Emissions Down

Renewable Energy Investment Needs to be Up!

emissionsPeople are talking more and more about the drop in carbon emissions, resulting from the shrinking global economy.  Some are saying this is the up side to an economic slow down as it buys us more time to figure out what exactly we are doing about climate change. But as President Obama told us a while ago, things are going to get worse before they get better. And if we allow this mentality to creep in, that lower emissions resulting from economic lag time is “better,” for the environment, than we are likely to do twice the damage as soon as the economy recovers.  

Just this morning, Marketplace Morning accompanied me at breakfast with some news from the World Bank: The entire global economy is shrinking, for the first time since World War II. So, this means a few things. A) We might be on the verge of WW III–just kidding, I hope. B) 2009 is going to be a year of simple (read: cheap) pleasures. C) We need to restructure a few things during this crisis so that when we emerge, we are better for having gone through it, in the big picture. It’s sort of like a big break up, I think.

Looking at stimulus money, setting aside the urban agenda for just a moment and focussing more on sustainability and climate change, what are our best options? Bradford Plummer over at the New Republic’s environmental blog, The Vine, has a summary of Fatih Birol’s thoughts. Dr. Birol is the head economist of the International Energy Agency.

The economic crisis may lower carbon emissions in the short term but will raise them over the long term by crimping investment in cleaner energy sources…To think that lower economic growth is good for the environment is completely wrong…Because there are many investments that are good for the environment, like efficiency, renewables and nuclear, that are being postponed or canceled. One or two years of lower carbon emissions won’t count for much at the end of the day.”

I would like to shake this man’s hand. Well said. Last week, I discussed the age old environment vs. economy question saying that it feels old fashioned in a time when we know so much more about the complexities–and opportunities–that abound when we look at these two issues.

Plummer comes back to comment on Pirol’s thoughts saying that the only possible solution to emerging from the global heartbreak of an economy is by continuing to pump money into renewables, so that we are not sitting on a pile of dirty coal when we reemerge from this recession. He believes that Obama is doing his part and Europe needs to follow suit. But looking at numbers from the stimulus, I’m not sure I 100% agree with Plummer.

There is $11 billion to modernize the grid. Excellent in the world of conservation, but not in the world of renewables. Likewise, the $6.3 billion for energy efficiency and conservation grants is a great program for emission reductions. But does little to address emissionless power. On the renewable energy supply side of things however, there is $3.4 billion for research and development of fossil energy. Is this clean coal? I’m not sure.

Then we have $2.5 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy research. I would argue that we need more on the research and development end of things. It doesn’t take an economist to figure out why renewables are prohibitive. They are costly. The sooner we lower the cost, the sooner we create the real market for them. Not to mention more jobs and all that good stuff. So, while all bundled together, the stimulus is definitely friendly to renewables and a laudible vision, broken down there are some questions. As Obama said, “We know that the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century.” We can be that country, but first we need to do (and invest in) our homework.

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