Reviewing ‘Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy’

Hal Harvey,with co-authors Robbie Orvis and Jeffrey Rissman, of Energy Innovation released the book Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy in November. image.

Designing Climate Solutions a “easy to comprehend explanation of the necessary path forward”

By Matt Chester

This article was published by the Chester Energy and Policy blog on Jan. 8, 2019.

When the IPCC Climate Change Report came out in October of last year, I was hopeful that the clear and direct tone of the warning and the necessity of its recommendations would finally resonate with the general public, especially in the United States. Only a month later, when climate/energy/environment issues weren’t the top mentioned concerns in any single U.S. market and voters sent mixed messages across the country with their ballots, many in the energy world saw how awareness and recognition of the need for action still hadn’t struck the necessary chord. Whether that’s attributed to insufficient media coverage, paralysis caused by the enormity of the task at hand, or something else is up for debate, but what’s not up for debate is the need for something to cut through the disconnect and clearly convey the solutions that are already achievable today. The technology we need to drastically cut emissions already exists, what we’re lacking is the necessary policy solutions.

Right on cue, Hal Harvey (with co-authors Robbie Orvis and Jeffrey Rissman) of Energy Innovation released the book Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy in November. This treatise on how to move public policy so that the potential devastation of climate change can be prevented is detailed and reads as a textbook on the topic– while that may not make it the book you want to give your friends who don’t already care and think a lot about these issues, I believe it will serve as a great Climate Policy Bible that should sit on the bookshelves of all energy wonks.

I also had the pleasure of attending a release event for this book in Washington DC, featuring a discussion and Q&A session with both Hal Harvey and Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, so I’ll be including the tidbits of wisdom I was able to gain from that panel as well.


The stage for this book is set in the forward by former U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, as he writes:

[This book] embodies the philosophy of Bostonian Willie Sutton, who is said to have answered the question of why he robbed banks with the response, “Because that’s where the money is.” Harvey and his coauthors emphasize that only 7 countries are responsible for more than half of the GHG emissions, and only 20 for three-quarters. So “that’s where the carbon is.” Thus, a small portfolio of proven policies, applied in a small number of countries, can  yield enormous progress toward the global challenge of limiting global warming and climate change.

In doing just that, Designing Climate Solutions gives authoritative, data- and example-backed instructions of the policies that must be followed, focusing narrowly on the largest emitting countries and sectors. In one of the many incredibly useful graphical representations of the policy needs littered throughout this book, the following visualization symbolizes current  business-as-usual cumulative emissions expected from 2020 to 2050 (2,253 gigatons), the amount of reductions that are needed to have a 50 per cent chance to prevent 2 degrees Celsius of warming, and how those reductions can already be met with comprehensive and well-designed policies.

Source: Designing Climate Solutions

As Harvey noted at the discussion for the book’s release, this graph represents “the fearsome reality of carbon math.” No alarmism is going on when people say we’re running out of time for action, but luckily there are solutions. The action on those solutions are on a “scale of which has not been seen outside of mobilization for war.” Again, some may want to dismiss such talk as being overblown, but Harvey and his coauthors rather see it as 1) necessary to affect the needed change, and 2) a real example of how action on a wide scale has happened before and can happen again.

By communicating the complete menu of policy mechanisms, Harvey and his coauthors successfully demonstrate how the designated policies are each crucial, make the holistic goal of limiting emissions the necessary amount feel achievable and actionable, and create tent poles onto which readers will latch and reference in many future readings and climate discussions.

Breaking down the prescriptions

Each of the policies fits into the sectors of electricity, buildings, transportation, and industry (as well as cross-sector initiatives like carbon pricing). Further, the policies prescribed can be broken down simply into one of the four types principles:

  • Performance standards (such as emissions standards for power plants or minimum efficiency requirements for appliances);
  • Economic signals (such as carbon taxes or electric vehicle subsidies);
  • Support for R&D (such as funding renewable research); and
  • Enabling policies (those that enhance the functionality for others climate policies to take hold).

Simply implementing policies is not enough, though, as well-intentioned as doing so may be. Within the book are important design principles to ensure these policies are effective in achieving their goals. Some of the key bits of wisdom Harvey shared at his book release event, in addition to being stuffed over flowingly through the chapters of Designing Climate Solutions, are reminders that:

  • With time so close to running out, we must focus our attention on the most effective and influential policy measures. Symbolic gestures (e.g., large organizations divesting from fossil fuels) prompt awareness and feel good, but the time, energy, and resources must be focused on measure that go beyond the mere symbolic. “All of the above” is not a valid solution because we don’t have time to swing and miss or to expend energy on less than optimal strategies.
  • Policies inherently affect businesses and, to be effective, require their buy-in. In that vein, help businesses to support the policies: provide clear instructions with certainty on what the relevant policy (whether taxes, incentives, mandatory requirements, or otherwise) will be for a reasonable number of years into the future and stick to those deadlines. Any uncertainty in how those will change in the future will prevent business reaction from being as beneficial and optimal as possible.
  • Don’t overcomplicate policies and don’t direct them towards specific technology. Focus on the results (emissions reductions, reduced energy demand, etc.) and make them simple to minimize the chance that businesses try to game the system to gain an edge.
  • Pushing for absolutes makes for a great slogan– 0 emissions, 100 per cent renewables– but focusing on them too much can be dangerous. The last 10 per cent of those goals might be incredibly expensive or difficult to achieve, but don’t let that deter from capturing the lower-hanging fruit of the first 90 per cent.
  • Advocates for action on clean energy and climate change need not “lead with our chins” by talking about the science of climate change to audiences that refuse to hear about it, as polarizing pursuits don’t need to be taken on first in order to get discussion going. While such attitudes may be dismaying, Harvey notes that you can “skip the diagnosis and go right to the solution” of clean technology, as the many additional economic benefits of doing so can be enough to garner bipartisan policy support.

An important side dish to the main course of Designing Climate Solutions is the energy policy simulator that Energy Innovation developed internally to create the models in this  book. But, luckily for us in the clean energy community, they didn’t stop there and Energy Innovation made the tool open source and available to the public over the web. What this means is you can adjust various types of energy policies to see what the positive and negative effects are as the model updates in real time– so if you’re curious why a certain policy is featured so highly or is disregarded in this book, you are free to run the numbers yourself! While such tools have existed elsewhere for technological or economical energy nudges, Harvey and team realized that one that reacts to specific public policy did not exist and “with a big gulp of air” they built it. This unprecedented tool is a great gift to the community from Energy Innovation (perhaps you’ll see a future article in this space analyzing and playing with this tool…).

Source: Energy Policy Simulator

What do you do with all of this?

As I mentioned before, this book reads a bit like a textbook and I don’t mean that as a negative. Rather, I intend to keep this book handy in my office so I’ll be able to readily grab it and give myself a refresher on policy mechanisms that come up, from urban mobility policies to feed-in tariffs to carbon pricing and anything in between. Anybody who works with the big climate and energy policy questions should do the same because of how clean and informative the discussions from Harvey and co. are surrounding the policies, their benefits, their limitations, the examples where they’ve worked, and more, all in a digestible form.

Further, I can truly see this book being utilized in school programs on climate change policy, while becoming one of those useful text books that you frequently reference even after leaving school. Absent any specific class, though, interested advocates for climate action can consider this book a terrific self-study program.

Source: Cleantechnica

In the end, for people steeped in the world of energy and climate policy, this book does not present any new groundbreaking ideas on the direction policymakers should take (though I do want to give a deserved plug to this book’s treatment of a hybrid carbon tax and cap-and-trade system that manages to take advantage of the best of both policies while minimizing the chance such policies fall short of goals; while such carbon pricing is no silver bullet, the authors admit, I hope this book gives such hybrid policy a bigger platform). Rather the value of this book, and the reason I’m thrilled to add it to my collection, is its function as an all-in-one, easy to comprehend explanation of the necessary path forward. Harvey has done his readers an invaluable service.

Senator Carpenter was asked at the book release event what the climate and clean tech movements needed most, to which his was response was “In one word: leadership.” Carpenter couldn’t have been any more spot on, with it being more important than ever that individuals support the policymakers, organizations, and companies who are leading by example and fighting to take action now.

To sum it up, Harvey finished the book release event with an uplifting and optimistic tone that I think deserves repeating:

We have some wind at our backs. When you have momentum, go and get more momentum…I’m feeling sobered by the math, but optimistic about what we can achieve.


  • Content- 5/5: The information contained in this book is valuable as a learning tool, as a reference for those who already know it, and as a guide for what we should push our leaders towards in the coming years. The importance and solid execution of this content cannot be overstated.
  • Readability- 4/5: It may be a bit unfair knocking this book down for being rather technical and wonky, since it’s intended for just such an audience. But at the same time, if I’m looking to recommend energy/climate books to those not already in the know about the issues, this isn’t one to which I’d turn. BUT, if someone who works in the industry or is even just passionate on the cause and keeps up with the developments in the fight against climate change asks me what books they need to have on hand, Designing Climate Solutions jumps to the top of my list.
  • Authority- 5/5: Harvey and his coauthors are leaders in their field, and if they can’t be trusted as authorities on how these critical, existential questions of climate change and energy transformation must be answered, then I’m not sure who can.
  • FINAL RATING- 4.7/5: The bottom line is that Designing Climate Solutions is a book that deserves your attention if you want to read, learn, or speak on about the field of climate policy and clean energy transformation. This title will take a key place on your bookshelf for future reference once you’re done, as it already has on mine.

If you’re interested in following what else I’m reading, even outside of energy-related topics, feel free to follow me on Goodreads and see my page of energy-related book recommendations. Should this review compel you to pick up Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy, please consider buying on Amazon through the links on this page. 

If you enjoyed this post and you would like to get the newest posts from the Chester Energy and Policy blog delivered straight to your inbox, please consider subscribing today

If you want to read other book reviews, check out the posts on The Quest: Energy Security and the Remaking of the Modern WorldClean Meat: How Lab-Grown Meat Can Learn from the Renewable Energy Transition, and Energy for Future Presidents

Additionally, keep up with the books that I’m currently reading by following me on Goodreads:

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates this blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.  


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