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Climate Change

The History and Future of the Clean Energy Ministerial

Commentary by David Sandalow • May 31, 2016

by David Sandalow*

Related: Columbia Energy Exchange podcast on the 7th Annual Clean Energy Ministerial. 


Seven years ago I walked into Steve Chu’s office to propose the idea of a Clean Energy Ministerial.  Chu was the U.S. Secretary of Energy and a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics.  I had discovered in my first months working for him that his passion for producing results far exceeded his interest in diplomatic dialogue.  So I wasn’t surprised when he answered me by saying: “If this will make a real difference, yes.  Otherwise I have no interest.”

The first Clean Energy Ministerial, held in 2010, drew ministers and senior officials from more than 20 countries to Washington, DC.  Businesses and NGO leaders joined as well.  Initiatives to improve energy efficiency, speed deployment of renewables and advance the role of women in clean energy were announced.  The United Arab Emirates offered to host the second Clean Energy Ministerial, which was held in Abu Dhabi the following year.

Since then, the Clean Energy Ministerial has built a membership of 23 countries, which together account for 90% of clean energy investments globally.  More clean energy campaigns and initiatives have been launched, with activities in dozens of countries.  The United Kingdom, India, South Korea and Mexico have each hosted annual meetings.

So this week, as clean energy leaders from around the world convene in San Francisco for the seventh Clean Energy Ministerial, it’s time to take stock.  Is the Clean Energy Ministerial making a difference?  What should it do for the next seven years?

The answer to the first question is clear: The Clean Energy Ministerial is making a real difference, helping accelerate the transition to clean energy technologies around the world.  Its members have developed a results-oriented way of doing business, working together on campaigns and initiatives where technical cooperation on clean energy can have an impact.  (No time is spent negotiating communiqués, which are often the focus of international meetings and in many cases soon forgotten.)  The Clean Energy Ministerial has become a leading global forum for governments, businesses and NGOs to convene at both political and technical levels, sharing information on how to accelerate the clean energy transition.

But in the years ahead the Clean Energy Ministerial can – and must — do more.

What has the Clean Energy Ministerial accomplished so far?  

Perhaps the most impressive results have been in the area of energy efficiency.  As a result of cooperative work under the Clean Energy Ministerial, India, South Korea, Chile and South Africa have standards to improve the energy efficiency of lighting, electric motors, water heaters, televisions and ceiling fans.  The avoided energy consumption (and avoided emissions) will be enormous.  In India alone, according to figures from U.S. DOE, the standards for LED lights have the potential to save energy equal to the output of 90 coal-fired power plants.

Clean power has also been a focus.  The Global Atlas for Renewable Energy – the most comprehensive data source on global renewable energy potential – is an initiative of the Clean Energy Ministerial.  So is a six-volume guide to conducting renewable energy auctions, an increasingly popular tool for transitioning power systems to clean energy worldwide.  The Clean Energy Ministerial’s 21st Century Power Partnership has convened workshops and prepared technical analyses to support power system transitions in the United States, India, Mexico and South Africa.  The Clean Energy Ministerial’s smart grid program is coordinating international evaluation of test protocols for advanced photovoltaic inverter and energy storage system functions.

(The Clean Energy Ministerial is unapologetically wonky.  Indeed one of its great strengths is bringing senior policymakers and technical experts together in a way that doesn’t often happen elsewhere.)

The Clean Energy Ministerial’s Clean Energy Solution Center has provided clean energy policy advice in more than 90 countries including Malaysia (on feed-in-tariffs), South African (on energy efficiency) and Grenada (on national energy planning).  The Clean Energy Ministerial’s Electric Vehicles Initiative provides annual data on the global deployment of electric vehicles and charging infrastructure.  A Clean Energy Ministerial program is building a global network of women leaders in clean energy, with an International Ambassador’s Corps and online forum.

The list goes on.

At the same time, the Clean Energy Ministerial has yet to make progress in several areas.  Despite the potential for shared learning on the energy implications of urbanization, for example, little work is underway to address it in the Clean Energy Ministerial.  Despite the disruptive developments underway in the transport sector globally, little work on that topic is underway, with the exception of an important initiative on electric vehicles.

More broadly, it is easier to announce initiatives than to follow through on them.  Some initiatives have suffered from lack of attention after initial fanfare.  In addition, the Clean Energy Ministerial has yet to receive public and political attention rivaling that received by some other intergovernmental processes, most notably the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  (More than 150 heads of state traveled to Paris for the UNFCCC climate conference last December – the largest gathering of heads of state ever outside New York.)  Public and political attention will be essential to sustain the Clean Energy Ministerial going forward.

Still, the Clean Energy Ministerial has helped drive progress in an impressive range of areas.  Michael Liebreich, the visionary founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, says: “The Clean Energy Ministerial has had a very significant impact.  It brings ministers and their teams together in a way no other platform has managed. Over the years it has catalyzed important work on energy efficient appliances, integration of variable renewable energy, finance, cities and a host of other key issues.  The world is closer to a clean energy future as a result.”

The Clean Energy Ministerial must build on this foundation.  The years ahead will be critical for the Clean Energy Ministerial, for at least three reasons. 

First, the clean energy sector is growing.  Last year total investment exceeded $329 billion, the most ever.  Many governments around the world have ambitious goals for the deployment of clean energy, including wind and solar power.  That growth is bringing challenges, such as integrating variable renewable power into electric grids.  Shared learning of the type facilitated by the Clean Energy Ministerial can be especially helpful as the clean energy sector grows.

Second, the climate change threat is worsening.  Every month in 2016 has set global temperature records.  2015 was the hottest year on record and 2014 was the warmest year before that.  Epic droughts in California and floods in Texas are just two examples of the type of weather patterns we can expect in the years ahead, unless the global economy transitions to clean energy.

Third, the Paris climate conference changed the diplomatic context.  The Clean Energy Ministerial was born in the wake of the gloom following the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, widely perceived to be a failure.  The Clean Energy Ministerial helped fill a gap, providing a forum where countries unable to work together effectively under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) could join forces on topics of shared interest.  In Paris last December, countries overcame their differences to adopt a new global framework for working together on climate change under the UNFCCC.  That framework includes national climate action plans from each country that will be strengthened over time.

Also in Paris, twenty countries from around the world pledged to double spending on clean energy research and development under the banner of “Mission Innovation.”  Twenty-eight billionaires led by Bill Gates formed the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, pledging to invest in clean energy technologies and help move innovative technologies more quickly from lab to market.

So what exactly should the Clean Energy Ministerial do in the next seven years?

First, the Clean Energy Ministerial should use the new tools provided by the UNFCCC in connection with the Paris Agreement.  Each member of the Clean Energy Ministerial should review the national climate action plan it submitted ahead of the Paris climate conference, identifying the most promising opportunities for clean energy cooperation.  Members should build on that review to strengthen existing Clean Energy Ministerial programs and launch new ones.  Those programs, in turn, can help countries implement and strengthen their national climate action plans.  In San Francisco, ministers could task the Steering Committee of the Clean Energy Ministerial to come back with specific ideas in this area.  The Clean Energy Ministerial provides a unique platform for following through and building on the pledges made in Paris.

Second, the Clean Energy Ministerial should help Mission Innovation and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition move forward.  Almost all Mission Innovation countries are members of the Clean Energy Ministerial.  The Clean Energy Ministerial provides a natural venue for Mission Innovation countries to convene, as is happening this week in San Francisco.  (Mission Innovation is focused on early stage R&D and the Clean Energy Ministerial is focused on deployment, but there are ways both processes can help the other.)  The Clean Energy Ministerial also provides a natural venue for the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to consult with key counterparts and stakeholders as its program evolves.  The Clean Energy Ministerial should formalize ties with Mission Innovation, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition and similar programs.[1]

Third, the Clean Energy Ministerial should launch initiatives in several areas, including urbanization, autonomous vehicles and carbon dioxide utilization.  This will of course depend on the willingness of one or more countries to take the lead in doing so.  But these topics would benefit from substantially more international technical cooperation:

— The world is rapidly urbanizing, with profound implications for energy use.  Shared learning and technical cooperation could help cities integrate renewable energy into urban systems, optimize transport networks for energy savings and much more.  Addressing this topic within the Clean Energy Ministerial will require creativity, since energy ministers in many countries lack the mandate to deal with these issues directly, but the potential benefits are significant.

— Autonomous vehicles could have widely varying environmental impacts, from very positive (due to improved engine utilization and traffic management) to very negative (due to growth in vehicle miles traveled as the barriers to driving fall).[2]  Too little work has been done to explore how that autonomous vehicle technology can deliver environmental benefits.

— Finding marketable uses for carbon dioxide at scale, while technically and economically challenging, would be transformational in addressing the climate change threat.  Too little R&D funding is devoted to that topic today.

Fourth, the secretariat of the Clean Energy Ministerial should be lodged at the International Energy Agency (IEA).  (To date, secretariat functions have mostly been performed by the U.S. Department of Energy.)  The IEA has been a central player in the Clean Energy Ministerial process, providing data and analysis on clean energy progress, and has the staff and expertise to take on secretariat functions.

Fifth, mechanisms for tracking implementation of campaigns and initiatives should be strengthened.  Many intergovernmental processes have “announcement bias,” in which heads of state and ministers are keen to announce new campaigns and initiatives due to the potential publicity, but sometimes less enthusiastic about building structures to ensure diligent follow-through.  The Clean Energy Ministerial has done a good job maintaining focus on campaigns and initiatives once announced, as well as regularly assessing progress, but this should receive even more attention from the new secretariat as well as from ministers and senior officials at their meetings.

After U.S. Energy Secretary Steve Chu decided to host the first Clean Energy Ministerial, he invited counterparts from many governments, including Chinese Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang.  Minister Wan quickly accepted and his government has been a key participant in the Clean Energy Ministerial ever since.  Next year, the Chinese government will host the eighth Clean Energy Ministerial.  At that meeting and beyond, the Clean Energy Ministerial should build on its successes to help accelerate the world’s transition to clean energy technologies.


David Sandalow is the Inaugural Fellow at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.  He has served in senior positions at the White House, State Department and U.S. Department of Energy.

[1] For a proposal on how Mission Innovation and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition can work together, see my paper Solar Together: A Proposal (April 2016) at

[2] For a thoughtful analysis of this issue, see my colleague Jason Bordoff’s article at 30, 2016

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Climate Change

The History and Future of the Clean Energy Ministerial

Commentary by David Sandalow • May 31, 2016