Action by the United States and other nations to develop clean energy technologies is more important than reaching an accord on greenhouse gas emissions this December at U.N. talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said today.
"Success or failure will be determined by what is happening in the coming years, rather than focusing on whether you can get an accord," Chu told reporters after speaking at the GridWeek conference in Washington.
Chu said it appears that developed and developing countries agree that climate change is a serious problem but have yet to agree on specifics of an emissions treaty.
"One would like a very strong Copenhagen accord. On the other hand, look at Kyoto; the track record was not as good," he said. "In the end, it is really what we do."
The federal stimulus law passed in February is a significant step in that direction, Chu said. During his opening remarks, Chu announced $100 million in Energy Department stimulus funds to train "smart grid" workers and $44 million for state utility commissions to educate and retrain staff on the smart grid and other aspects of a quickly evolving electric power sector.
But politics have been a challenge in addressing these issues, he told reporters, and it will be up to the American public to really get the momentum needed to make a cultural and political shift.
"The American public really has to understand in their core what is needed" to address climate change, Chu said.
But Chu said a climate bill does not face the same partisan divide that currently is roiling the debate on revamping health care.
"There is very little debate on the need for a new green-energy economy," Chu said. "It is the basis of the future economic prosperity in the United States. I can see agreement on both sides of the aisle."
The rest of the world, and especially China, is investing in new high-tech manufacturing and, if the United States does not move aggressively forward, the rest of the world will move ahead, Chu said.
"Why should we surrender high-tech manufacturing to anybody else?" Chu said. "There is a universal feeling this is going to be a major part of economic prosperity. If you do not move, then there is a loss of economic opportunity."
But if the United States moves on clean energy, it will get the economic opportunity and the environmental benefits, he said.
Chu told the conference that the United States is already behind in solar photovoltaics, manufacturing of hybrid vehicle batteries, energy efficiency and nuclear power. Afterward, he told reporters the nation is also trailing on high-voltage transmission lines; China is currently developing 800-kilovolt direct current lines and is researching a 1-million-kilovolt direct current line, he said.
"They are ahead of the rest of the world right now," Chu said.
He added, "We are the pioneers. We are not the leaders."
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