The Irreversible Momentum Of Clean Energy

2017-01-11T11:15:51+00:00 January 11, 2017|
President Obama Authors Science Article on Clean Energy and Climate Change. (Credit: Dept. of Energy)

(Click to enlarge) President Obama Authors Science Article on Clean Energy and Climate Change. (Credit: Dept. of Energy)

The release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) due to human activity is increasing global average surface air temperatures, disrupting weather patterns, and acidifying the ocean (1). Left unchecked, the continued growth of GHG emissions could cause global average temperatures to increase by another 4°C or more by 2100 and by 1.5 to 2 times as much in many midcontinent and far northern locations (1). Although our understanding of the impacts of climate change is increasingly and disturbingly clear, there is still debate about the proper course for U.S. policy—a debate that is very much on display during the current presidential transition. But putting near-term politics aside, the mounting economic and scientific evidence leave me confident that trends toward a clean-energy economy that have emerged during my presidency will continue and that the economic opportunity for our country to harness that trend will only grow. This Policy Forum will focus on the four reasons I believe the trend toward clean energy is irreversible.

(From Science / By Barack Obama)– ECONOMIES GROW, EMISSIONS FALL

 The United States is showing that GHG mitigation need not conflict with economic growth. Rather, it can boost efficiency, productivity, and innovation. Since 2008, the United States has experienced the first sustained period of rapid GHG emissions reductions and simultaneous economic growth on record. Specifically, CO2 emissions from the energy sector fell by 9.5% from 2008 to 2015, while the economy grew by more than 10%. In this same period, the amount of energy consumed per dollar of real gross domestic product (GDP) fell by almost 11%, the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of energy consumed declined by 8%, and CO emitted per dollar of GDP declined by 18% (2).

The importance of this trend cannot be understated. This “decoupling” of energy sector emissions and economic growth should put to rest the argument that combatting climate change requires accepting lower growth or a lower standard of living. In fact, although this decoupling is most pronounced in the United States, evidence that economies can grow while emissions do not is emerging around the world. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) preliminary estimate of energy-related CO2 emissions in 2015 reveals that emissions stayed flat compared with the year before, whereas the global economy grew (3). The IEA noted that “There have been only four periods in the past 40 years in which CO2 emission levels were flat or fell compared with the previous year, with three of those—the early 1980s, 1992, and 2009—being associated with global economic weakness. By contrast, the recent halt in emissions growth comes in a period of economic growth.”

At the same time, evidence is mounting that any economic strategy that ignores carbon pollution will impose tremendous costs to the global economy and will result in fewer jobs and less economic growth over the long term. Estimates of the economic damages from warming of 4°C over preindustrial levels range from 1% to 5% of global GDP each year by 2100 (4). One of the most frequently cited economic models pins the estimate of annual damages from warming of 4°C at ~4% of global GDP (4–6), which could lead to lost U.S. federal revenue of roughly $340 billion to $690 billion annually (7).

Moreover, these estimates do not include the possibility of GHG increases triggering catastrophic events, such as the accelerated shrinkage of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, drastic changes in ocean currents, or sizable releases of GHGs from previously frozen soils and sediments that rapidly accelerate warming. In addition, these estimates factor in economic damages but do not address the critical question of whether the underlying rate of economic growth (rather than just the level of GDP) is affected by climate change, so these studies could substantially understate the potential damage of climate change on the global macro- economy (8, 9).

As a result, it is becoming increasingly clear that, regardless of the inherent uncertainties in predicting future climate and weather patterns, the investments needed to reduce emissions—and to increase resilience and preparedness for the changes in climate that can no longer be avoided—will be modest in comparison with the benefits from avoided climate-change damages. This means, in the coming years, states, localities, and businesses will need to continue making these critical investments, in addition to taking common sense steps to disclose climate risk to taxpayers, homeowners, shareholders, and customers. Global insurance and reinsurance businesses are already taking such steps as their analytical models reveal growing climate risk.

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