Until recently, it was fairly easy to dismiss the idea that measures to address climate change could benefit economies, as an overly optimistic fantasy of environmental advocates. That is still the position of many right-wing politicians, including US president Donald Trump and his Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt. These figures have argued that in a still-recovering economy, we simply can’t afford to risk jobs and growth to address a problem that they suggest may not even really exist. While plenty of attention has been devoted to the counterargument proving that climate change from human activities is very real, and that its effects are already upon us, a case can now also be made that climate change solutions can actually benefit lackluster economies. As renewable energy has become substantially cheaper in recent years, it has posed a new challenge to fossil fuels in the marketplace, creating more jobs than the fossil fuel industry has to offer.
Last year, solar power in particular reached a new milestone. Unsubsidized solar power started to outcompete fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. In particular, auctions in which companies bid for large energy projects yielded record breaking low prices for solar energy. An August deal saw prices of less than 30 dollars per megawatt hour in Chile, equivalent to about half the price of comparable coal power. This shift is has been more pronounced in developing nations where demand for electricity is still on the rise, necessitating new power facilities.
The improvement is by no means strictly limited to the developing world. New solar projects in Arizona and Nevada have reached prices as low as $40 for each megawatt-hour. Meanwhile, wind farms in Texas have been built for as little as $22 per megawatt-hour. For this reason, the utility industry in the US is already set on track to transition to renewable energy sources, with no plans to change course as result of Trump’s victory. According to a spokesman for Duke Energy Corp, Tom Williams:
“We said before the election that whoever is elected president, we would be continuing our efforts to go to a low-carbon fleet and also pursue renewables.”
Duke is the second largest utility owner in the US. These companies have backed up such statements with action, closing a record number of coal-plants and adding more wind and solar to electric grids than any other power source since 2014.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) Chairman Michael Liebreich predicted that “renewable energy will beat any other technology in most of the world without subsidies.” He added that “renewables are robustly entering the era of undercutting” fossil fuel prices. Another analysis from BNEF projected that the use of fossil fuels for electricity would reach its peak, and begin to decline, within the next decade. BNEF attributed this to the sooner than expected availability of electric cars and battery storage for renewables, as well as to energy policy changes in China.
Soon, the market will no longer support arguments against emissions reductions. Instead of merely campaigning against subsidies for renewables, the tables are turning, forcing politicians like Trump to make the case that fossil fuels such as coal deserve government support to preserve much-needed jobs. Many of the Trump administration’s most vocal arguments against emissions reductions have already focused on the need to preserve jobs in regions that economically depend on fossil fuels.
However, this argument may already be outdated as well. Renewable energy has been responsible for an increasingly large portion of US economic growth, including employment. One January report from the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate Corps program estimates that solar and wind jobs are growing 12 times as quickly as the rest of the US economy. It also suggests that 46 percent of large companies have hired workers in positions meant to address sustainability and emissions issues.
The Department of Energy’s 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, published in February, showed that five times as many people are employed in the clean energy than in the fossil fuel industry. According to the report, almost 1 million Americans work full time in the solar, wind, alternative vehicles, or energy efficiency sectors, while only a fifth of that number are employed working with gas, coal or oil. It found that 2.2 million jobs contribute in some way to energy efficient products and services.
This data is changing the conversation about climate change, and it will make it increasingly difficult for politicians like Trump to make a convincing case against action. It would serve his administration, as well as the country, better to listen to the global market and embrace the future of renewable energy. Doing so could offer a path that speeds economic recovery while addressing the reality of climate change. With sea levels already on the rise, arctic ice dwindling, and an economy still in need of jobs, Trump can hardly afford to turn his back on the future.