Killing Your Future

Photo courtesy Greenpeace

As I write, the U.S. Administration is announcing that it is leaving the Paris Climate Accord. The environmental and business communities are outraged. Advocates of withdrawal claim that it will put America first. Little could be further from the truth.

This used to be the position developing nations took at international climate negotiations: rich countries got rich burning coal and oil. Why should we sacrifice our economic development for the good of future generations? Despite Mary Robinson’s plea that poor countries would better meet their aspirations using renewable energy to save the world from climate chaos, they’d reply, “We’d rather get rich now, thank you, even if we all roast later.” Or sooner: 2016 was the hottest year ever recorded. But if people are hungry and don’t yet have the luxury of worrying whether their second house should be in the Azores or St Moritz, you can see the logic, robustly urged on by the coal companies. Coal miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania said much the same in electing this Administration: we don’t care about the climate, we want our jobs.

But the debate rests on a falsehood: acting to protect the climate does not impose a financial penalty Both developed and developing nations are moving rapidly away from fossil energy to renewables, not because it’s the moral thing to do, but because it’s the route to prosperity.

South Africa is turning to solar and wind supply because it can meet its capacity shortfalls faster and cheaper that way than with coal or nuclear facilities. This saved the country $69 million in 2014, leveraging jobs and enhancing local industrial capacity. With proposed coal plants on hold because of soaring costs, the country commissioned 79 renewable energy projects totaling more than a gigaWatt (GW) - roughly a nuclear-sized chunk of capacity. A new nuclear plant would have taken 10 years to build and cost, by one recent estimate, $6 per Watt. Coal, long been thought to be cheap, comes in at $2.30/W. In contrast, solar farms are now being built from Chile to the United Arab Emirates at $1.60 per Watt.

The biggest user of energy, China, is becoming the world’s renewable energy powerhouse. Growing its installed solar capacity two orders of magnitude in four years, China went from .3GW in 2009 to 3.3GW in 2011 and 13GW by 2013, with 30 GW of solar planned for 2017, alone. China still burns a lot of coal, but its Green Horizons program has committed to clean the air in its cities cut carbon intensity 40 to 45% by 2020, and make the country 85% renewable by 2050. In 2015, Chinese coal imports fell by 42% from a year before, and have continued to fall to today.

The renewable future is inevitable, as hundreds of entrepreneurs around the world bring renewable electricity to ranchers like me, but also to the poorest people on the planet. Juan Rodriquez’ company Kingo sells solar electric light to rural villages from Latin America to Africa. Its customers, beyond the reach of the grid, now have light at prices less than they had been paying for kerosene or other fuels. Kingo bundles solar panels, light, and phone charging into a mobile money system that connects poor villagers to modern finance, empowering and enriching their lives.

SELCO, India, the Solar Electric Light Company, is delivering a renewable future today not as aid, but as a $3 million a year business, with no government subsidies. SELCO sells solar panels that provide lighting and electricity to poor villagers at monthly prices comparable to what they would pay to use traditional, less effective sources.

India has learned the lesson. It is rejecting coal and going solar. India and China are now on track to surpass their Paris goals. This will drive their economic competitiveness, create millions of jobs and render the U.S. ever less relevant in those markets. This is precisely why the business community has been so frantic to keep the U.S. in the Paris Accord.

The U.S. chose, instead, to return to the energy of the last century. But it won’t work. Ironically, on the same day that the U.S. pulled out of Paris, three coal plants were shuttered. Even the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum switched to solar because it was cheaper than the coal-fired electricity it had been buying from its local utility.

Coal jobs aren’t coming back. But turning our back on the future could cripple the real job creation engine: In 2016, the U.S. solar sector employed 77% more people than U.S. coal mining, surpassing employment in oil and gas extraction (187,200 jobs) and coal mining (67,929 jobs). The U.S. has more than 2.5 million workers in clean energy. Of these, almost 2 million worked in energy efficiency, manufacturing and installing more efficient lights, appliances and advanced materials. Advanced vehicles employed another 170,000 workers, including 55,000 making electric vehicles, and 53,000 making hybrids.

By 2017, there were more than two and a half times more clean energy jobs than fossil employment, growing 12 times faster than the entire economy. Globally, almost 10 million people were employed in renewable industries, a number expected to grow to 24 million by 2030. If the renewable energy projects are locally owned they create twice the number of jobs, and deliver up to three times the economic value to the community as jobs with big companies headquartered elsewhere.

Clean energy is a huge part of our workforce and our economy. Smart policies helped jump-start this industry, and smart policies would keep made-in-America jobs growing—and help our environment along the way.

These are the jobs that people want. Johnson Controls found that 96% of workers aged 18-35 want to work for a responsible and green-minded company. Ironically, even people in coal country want the jobs of the future. Once again, the Administration has screwed the people who elected them.

For the rest of us, The Resistance just got stronger.

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L. Hunter Lovins President Natural Capitalism Solutions, Professor of Sustainable Management Bard MBA


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