Have you ever seen pigeons scrambling to get a piece of bread? They peck wildly in large groups and grab what they can. This is extractive industry. In cities like Barcelona, where wild parrots live amongst pigeons, you can see the scene depicted above: the parrot grasps a piece of bread with one foot and elegantly stands while eating. This is a smarter, greener way of operating—and a handy visual analogy.
In 2010, when we published the short report Building a Green Economy: On the Economics of Carbon Pricing and the Transition to Clean, Renewable Fuels, it was already evident that clean energy systems would displace polluting energy systems. The reasons were simple:
- Climate destabilization is a threat multiplier, so emissions reduction must and will be a national priority.
- Carbon pricing is an engine for major private investment and job creation; eventually, it will be deployed.
- Smart, people-centered policy will build more robust, diversified economies in rural coal and farming communities.
- Geopolitical leadership is linked to the energy transition, and leading now costs less than delaying action.
In the last 10 years, we have also seen—both with targeted policy support and because of rapid technological innovation—an inversion of the pricing economics of energy. By 2013, Geoversiv was reporting on a wide variety of ultra-efficient new solar energy systems, including:
- Organic solar concentrators (solar windows)
- Solar “glitter”
- Spray-on solar paint
- Molten-salt solar thermal (24-hour solar)
- Solar PV road surfaces
- “The Artificial Leaf” (solar generation of clean hydrogen fuel)
That report noted that:
Together, these technologies amount to an ultra-efficient ephemeralization of energy production. In that sense, we are living the beginning of that future in which Fuller argued we would routinely access cosmically abundant clean energy resources.
The paradigm-shifting power of lightweight, zero-emissions energy means the 19th-century paradigm of combustion-driven energy will not remain dominant for long. Wind and solar are now the cheapest modes of energy production in most places, including the US, Canada, Europe, China, India, Australia, and most of South America.
A year ago, researchers at University College London found that the US green economy was already generating $1.3 trillion in revenue. That gives the US 16.5% of the total worldwide green economy. The study also found that:
In comparison to China, OECD nations and the G20 countries, the US has an above-average share of the working age population employed (4%) and higher per capita revenue from the green economy.
Investment in clean technology is also rapidly expanding:
- The first Resilience Intel Climate-Smart Finance Aggregate (CSFA) found a total of $3.56 trillion in finance committed, across 5 broad sectors, from 2011 through 2018.
- Over the first 10 months of 2019, that total had jumped 74% to $5.48 trillion.
- By early 2020, the CSFA stood at $6.08 trillion.
- A recent update expanded the aggregate of climate-smart finance commitments across those same 5 sectors to $6.92 trillion.
The 2020 election could bring to power a new administration that would move toward 100% decarbonization of electricity by 2035 and net-zero carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050. All of the above information tells you why this makes sense. But friends of the oil industry are trying to scare voters into believing a transition away from oil will harm the middle class. Far from it.
There will be disruptions, and they have to be planned for and managed intelligently. We are witnessing in real time what happens when a government rejects the obligation to lead during a major disruption, to protect the vulnerable and steer the nation toward its best possible future:
- 224,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.
- Another 100,000 “excess deaths” are suspected of being consequences of the pandemic.
- The pandemic economy includes $6 trillion in federal spending in April, 60 million filing for unemployment, hundreds of thousands of businesses at risk.
- An estimated 38% of Americans will suffer food insecurity this year (that’s 125 million people).
- Record new infections are being recorded, even as the President lies to downplay the catastrophic risks facing every part of the country.
- There is significant risk of more than 500,000 lives lost by the end of February.
- All of this now leads to projected costs of $16.4 trillion in lost GDP.
Denying the problem, and not managing the disruption, is costing lives and squandering national treasure.
A zero-carbon economy is a smart, collaborative, information-driven economy, in which innovation is more widespread and persistent, and strategies to help people through technological disruptions should be common practice, managed at all scales. It is important to remember in the analogy of the green parrot / grey pigeon distinction that the analogy is about industries, not people.
While the old extractive industries are limited by the geophysical constraints of their own way of doing business, the people who work in those industries, or in service sectors connected to them, can adjust to and benefit from the transition to a new economy of mainstream green innovation.
An intelligent transition strategy doesn’t reject the better quality of life and opportunity for economic diversification that comes with green innovation. An intelligent transition strategy deliberately focuses on making sure all of the benefits of sustainable development are connected to and accessible through the experience of people in all kinds of sectoral, geographical, and economic situations.