Crashing into energy gridlock

America's politics is crippled with dysfunction but that is no excuse for inaction – and there are some easy ways to start addressing the long-term energy dilemma.

Center for American Progress

Last year threw into stark relief America’s interlinked economic, energy security, and climate crises.

On the economic front, Americans called out those lawmakers who work relentlessly to build an economy that works for the wealthy few rather than for all of us, but faced determined resistance from conservatives bent on preserving the status quo. At the same time America’s debilitating dependence on fossil fuels and the damages caused by climate disruption became ever more obvious. Yet here too conservative resistance was implacable.

Backed by climate-science deniers and opponents of clean energy – generously funded by their industry backers – conservatives ramped up their campaign of disinformation about dirty energy to push their pollution-promoting policy advocacy work in Washington and around the nation.

The result: seemingly insurmountable gridlock.

And yet 2011 also was a year of historic clean energy investments. The US passed China to become the global leader among nations in clean energy investment, and new data revealed the startling growth of several clean energy sectors in years of sluggish growth for the overall economy. These trends are further evidence of how the economic, energy, and climate crises offer enormous opportunity. By transitioning energy infrastructure from capital-intensive, risky, and often highly polluting energy sources to clean, labour-intensive energy sources we can create many new jobs, grow the middle class, ensure greater energy security, and protect our nation and planet from the predictable ravages of unchecked climate change.

In fact, we can take steps today that will get us on the path toward achieving three critical goals:

-- Producing more clean energy to grow the economy.

-- Reducing pollution while saving energy and dollars.

-- Building more resilient and balanced economies and communities.

These goals remain achievable even in today’s gridlocked political environment.

The US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics just released data showing 3.1 million jobs in the United States associated with the production of green goods and services in 2010, accounting for 2.4 per cent of total employment. Of those 3.1 million jobs, 2.3 million were found within the private sector, with 461,800 in the manufacturing sector alone. An earlier Brookings Institution report produced similar numbers and showed that the newest renewable energy industries grew at a “torrid pace” annually between 2003 and 2010: Solar thermal expanded by 18.4 per cent; wind power by 14.9 per cent; solar PV by 10.7 per cent; and biofuels by 8.9 per cent. Overall these newer ‘clean tech’ sectors grew by 8.3 per cent annually, double the growth rate for the national economy over the same period.

But much more needs to be done. The economic transformation that has already begun must be accelerated to move forcefully into a completely new clean energy economic era defined by stronger industries, better infrastructure, and a steadily growing middle class.

Produce more clean energy and grow the economy

-- Generate a significant percentage of energy in our nation from renewable and low-carbon sources

-- Reduce the cost of clean energy deployment by attracting private investment

-- Strengthen our economy by helping our industries and workers capture the economic opportunity of clean energy

Reduce pollution by saving energy and dollars

-- Realise significant energy savings in all sectors of our economy

-- Reduce greenhouse gas pollution with carbon prices and smart clean energy standards

-- Achieve oil savings

Build more resilient and balanced economies and communities

-- Ensure climate resiliency and restoration

-- Balance energy production with other economic and conservation priorities on public lands and waters

Building this clean energy economy will yield benefits far beyond the jobs and businesses it creates. America will ultimately become more secure as a nation as it depends less and less on inherently volatile commodities such as oil, whose price is set by a global market that is increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events, political unrest, and sudden price spikes caused by shifting global demand exacerbated by speculation. And the US will finally begin to chip away at the threat of climate change, with all the economic, environmental, and national security nightmares that come along with rising global temperatures.

We do not pretend that the strategies we lay out here will fully save our climate or our economy. These strategies will not get us to a 17 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020, which is what the United States agreed to in global climate negotiations in Copenhagen. They will not replace the millions of jobs lost during the Great Recession. But they will begin that process.

Political realism is no excuse for despair or inaction. The dysfunction of national politics in the face of the urgency of the climate crisis and our mounting energy insecurity makes it all the more essential that we apply a laser-like focus to what is actually achievable in the short term. While our three achievable goals are each individually critical to the stability and security of the clean energy economy, they are also crucially interrelated. We should not think about scaling up our investments in renewable energy without also thinking about the jobs and industries that will benefit from those investments. We should not focus on reducing pollution in our current power sector without also thinking about building a smarter, and more balanced, infrastructure for the future.

One thing we’ve learned from countries such as China and Germany, both of which are taking clean energy and climate solutions seriously, is that the best policy approach to these issues is one that combines environmental strategies with those more traditionally found in economic and workforce development. It would be a huge mistake for us to take a less integrated approach and focus only on one technology, sector, or policy solution as if it alone could solve our climate, economic, or energy security challenges.

The critical question is not if we must pursue these strategies, but rather when we will achieve them. The choice is between achieving them now – when they are eminently affordable, putting the United States in the pole position to win the most important global economic development race of the 21st century, and not incidentally save the planet – or achieving them later, when they will be expensive, possibly too late to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and leave us playing economic catch-up to China and other countries as everyday Americans suffer more and more.

Given that choice, we vote for now, or at least pretty darn soon. It is not too soon to pursue strategies that will move us further down a path toward a more sustainable energy future.

This article was originally published by American Progress – americanprogress.org. Reproduced with permission.