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New Study Lays Out Clear, Achievable Path to a Clean Energy Economy

4 min. read

In recent years, a number of reports and studies (e.g., see this 2011 report by the IPCC) have arrived at roughly the same conclusion: stabilizing the climate is an absolute requirement, and although it won't be easy, it's doable with large-scale investments aimed at accelerating the transition from dirty to clean energy. A brand-new report by the Center for American Progress and the Political Economy Research Institute, titled Green Growth: A U.S. Program for Controlling Climate Change and Expanding Job Opportunities, focuses on the energy transition needed in the U.S.  A few key findings of this report jumped out at us.

  • While it it remains possible for the U.S. to hit IPCC and Obama administration climate targets of 40% emissions reductions (below 2005 levels) by 2035, the window to do so is "small and closing rapidly."
  • Absolute reductions in fossil fuels -- cutting total coal use by 60%, oil by 40% and natural gas by 30% - are clearly required. That means we can't turn to natural gas as a "bridge fuel," as some people advocate. It also rules out the "all-of-the-above" strategy we often hear about from politicians.
  • Instead, what's needed is a 30% improvement in energy efficiency across the entire economy, and a four-fold increase in clean, renewable energy.
  • The investment required to achieve these goals comes to about $200 billion per year for 20 years, from both public and private sources. That investment would be used to retrofit buildings, rewire the grid, and sharply increase renewable energy production.
  • That $200 billion investment number is large but achievable, especially when it's put into perspective. First, it would amount to just 0.3 percent of current U.S. GDP and roughly 1.4 percent of the federal budget. Second, one should consider that a "recent White House Council of Economic Advisors report found that a temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would increase economic damages by $150 billion, year after year in perpetuity." When considered in that light, a $200 billion a year investment in clean energy doesn't look so large.
  • More good news: "the report finds that this investment agenda will not only protect our climate but will also generate 2.7 million net new jobs" and " a decrease in the unemployment rate by about 1.5 percentage points."
  • Also worth noting: " the U.S. Energy Information Agency, or EIA, estimates that the average cost for producing electricity from most clean renewable sources— including wind, hydro, geothermal, and clean bioenergy—will be at rough cost
    parity with most nonrenewable sources by 2017." Which means that investments in renewable energy won't just make climate sense, they'll also make economic sense.
  • The report outlines "four pillars, or policy categories, to promote a $200 billion annual shift in investment across the U.S. economy": 1) " Market-shaping rules that level the playing field and build demand for new technology within energy, real estate, and financial markets" (e.g., a carbon tax, renewable energy standards); 2) " Direct public spending, including government investments in energy efficiency retrofits for publicly owned buildings, major infrastructure systems, renewable energy procurement projects, and expanding federal research and development support for efficiency and renewable energy ;" 3)  " Private investment incentives that manage risk and improve access to capital for private investors at all levels of the economy and thereby make clean energy cheaper and more broadly accessible;" and 4) " Regional equity and transitional support for communities and workers, which includes allocating federal government clean energy investment spending equitably among all regions of the country, targeted community-adjustment assistance, extensive worker-training programs, and adjustment-assistance programs for fossil fuel workers."
  • The bottom line: " Stabilizing climate change requires a transformational shift in how we construct, finance, and deploy our energy infrastructure."

While this all may seem like a lot on the "to-do list," the stunning declines in the cost of solar and wind power ("renewables are actually starting to rival fossil fuels and nuclear on an unsubsidized basis") will make it much, much easier. However, there's no question that time is running out: according to a new report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, "[t]he next 15 years are crucial." The big question is, in short, not the technology or the economics, but the politics. More broadly, it comes down to whether humanity will overcome the forces of stasis and rise to this challenge or not. Let's hope we do.