It’s possible for the U.S. to decouple emissions growth from economic growth.
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The U.S. needs a massive economic boost to recover from the coronavirus crisis, but how that boost happens will be crucial not just to the economy, but to the climate. A green COVID-19 recovery will create jobs and make the country even more resilient against a volatile future. This might sound like an impossible demand to put on the much-needed recovery, but in recent years most states have already shown that this is economically possible. Since 2005, 41 states and Washington, D.C., have increased their GDPs while reducing their carbon emissions, debunking the myth that economic growth can only happen at the expense of our environment.
A new report from World Resources Institute (WR) analyzes how states have decoupled their GDP growth from emissions, which Devashree Saha, a senior associate at WRI, says is “a hopeful sign for the United States and for the planet.” From 2005 to 2018, the country’s overall GDP increased by 25%, while energy-related carbon dioxide emissions fell 12%, because of the shift from coal to gas power, the rapid deployment of renewable energy technology, and the progress made in vehicle emission standards. The difference is even greater in certain states: Massachusetts grew its GDP by 26% and reduced emissions by 25%, and South Carolina grew its GDP by 21% while dropping emissions 20%.
All major geographical regions had states that were able to accomplish this to some extent, but there were a few individual outliers. Nine states did not decouple their emissions from their economic growth—Louisiana, Texas, Washington, Mississippi, Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Idaho—and in a few cases, some saw a significant increase in emissions. Idaho grew its GDP by 22% but also increased emissions 17% between 2005 and 2017. Despite Washington’s strong climate initiatives, emissions there still increased by 4%. Those emissions are low relative to their GDP, but this increase could in part be due to more natural gas use or higher transportation-related emissions.
The states that have been taking the biggest actions on climate change often see the most substantial economic gains, but overall, they still have not done enough to meet the Paris Agreement goals. “It’s great that 41 states have decoupled, but how much more do we have to do? This analysis shows that retiring coal in favor of gas has been a very important factor in reducing power sector emissions, but we are facing the next set of challenges, which is how do we switch from natural gas to other sources of energy like wind and solar?” she says. If we want to keep reducing carbon dioxide emissions even further, she adds, then we also have to look at other sectors of the economy like transportation and buildings.
The time to tackle those next challenges is now, with the help of federal action. State and local governments have been the leaders to advance climate action so far, but the progress is too slow. “Economic recovery in the shadow of COVID-19 provides an opportunity for the federal government to renew its commitment to low carbon investment and climate policy,” Saha says.
And the longer we wait to take climate action, the worse off we will be, economically and in terms of our health. “Just like COVID-19, climate change is a threat multiplier,” Saha says. Left unchecked, it will lead to more heat-related deaths, sea level rise, stronger and more frequent storms—which will damage infrastructure including bridges, roads, and buildings—which will all have an effect on our economy. Air pollution alone is estimated to cause more than 100,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year, costing the country about 5% of its GDP in annual damages.
Transitioning to renewable energy may not be easy for every state, and the report stresses that our green recovery must be inclusive and equitable for all Americans—meaning no one is left behind and that everyone, including low-income and minority Americans, benefits from a low-carbon economy. COVID-19 has disrupted all parts of our economy, even the clean energy sector, but still: “The critical question is not whether we have to rebuild, but how do we rebuild the U.S economy?” Saha says. “Investment in low carbon infrastructure and focusing on climate policies is going to be win-win for the U.S. economy not only in the near term, but it’s going to set up the economy for long-term prosperity.”