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Converging crises call for converging solutions

Image of earth with economic numbers and COVD-19 virus

In the words of President-elect Joe Biden, America is facing four historic colliding crises: the economy; a pandemic; systemic racism; and climate chaos. 

These aren’t four separate asteroids all coincidentally headed our way at once. They’re intertwined and part of the same challenges; they’re the consequence of decades of actions and inactions that are boiling over and activating one another. It stands to reason that we couldn’t silo solutions. 

Perversely, it is possible that economic crises will be the catalyst we need to address climate change. That’s because the problems have the same solution: the rapid deployment of clean technologies across the economy. 

COVID, the economy and emissions

As the world pressed pause this spring in an attempt to flatten the coronavirus curve, our emissions curve flattened, too. We conducted a science experiment on a historic scale: What happens to emissions when everyone (or a large majority of people) stands still? 

As the year rounds to a close, the results are becoming clear: We’re on track to reduce carbon emissions from energy by 8 percent. 

While significant, I am surprised that the emission reductions are so small. It reflects the limits of individual action; even if we all do everything we can, the built-in emissions to our economy still will bust our carbon budget.

America is at its best — most collaborative, innovative and productive — when we have a shared enemy and objective.

More distressing is the projection of emissions as our economy recovers. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s New Energy Outlook, carbon emissions are set to rise through 2027, then decline 0.7 percent per year through 2050. That would put the world on track for 3.3 degrees Celsius of warming. 

In order to have a chance at 2 C warming, emissions would need to decrease 10 times faster. If we’re striving for 1.5 C warming (and we are), emissions will need to drop fourteenfold faster. 

We can rebuild the economy without ramping up emissions

Historically, emissions and the economy are closely related. It makes sense; when people have more money, they tend to use more energy, travel more, buy more things. Likewise, the only three times emissions fell between 1975 and 2015 were during the recessions of the 1980s, 1992 and 2009. And when the economy rebounded, so did emissions

Climate skeptics have weaponized this correlation to frame the economy and the environment as trade-offs. 

But thanks to clean energy, this relationship is no longer true. In 2016, the International Energy Agency confirmed that emissions and economic growth have decoupled. For the first time in more than 40 years, global GDP grew in 2014 and 2015 — but emissions didn’t. 

That’s great news for this moment; the work we need to do to decarbonize is the same work that can pull us out of a global recession.

Building a new type of future 

The concept of a Green New Deal predates the COVID crises. Yet the harkening to the New Deal, the massive federal effort to pull America out of the depths of the Great Depression, feels prescient as we reckon with the worst economy in a century. 

And it may be the urgency to address the faltering economy that spurs the necessary policy alignment to reach true decarbonization. 

The numbers are there. Columbia's Center on Global Energy Policy released a report in September making the case for investment in clean energy R&D to create jobs and boost the economy, and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy commissioned a report to analyze the spillover economic gains from such an investment. Saul Griffith’s new organization, Rewiring America, shows how decarbonizing the economy would require around 25 million jobs in the U.S. 

While the New Deal did wonders for the economy, it arguably had elements that lacked a strategic lens. Case in point: The Bureau of Reclamation damming every river it could in the west, regardless whether it was justified. Imagine what would be possible with a New Deal that has a guiding principle: rapid decarbonization. 

America is at its best — most collaborative, innovative and productive — when we have a shared enemy and objective. Climate change, for reasons I don’t understand, proves to be a difficult unifier. But the economy — now that’s something Americans can get behind. 

This essay first appeared in GreenBiz's newsletter Energy Weekly, running Thursdays. Subscribe here.

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