wasn’t a bi-coastal message at all. They also cover a full range of family owned businesses, mid-sized businesses, manufacturers, tech, apparel, food, and chemical companies. Really a broad sweep of the power companies of the American economy going out of their way to stand up publicly and make the statement. I think what is also notable is that there were no companies that actually asked to be removed from this statement from the initial mid-November release to the pre-inaugural release of January 10th. They continue to reinforce their commitment and offer quotes.
So I think there is something definitely there. I think companies really want to get the message out that they were already on a path to low carbon economy. This administration is not going to slow them down. At the same time, I think they are actually quite interested in in trying to communicate effectively with the Trump administration about the value of a carbon price. I really see what he is doing as simply offering to provide the strong economic case that is available and that perhaps the Trump administration isn’t familiar with. There is no hostility there. Many of these companies would like to simply have an audience with various members of the Trump team to say “Let us show you our numbers. Let us talk about the competitive advantage that the U.S. is risking if we drop out of the clean energy revolution at this particular moment, and cede that leadership to China or to someone else”. So this is a really strong business position to convey, and I think many of them are hopeful that in the coming weeks and months, we will actually be able to find common ground with the administration. Again, this is once they have fully appreciated and understood the incredible benefits and economic and job generating opportunities around the clean energy economy. They have only been at this for five or six days so have they really embraced those analytics? It is not clear that they have. Who better to be telling that case than companies like Google, which has purchased more renewable energy than most power companies. Or someone like Elon Musk who has been so successful in the marketplace. So, that is very hopeful. That is what we are going to continue to encourage as we go forward with the Trump administration — simultaneously defending some of those essential regulatory elements that we really need to keep in place.
E: Did Tesla and Google sign onto Ceres’ Declaration?
Kelly: Yes Tesla did sign onto our statement so they were part of it. Google actually made a very strong pro-Paris statement a couple of weeks after our statement came out, and we certainly applaud that. Google has been just a stunning leader in this space on their own. They also joined their peers in signing the resolution to support the continuation of the clean power plant. So, I cannot say enough about Google’s leadership, and I respect that people find various communication pathways and statements to join. Both of those companies have just been exhibiting incredible leadership. As you know, both have actually spoken to the Trump administration. We are confident that that message will get through, but it may just be a matter of time.
E: What are some of the bigger companies that signed on, and did any big oil or energy companies sign on?
Kelly: Pacific Gas and Electric signed on as a power company so we are thrilled about that. Many large companies signed including Intel, Fortune 100 Dupont, Staples, Mars, Nike, Starbucks, Levi’s, Murk, and Jell-o. There is a very long list. Salesforce, Merck, Biogen… The nature of the list is important because it wasn’t done on purpose. There is a 300 person manufacturing company in Indiana, Jupiter Aluminum, that signed on. It is really important that we give voice to those red state companies that may not always grab the headlines but are doing good work day in and day out. They really see and support the vision of a clean energy economy.
E: Has the Trump administration since Inauguration Day made any comments about the Clean Power Plan or is there anything in the works regarding any Exec order or is that something that’s just going to have to work it’s way through the courts regardless?
Kelly: I think it is going to have to work it’s way through the courts, regardless. It probably has a long trajectory, and I wouldn’t want to predict at this point. You know exactly what will happen in that regard. There are states that have already done the groundwork to implement the Clean Power Plan and they are saying “Why should we back up now, why would we stop now”? Again, there is a little bit of a race to the top among the states who are seeking to have companies cite data centers and other facilities in their states. Increasingly, the perspective companies are saying, “Tell me about your energy portfolio”, and if they don’t have a renewable energy offering, they are going to be a less favorable destination. To me, that is another exciting and fairly new trend over these last couple of years. There is a tremendous amount of action there and that creates a tremendous market pull that will just continue to allow the renewal energy revolution to explode. So that’s what we are tracking and encouraging. It is also very apolitical, it transcends politics, it is just good business.
E: Is Ceres involved in any way with the climate divestment movement?
Kelly: You probably know that Siri’s history was based on investors in general being very active in the companies that they own. Through shareholders resolutions really deeply engaging with companies to try and make certain that their behavior is appropriate in terms of environmental goals and leadership in terms of human rights, and now more recently, climate and energy. We continue to support and in a full engagement model for investors and companies. We think that companies should listen to their investors and investors can be very influential, and have been very influential in encouraging appropriate leadership. We also are encouraging portfolio de-carbonalization. Generally there is embedded risk in portfolios that haven’t carefully examined this carbon asset. That can be a problem and should be examined very carefully.
E: What other fronts is Ceres working on regarding climate and federal action?
Kelly: We are very excited about helping those moderate Republicans, particularly in the House of Representatives, to be able to take action on climate change. We are extremely encouraged by Representative Chris Gibson (formally from upstate New York) in the last session who put out a resolution in the House for signatures by Republicans that basically said that climate change was real and humans were causing it, and that is was time to take action. I am summarizing the resolution. We support Carlos Curbelo and others who have signed onto that resolution, many who are taking part in the bipartisan Climate Change Solution Caucus with Democrats to try to cobble together and research and explore real bipartisan solutions. We feel as though Republicans in particular who are open minded and looking for answers very much deserve the political support of the business and investor community. We are going to continue to cultivate those Republicans, give them the support they need and make sure their questions are answered. I am particularly encouraged by some of the younger representatives who seem to have a better handle on the problem of climate change and the need for a rapid solution. Certainly, if we continue to find Republicans in the Senate we will support any and all of them who are looking for a solution. We remain hopeful and open minded about the possibility of a carbon pricing scheme. There has been such robust support from a wide range of organizations that again, span the political spectrum. The call for carbon pricing is coming from all different quarters at this point. We will be supportive of these models and carefully examine the core principles that are behind the carbon pricing models. We will also continue to support those at the state level, as we continue to support other robust state policies.
E: Does that presume a carbon tax or marketplace?
Kelly: Yes, I think at this point we really need to be open to all models. I would say that most of the discussions we’ve been participating in have been about a carbon fee or a tax versus a cap and trade model. However, we are very excited about encouraging cap and trade in this stunningly successful California model of AB 32. At the federal level, most of the conversations seem to be around including some kind of carbon pricing mechanism potentially in the context of tax reform. I must emphasis that is very, very early in this session and in this administration, so I would not want to presume or have any type of predictions. What is encouraging to me is that you can talk about carbon pricing now and have a rigorous conversation across party lines in a way that could not have been done five or six years ago. We have been in D.C. since 2008 (our public policies go back to ‘89 of course). I am encouraged just by the rigor of these conversations at this point and so many contributions from the organizations from, again, a wide political spectrum. They are really coming together and realizing that you “got to tax what you burn and not what you earn” and figure out a way to properly price the thing you don’t want. We are hopeful and will continue to try and be a part of those conversations.
E: Has Trump commented on the idea of a carbon fee during the campaign at all?
Kelly: Not to my knowledge; I did not hear that during the campaign. I know that there are many behind the scenes conversations going on, so I would not want to presume what his closest allies are contemplating at this point. Again, I have to say, it is just so early and I am not really sure they had time to understand the magnitude of this movement. With Elon Musk on his corporate forum provided guidance and advice and I suspect many of the others of that forum are inviting him to examine various carbon pricing schemes. My suspicion is that his team will do just that.
E: Alright. That’s very interesting and hopeful. Anything else you want to mention?
Kelly: I think that I would only say that, just for emphasis, that many of our corporate leaders had very robust sustainability in climate and energy programs in place for many years and one election is not going to turn the clock back on those goals or systems. These individuals are completely committed to building a sustainable economy and they will continue to move full speed ahead. I think eventually the Trump administration will realize the momentum and be captivated by it and understand the competitive advantage that it really represents.
E: Great. Thanks so much for your help.
Kelly: Thanks so much.