Interview: Alexander Ochs

ochs2 225x150 Interview: Alexander OchsFor the past 15 years, Alexander Ochs has been an important figure in international efforts to fight climate change and develop green energy, working with United Nations and other international agencies. Among many endeavors, he is President of theForum for Atlantic Climate and Energy Talks, is Founding Chair of the LEDS-GP Energy Working Group, and is an adviser to the German Government’s International Climate Initiative. Ochs’ academic career is also distinguished; he teaches at Johns Hopkins University and has co-edited three books and published dozens of research articles. As Senior Director of Climate and Energy at the Worldwatch Institute, Ochs has developed a series of sustainable energy roadmaps and implementation plans that are helping bring clean energy to Central America and the Caribbean, with plans to expand to new regions. Ochs also participated in the Paris climate summit. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman interviewed him via Skype in his Berlin, Germany office…

Or read the full transcript below…

EarthTalk: You’ve worked at the Worldwatch Institute on a series of sustainable energy roadmaps to help countries transition to a clean economy. Why are such roadmaps necessary?

Alexander Ochs: For the sustainable energy roadmaps and implementation plans we provide the guidance for how to transition away from the current centralized energy systems that are unsustainable in any sense of the word: financially, economically, socially and of course also environmentally. Transition away from them to energy systems that are sustainable. Governments often do not have the necessary information available to them to make smart decisions about their energy systems and where they have the information. It is often very piecemeal. So what we do is we review the information that exists and we gather new information where it does not and then we provide it all in one place. So our roadmaps, they provide the information, but they also then are implementation plans because they make concrete suggestions for how to transition away from the current system to systems that are more sustainable.

E: And could you talk a little bit more about the main features of a Sustainable Energy Roadmap? Like what different aspects are you covering and why?

Ochs: Of course. We work with governments as well as nongovernmental actors on these roadmaps. And they are very comprehensive strategic plans, as they include technical analysis of the potentials of renewables and energy efficiency as well as technical information relating to the needs for renovation of the given grid system. But they also, you know there’s a lot of these technical analysis and they are very necessary and our analysis often builds on them, and we just produce new information, new technical information, where it doesn’t exist. But then we take additional steps in our assessment. So as a next step and as a next component of the roadmap, you model different development pathways, energy development pathways—say 20%, 40%, 60%, 80% of renewable—coming from different available resources in a given country or region. And we do that to analyze the different economic and social impacts. So, for example, on electricity prices, how would the prices change in the short and in the medium and in the long term, would electricity become more expensive or less expensive? What would happen to jobs? Would jobs be created through different development pathways than what we call business as usual, or are jobs at risk? And we come to really amazing results there. And then thirdly we look into the investment environment for renewable and energy efficiency technologies. So what investments already happened and what’s in the way of more of them? What barriers exist to further investments if the potentials are so great in these countries? If they have all the great impacts socially and economically that we see, why aren’t those investments happening? So we’re looking into those barriers. And then at the very end of it, we’re making concrete suggestions for political and administrative reforms to make smarter decisions, but also concrete policies and measures that improve the investment environment, so that we hopefully will see more investments going into these technologies in the future.

E: You said you’ve come to some amazing results regarding the economic impact. So could you give an example or two?

Ochs: Of course. So we see that in all of the countries we’ve worked in, and I would think probably in 80% of the countries of the world you would see this now, in all of the countries you’re going to see this very soon. The results are really that a lot of cash, a lot of money can be saved if we transition away from our current energy systems. In the case of Jamaica, for example, between now and 2030 the most money will be saved in the highest scenario that we have modeled—and we’re not using our own models for this so that somebody could say, well, you green guys you have very idealistic lenses on, but we’re working with very established models including from the World Bank, for example, to model these pathways. The one way that is the problem is that there are relatively high investments that need to happen up front. So the political reform needs to focus on changing the investment environment so that the money that is actually there, is waiting at the sideline, can go into these markets, that good working active markets are produced. And then in the long term it is very clear that the greener pathways, the more sustainable pathways environmentally, are also the ones that are economically and financially sustainable. There’s no more doubt about this and I think that most of my colleagues would agree with me.

E: Okay, so if a country can overcome the initial cost and barriers in the long run it’s good for business and for employees as well as the environment, right?

Ochs: See any change you produce will always benefit some people and be maybe less beneficial to others. There’s a lot of people in the world making a lot of money with our current fossil fuel energy system, there’s no doubt about that. And obviously if that didn’t exist we would be much further along. But, in the benefit of the majority of people, we have no alternative to transition away from. Because of climate change, of course, because of local air and water pollution and the many casualties that are caused by this local pollution every given day, on the one hand. But also because of the other reasons that you mentioned, because there’s green business opportunities, because a society can only develop a higher quality of life, really, if they are based on affordable and reliable and sustainable energy systems. And the current energy systems that we see in most countries and municipalities and provinces in the world are not sustainable and not affordable and they are not, in many places they are not even reliable. So this is the great impetus and the great motive and rationale behind the roadmap and behind, really, what we think decision makers should do.

E: The first set of roadmaps covers the Caribbean and Central America. Why these particular regions? Why can they especially benefit from a transition to sustainable energy?

Ochs: Yes, well first of all there’s a whole host of reasons for why we picked those countries, and in two cases now regions, for the whole Caribbean as well as seven countries in Central America. There’s really many reasons for this. First we are asked by these countries for help, so this is always the beginning of our work. Sometimes we reach out to countries, but we’re only working by request of a given country in the region. So that’s an obvious first reason. But secondly, we really saw the need for a transition to more sustainable energy systems to be extremely strong in these regions. People anywhere in the world demand affordable and reliable and clean energy, and in these regions electricity is not provided to all citizens, and to those it is provided to it’s provided at very high prices in comparison to other places in the world. And it is often not reliable. So there was really a great need for change in these countries. Now these roadmaps, we’re now ready to move on and turn towards new countries while we’re staying in these countries to implement concrete actions. But what was great about picking these smaller countries that have a high need and a high willingness to act was also that they can act, of course, as laboratories for action that also has to happen everywhere. They are relatively small, their economies are somewhat homogeneous, so working there with very motivated people was a first step. Ultimately we hope to work in many more places and countries in the future.

E: Great, so this is like the laboratory for the world!

Ochs: Not the only ones of course. We’re not the only actors and these are not the only countries really doing something. And I think these cross-regional and cross-country exchanges of information, the learning from what has worked and hasn’t worked, in terms of technology, yes, but also in terms of economic, in terms of financial and political instruments, is extremely important. So by no means should those be the only places we work in. But it has been very fulfilling and I think we’ve seen great results that we can learn from.

E: Great. The roadmaps were developed, the initial ones, before the Paris Climate Agreement, in which 195 countries agreed to develop targets for reducing climate emissions. So has the Paris agreement changed future roadmaps or what’s the relationship between the roadmaps and the agreement?

Ochs: Well, that’s a very interesting question. So let me start by saying the Paris agreement in my view is really an enormous success, after 25 years of negotiating a working climate agreement this first milestone, or you might say the 2nd milestone after the UN Convention on Climate Change from the early ‘90s, has been reached. But it’s only a framework for action, it is only as good as what regions and countries and provinces and municipalities, and in the end you and I, are making out of it. It is a framework for action that suggests relatively dramatic change, but this dramatic change will only happen if the actors of implementation do act. So this is really where our roadmaps, and we now call them roadmaps of implementation, because we want to make sure that people don’t just see them as roadmaps, they see them as concrete implementation plans for action. This is where they come in. We help countries to identify really the concrete actions that are now necessary. So what’s the relation between the roadmap and Paris? One is, you know I’ve written many articles suggesting really to look into the successes that are already happening in the energy sector. Not just as we move forward, we will see more and more of them happening, including because of the Paris agreement. But we have seen great successes in the past. And I’ve always argued that, look at these successes not just in terms of bringing emissions down in the energy system but also in terms of economic and social impacts of transitions of energy systems. And that’s really in the developed world and in the developing world as well. And maybe with this new spirit, bringing that to the Paris negotiation table, we’re able to conclude with something that is better than what was the outcome of past climate negotiations, past summits, past events, where very often the discussion was about how can I possibly do less than what you do. So let’s look at the success and bring that spirit of Paris. And I think this really has happened. In sort of the loop back to the roadmaps isn’t all that dramatic, what I said is valid here, we are now helping countries to fulfill their commitments under the Paris agreement. There is one added facet to it if you want, and that is there will be new money coming, particularly for developing and least developed countries, coming out of the funds that are being set up under the Paris agreement. And we’re going to make sure in the development we do that the countries do see these opportunities, that there is outside help now if they are willing to act. So that’s another outcome. But in terms of the methodology, in terms of all the advice that we’re giving, that’s not going to change that much.

E: So the Paris agreements just make it easier to implement these roadmaps on a more widespread basis.

Ochs: Yes I would argue that, despite the fact that after 25 years of climate negotiations we are not where we need to be, we are not where we need to be including the Paris agreement. But it is an important milestone and I think it helps countries see where we need to end overall. It helps countries to see, to give them the confidence, that they are not alone and others are acting as well. That there is transfer of technology, there’s transfer of money, there’s transfer of expertise, and that we are basically, we’re steering this boat all together. And so this sort of new cooperative approach under the United Nations was extremely important, I think beyond the climate deal. But the energy roadmaps and the implementation hopefully will help countries to really achieve the goals that they have now set for themselves and for the globe as a whole.

E: Okay, thank you very much.

Ochs: You’re very welcome.