Q&A: Google's Dan Reicher on the Importance of Copenhagen

Google’s Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives, Dan Reicher — a policy wonk that served in the Clinton Administration energy department and heads up Google’s efforts on shaping energy legislation — spent the past few days at the Copenhagen climate summit, meeting with business leaders, giving talks on the importance of energy efficiency, and leading a call to action on consumer access to energy information. I met with Reicher at the BrightGreen Expo in Copenhagen on Sunday and he had this to say about the importance of the negotiations and how IT companies should be involved.

Q). Are there specific issues that Google is looking at in terms of the Copenhagen agreement?

A). We have said clearly that we’re going to need a price on carbon, and part of being here for the negotiations is making sure that it’s sooner rather than later. There’s also the whole technology angle — how do you accelerate clean energy and energy efficiency technology development? At Google we’ve made a big push in congressional testimony to increase energy R&D. We’re at a painfully low level in the U.S. right now, compared to where we were in the 1980s.

The other piece of this is the tens of trillions of dollars it will eventually take to rebuild the world’s energy infrastructure. How do you create the conditions for that investment to be made in a reliable way? That is a fundamental part of this agreement in Copenhagen. The investment is mostly going to be private sector investment — at conservative numbers something like 75 percent of those tens of trillions — and these decisions will determine if that investment will be made or not.

One of the most interesting places to be when/if a Copenhagen deal is finalized will be at one of the big banks all over the world, which will be scrutinizing the documents. At Google we are a modest clean tech investor, we are investing in clean energy projects, but the decisions will be critical for the banking and clean energy project investors. This is a critically important element of the Copenhagen agreement.

Q). Can information technology play a role in bringing the climate change issue down to a personal level?

A). I think there’s many ways that ICT can make this a personal issue in a meaningful way. A part of that is solutions like PowerMeter, but another part of that is putting the seriousness of the problem in front of people and showing them how we are looking at something catastrophic. IT is perfect for this. We could be doing more with Google Earth, Google Maps, YouTube, with all the mechanisms that we have to reach people. Also ICT can explain to people that this can be a simple pocket book issue — reducing energy consumption — as well as getting people engaged in the political process. We’ll be doing more on this at Google in the future.

Q). What will you be watching closely this week in Copenhagen?

A). It will be interesting to have 25 or 30 members of Congress here on Friday, and I will be there and taking their temperature. Ultimately we’ll have to have Congress make a move on this. The role of developing nations is very interesting — the little islands have a voice in these sort of settings way beyond their normal political strength and economy. I think the U.S. is being pressed hard to write big checks for developing countries, and we’ll have to step up to that, but that is going to be a tough road to hell in Washington with the deficit.

The bottom line for me is that I really hope at the end of this week that there is a lot more recognition of the near term inexpensive stuff that can be done now. There are more things to do now than people realize — we’ll be talking a lot more about the boring world of energy efficiency this week, which is so much of what can be done over the next five years.

Image courtesy of Google.

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