March 7, 2017
Raking in the Green
Yes, you can. You CAN cut carbon emissions and grow the economy. While many in the dirty-fuel industry have been claiming for years and years (and years) that reducing our dependence on fossil fuels would ruin the economy, recent studies prove, definitively, that just isn’t true.
Turns out that going green can really bring in the green! (See what we did there?) Let’s take a look at the evidence.
Global Trends in an Age of Global Warming
35 countries, including the US, reduced their carbon emissions while increasing their gross domestic product (GDP) between 2000 and 2014. In fact, for two years running (2014 and 2015), global CO2 emissions stayed flat while global GDP grew. Every other time in history that global CO2 emissions have stagnated or fallen, it was due to an economic downtown; this is the first time that it’s ever been associated with economic expansion.
Let’s just pause for a second here: that’s amazing news! And the US has played an important leadership role, globally, over the past eight years especially, in making it happen. But now that the new Trump administration has signaled that the government will be turning its back on the clean-energy economy (that’s been responsible for much of the emissions reduction and has been creating a lot of jobs), there’s worry around the world about what that might mean.
Here in the US, attention has turned to the individual states. As the federal government retreats, will they be able to pick up the slack and keep the low-carbon momentum going? Can states prosper while getting out of the fossil-fuel business?
The States Step Up
The answer appears to be yes! The Brookings Institute published the results of a study that showed how a lot of states, both large and small, have “decoupled” their emissions from economic growth.
Researchers took a look at GDP growth in all 50 states, plus Washington, DC, from 2000 to 2014 and compared it to carbon emissions from the same time period. Turns out that not only is decoupling possible, but a majority of states have been able to accomplish it. 33 states are showing us the way to a job-creating, money-making, clean-energy future!
Maine saw its CO2 decline by 25%, the most of any state, while its GDP increased by 9%. Maine is a relatively small state, both in terms of GDP and population. But larger states have been just as capable of achieving similar and even more impressive results. Take a look at Massachusetts: it cut its emissions by 22% while growing its GDP by 21%. Georgia’s numbers also jump off the screen: a carbon reduction of 20% and GDP growth of 24%. And New York isn’t too far behind: emissions down by 17% and GDP up by 15%.
What’s interesting, and hopeful, is that states’ ability to decouple appears to be ramping up. Only five New England states (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont), plus New York, were able to do this between 2000 and 2007. But since 2008, more and more states have joined the club.
Say Goodbye to Coal!
Overall, Northeastern states have been able to cut carbon emissions most dramatically. The reason for that mostly has to do with how these states generate their power. Most states in the Northeast are getting their electricity from natural gas and/or importing hydroelectric power from Canada. In other regions, the power mix is less conducive to reducing carbon emissions. Many Midwestern states, for example, continue to get power predominantly from coal-burning plants—and the study shows that shifting from coal to natural gas is perhaps the major factor in lowering CO2 levels. The good news is that, no matter what the new administration might wish or claim, the coal economy is almost certainly dead.
Renewables in the Mix
There are twice as many jobs in the solar industry as there are in coal. Across the board, clean-energy jobs are dramatically outpacing fossil-fuel employment. There’s no question what the economy of the future looks like.
Despite that, the Brookings study found that, at least during 2000-2014, solar, wind, and the rest did not have a significant impact on the reduction of carbon emissions. That may be because some states only started seeing a big increase in the use of renewables over the past decade. And in some cases, that increase has been huge—in Idaho, for example, wind generated just 2% of the state’s electrical power in 2008, but in 2014 that number was already up to 19%. And consider Arizona: it got less than 3% of its power from solar in 2014. Doesn’t so great, right? But that number was up more than 50% from the year before! Change is happening, and it’s happening quickly. Over time, renewables will have an increasingly powerful impact on states’ ability to prosper while reducing CO2.
There’s a Lot of Work Left to Do…
So that was the good news. The bad news is that this shift toward a clean-energy economy, while real, is not happening nearly fast enough.
Even with all that the states are doing, the world will still see temperatures rise by more than 2˚C (the limit set by the Paris Climate Agreement) unless we cut carbon emissions even more rapidly.
We know that we won’t be seeing any leadership on climate change or clean-energy jobs from the federal government, but the success these 33 states have been able to achieve gives us hope. It’s up to each of us now to pressure our local and state leaders to say yes to the future—to say yes to renewable energy, a clean environment, thousands of new jobs, and a rising GDP. We know it can happen—we’ve seen it happen! So let’s get to work.
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