Last week, the California legislature voted to move to completely decarbonize its electric grid by 2045. “The state’s aggressiveness comes as the Trump administration is moving to loosen or abandon environmental regulations and promoting a revival of the coal industry. And it follows a year in which catastrophic wildfires that many attribute to climate change have been responsible for dozens of deaths in the state, destroyed homes and businesses and cost billions of dollars…California joins Hawaii, which passed legislation in 2015 calling for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C., are also considering such a mandate…”
California has led the nation and indeed the world on environmental policy for over a half a century. The urgency of the climate crisis is driving this policy initiative. While most of California’s greenhouse gasses come from motor vehicles, decarbonizing the grid makes electricity a renewable resource.
Once the technology has arrived and the new vehicles have proven themselves, the tax system could be used to accelerate the demise of the internal combustion engine. People could be rewarded for retiring the old vehicles and replacing them with new electric vehicles.
Europe and California are moving forward and their markets are large enough to motivate automakers to continue to invest in electric vehicles. The wildcard in this game is the backward facing policy of the Trump Administration to promote the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.
Economic growth and sustainable innovation
Economic growth over the past several centuries has been driven by technological innovation and then the diffusion or adoption of new technologies throughout society. Typically, we see a gradual process where new technologies disrupt and displace existing technologies.
Governments that hope to encourage long-term economic prosperity need to understand this process of technological change and both embrace it and encourage it. The current U.S. President and his team have demonstrated no understanding of how these forces operate or how important they are to our economic well-being. The Trump Administration has attacked rather than supported America’s scientific research community. Efforts to cut funding, discourage immigration and diminish the quality of the President’s science advice have impaired the morale of America’s research community.
The issue for the American economy
How dependent is our technological development on the federal government? Finally, we don’t know the long-term impact of states like California that set stretch goals for transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables. While no states are as aggressive as California, many states have set greenhouse gas reduction goals. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions:
“For years, U.S. states and regions have been addressing climate change in the absence of stronger federal action. A wide range of policies have been adopted at the state and regional levels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, develop clean energy resources, promote alternative fuel vehicles, and promote more energy-efficient buildings and appliances, among other things… Twenty states plus the District of Columbia have adopted specific greenhouse gas emissions targets.”
These goals create a market and motivation for new renewable energy technologies. A large group of America cities, corporations, and nonprofits have embraced sustainability goals and are moving to reduce their use of fossil fuels, implement water and energy efficiency measures, and reduce or recycle their waste stream.
While we are not certain that the technology we need for a sustainable economy will be developed in time, the probability is high. Over the past decade, we have already seen impressive improvements in battery, solar cell, and wind technologies. Computer controlled energy systems are gradually being put in place. The price of renewable energy is now generally competitive with fossil fuels, and the long-term costs are trending down. The image of California’s Governors Brown and Schwarzenegger smiling and happily joining together to promote a clean California, contrasts with the angry and sullen image of President Trump shouting at one of his “made for TV” rallies hoping to resurrect an industry whose time has passed.
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