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EPA chief: Seize the economic opportunity in climate change

The Environmental Protection Agency's Gina McCarthy headed to Silicon Valley this week to extoll the market opportunities embedded in low-carbon policy.

There has been no shortage of partisan spin emanating from Capitol Hill about the potential for the federal government's Clean Power Plan to stifle economic growth.

Rather than buying into the politics, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy has a no-nonsense response: The country is already in the early stages of decoupling economic gains and environmental impacts.

The “U.S. economy tripled” in GDP “while we reduced air pollution 70 percent” in the four decades since the U.S. passed its first Clean Air Act regulations, McCarthy said this week at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

Such logic became a common thread this week during McCarthy's trip to California, resurfacing whenever she was given a chance to respond to conservative complaints about power plant rules.

In an effort to move the issue forward, McCarthy also stressed that there has never been a better time for innovators “to take actions that turn the challenge of climate change into economic opportunity,” she told the Commonwealth Club.

She reinforced the message at the Ceres climate investment summit, also this week in San Francisco, and even on a public Facebook chat carried out from the social media giant's nearby Silicon Valley headquarters.

"There’s a huge cost of inaction — but if we ‪#‎ActOnClimate‬, we can modernize our power sector, drive American innovation and fuel growth for decades," McCarthy posted Wednesday on Facebook.  

Pushing back on policy

McCarthy's seemingly straightforward campaigning comes amid continued partisan hangups around all issues related to climate.

While she was in California, Senate Republicans introduced a bill  to roll back the Clean Power Act, which would have limited new coal plant construction. 

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) introduced the ambiguously named Affordable Reliable Energy Now Act, which significantly would limit the federal government's ability to regulate power utilities — essentially gutting the plan to limit carbon emissions from plants.

But underlying that conflict are state-level actions that serve to undercut federal-level political paralysis.

Even while West Virginia and Kentucky legislators rally around keeping coal, California already has enacted even more stringent carbon emission limits than what the federal Clean Power Plan aims to achieve.  

California's cap-and-trade system for buying and selling carbon emissions credits has been in place for two years — during which California has had more job growth than any other state, thanks in part to a booming technology sector.

Still, McCarthy heralded California's climate change policies as proof that economic growth and environmental stewardship can coexist.  

Politics aside, she said clean tech initiatives and investment in California are making "leaps and bounds with tech," most notably the battery storage sector increasingly linked to electric vehicles and renewable energy.

Climate competition

As some European and Asian countries get more serious about controlling carbon — with several European countries in particular eschewing coal — McCarthy also was confronted with questions about whether the U.S. could fall behind in innovation around clean energy.

U.S. business, she said, "will do what it always does — innovate," even as Congress battles it out over policy.

“EPA’s job is to get people moving on where investment should be made,” she said.

McCarthy added that breakthroughs are already happening with little prodding, citing the rapid growth of solar installations and building of solar energy farms and wind farms. 

“Solar is now competitive with fossil fuel,” she said.

And for the most part, businesses already get this. The Energy Star program has some 1,600 businesses signed on to produce or sell appliances with Energy Star low energy use criteria, McCarthy pointed out.

The private sector also isn't just approaching renewable energy with renewed interest. Sustainable products and advanced agriculture are also returning to the fold after several years of lackluster interest in these area.

The twist: much of the investment in these sectors is coming from inside big companies who are vowing to only use renewable energy sources and cleaning up carbon emissions in their supply chains — setting the stage for an interesting evolution in months and years to come.

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