HANOVER - Policymakers looking to combat climate change should turn their attention to "smaller" solutions that, when scaled up, could make a big difference in lowering our reliance on fossil fuels, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said Monday.
When people think of energy, she said, minds often turn to big public works efforts, such as hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants and off-shore wind farms.
"But a bunch of what we can do both at home and overseas is really smaller initiatives," the three-term senator said while speaking at an energy conference sponsored by Dartmouth College. "It's what each of us can do as we think about energy use in our homes. It's about efficiency."
Shaheen pointed to the town of North Conway, N.H., as an example. The wastewater treatment plant there primarily runs off energy provided by a nearby solar array, she said.
"That’s a relatively small project and yet if we think about the energy used by wastewater treatment in this country, that’s 4% of our total energy use," Shaheen said.
Shaheen, a former New Hampshire governor, discussed her views on energy policy during the first day of the "Investing in Our Energy Future" sustainable energy conference hosted by Dartmouth’s Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society.
The virtual conference seeks to explore ways to increase access to energy while also addressing climate change.
While she encouraged attendees to set their sights on smaller, easier to accomplish climate efforts, Shaheen said she still supports large-scale action.
During a roughly half-hour discussion, she touted her proposed Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act as one such effort, saying it could help reduce emissions on both a national and local scale. The bill, which was first introduced in 2011, seeks to strengthen building codes, offer more training for construction workers and would direct the federal government to partner with manufacturers to research more climate-friendly technologies.
Although the full legislation hasn’t made it to a president’s desk, the portion calling for more energy-efficient building codes was reintroduced into the Senate earlier this year and has some bipartisan support.
"If we can just have a slight increase in the efficiency of homes and commercial buildings … you would see a huge reduction in carbon emissions," said U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who co-authored the bill and joined Shaheen at the conference. He said the building sector accounts for about 76% of electricity use and 40% of all primary energy use in the country.
Portman, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relation Committee, also stressed the need to "focus on the global picture" when addressing climate change.
"I think people have to recognize that to the extent that we just focus on the United States in terms of CO2 emissions, we will not be successful in achieving our goals," he said, adding the country has to share technology with emerging economies.
While Shaheen agreed, the two senators diverged on how the country should engage with others.
Portman opposed the 2015 Paris Agreement, which set a goal of limiting global warming, while Shaheen supports the deal.
"Obviously to make (the agreement) effective, we’ve got to make sure that we’re working with other countries to get things done," she said.
The challenge facing lawmakers and the Biden administration on climate change is "ginormous," Mary Nichols, former chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, said earlier in the day.
The world is fast approaching a point where the "worst impacts" of climate change cannot be averted, she said, adding there is still hope in new technologies and policies.
"We are living in a time of great opportunity as well as great threats and challenges," she said.
The biggest threat is the human desire to postpone hard decisions, Nichols warned, saying policymakers no longer have that luxury.
The world has about 29 years left to get to a net-zero carbon economy, said David Turk, deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy, who joined Nichols.
"Twenty-nine years is not that many years to fundamentally transform our energy economy, agriculture and get to a net-zero period of time," Turk said.
Portman, who graduated from Dartmouth in 1978, has said he will not seek re-election next year.
He twice voted to acquit Donald Trump during Senate impeachment proceedings, though he did vote to certify the Electoral College election of Joe Biden.
The conference continues Tuesday with events on new technology, expanding access to energy and increasing investment in clean energy sources.