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Bezos Earth Fund Executive Leon Clarke Discusses Decarbonization, Climate Policy at Harvard Kennedy School

The Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center's Environment and Natural Resources Program co-sponsored a seminar by Leon Clarke on decarbonization Monday.
The Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center's Environment and Natural Resources Program co-sponsored a seminar by Leon Clarke on decarbonization Monday. By Lara R. Berliner
By Eman H. Abdurezak, Dhruv T. Patel, and Olivia W. Zheng, Contributing Writers

Leon Clarke, the director of decarbonization pathways at the Bezos Earth Fund, spoke about decarbonization and philanthropy at the Harvard Kennedy School on Monday.

The seminar, “Economic Challenges to Rapid Energy and Deforestation Transitions,” is the latest in the Energy Policy Seminar series jointly sponsored by the HKS Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program, the Harvard University Center for the Environment, the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, and the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability.

With an emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration and the roles of public and private funding, Clarke outlined a realistic look into the future of climate economics.

Clarke said developments in technology have enabled a transition to a low-carbon economy.

“Generation from low-carbon sources is as cheap — or cheaper, in many instances — now around the world than it is to generate from fossil,” Clarke said.

He also discussed the roles of national and subnational governments in influencing policy beyond carbon prices and electric vehicle legislation, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, border taxes, and trade agreements.

“What happened in the last administration was the fact that the federal government wasn’t doing something galvanized states and cities and businesses to do something,” Clarke said.

Despite being a long-term economic opportunity, the move toward a low-carbon economy also faces challenges, according to Clarke.

Total climate philanthropy, the amount contributed by individuals and foundations toward combating climate change, “is somewhere between eight and 13 billion,” Clarke said.

“That seems like so much money, and it’s a lot in philanthropy, but it’s not a lot compared to the scale of the challenge,” Clarke said.

Clarke also admitted that the current pace of progress remains insufficient to align with a goal outlined in the Paris Climate Accords to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“We’re not moving fast enough. We’re maybe not as bad as people have thought, but we’re still not in a good place by any stretch,” Clarke said.

During his talk, Clarke praised Climate Action Tracker — an independent, data-driven scientific organization that tracks whether policy aligns with the Paris Agreement — whose work he used to illustrate how projections based on existing conditions can often be inaccurate and how estimates based on potential future legislation can be overly optimistic.

Clarke said governments will likely pursue more climate policies, but global temperature forecasts would “probably not” get down to more conservative estimates.

“Somewhere in the intermediate is potentially where we might actually be landing,” he said.

While the technology to carry out decarbonization projects is largely in place, Clarke said execution is still not as rapid as it needs to be due to the challenge of updating economic policy to align with technological advancements.

“I think really the challenges we face now are how to rapidly evolve our economy. Because it’s not just about mitigation. It’s about economic transformation: How do we rapidly evolve economies?” he said. “And that is not easy, and that’s the reason we’re not moving more rapidly.”

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Harvard Kennedy SchoolEnvironmentSustainability