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U.S. Versus the World: Which Vision of the Future will Win?

Posted by Sara Gutterman

Apr 5, 2018 11:08:34 AM

While the U.S. invests in war and rolls back emissions requirements, countries across the globe, from Germany to Saudi Arabia to China, are making full-scale commitments to reduce emissions, investing heavily in clean transportation and renewable energy. Which strategy will win?

The Trump administration made its priorities clear with the recent passing of the $1.3 million Omnibus spending bill: war.  The bill increased military spending to $700 billion—compared to $591 billion for non-defense spending—representing what Trump proclaims is “the largest military budget in our nation’s history.”

The administration is also hotly pursuing the rollback Obama-era greenhouse gas emissions regulations and fuel economy standards for vehicles, putting it on a direct collision course with California—and, frankly, most major markets across the globe, and giving automotive manufacturers ammunition to rollback industry standards on an international scale.

California, which has a special waiver under the 1970 Clean Air Act to enforce stronger air pollution standards than those set by the federal government, has vowed to maintain its strict emissions regulations even if Washington eases federal standards.  12 states, including New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, representing more than 30% of the domestic auto market, have followed California’s lead and adopted the cleaner standards. 

With the goal of reducing the country’s carbon emissions, President Obama had strengthened national standards to meet California’s, developing efficiency rules called Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or Cafe, that require automakers to nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. 

If enacted, the Cafe rules are projected reduce U.S. oil consumption by 12 billion barrels, decrease carbon dioxide pollution by about six billion tons, and save drivers $92 billion at the pump over the lifetime of all the cars affected by the regulations.

Furthermore, experts agree that, rather than dragging down U.S. automakers, enacted Cafe standards would actually spur innovation, advancing the development of fuel-efficient, hybrid, and electric vehicles and fostering a vibrant domestic market. 

The slackening of these standards, on the other hand, would allow the automotive companies to idle with respect to innovation, and would also open the door for them to push for more lenient regulations across the globe.

The current administration is doing everything it can to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise of easing regulations on fossil fuel companies to enable them to increase their profits—irrespective of the cost to public health and the planet, and EPA head Scott Pruitt is dead set against allowing California to dictate the terms of national emissions standards (he is even attempting to revoke California’s special waiver.)

Meanwhile, as the Trump administration sticks its head in the sand, other countries are quickly seizing leadership positions when it comes to climate action, emissions reductions, and renewable energy. 

France, Brittan, China, and India have all announced intentions to phase out combustion engine vehicles.

Germany, which is all-in on renewable energy, has decreased its emissions by 23% since 1990.  Britain has dropped its emissions by an impressive 43% by 1990, including a 65% decrease in its power sector emissions resulting from the phase out of coal and super pollutants like methane and hydroflourocarbons.

Saudi Arabia and China are also making headlines with major investments in clean transportation and renewable energy.

The Chinese government has identified “new energy vehicles” (those that plug into electrical outlets) as a “strategic emerging industry” essential to the country’s economic development.  As such, the Chinese government is committed to helping domestic automakers become global leaders in the electric vehicle and battery sectors.  In fact, China is targeting the sale of 7 million new plug-in vehicles per year by 2025.

Additionally, China is the largest producer of solar in the world.  According to Reuters, “In 2015, China became the world's largest producer of photovoltaic power, narrowly surpassing Germany. By the end of 2016, total PV capacity had increased to over 77.4 GW, and in 2017 China was the first country to pass 100 GW of cumulative installed PV capacity.”

With a burgeoning industry of over 400 solar photovoltaic (PV) manufacturers, China is leading the world not just in volume, but also research and development.  In addition to PVs, it is expected that China will continue to drive demand for solar thermal (water heating) and battery storage (further bolstering its investment in electric vehicles.)

It’s important to note, however, that even with solar’s explosive growth in China, the total amount of energy production from solar only accounts for a fractional amount of the country’s total energy demand, and total emissions are still rising as the nation continues to westernize.

However, the Chinese government has set an aggressive plan to generate 86% of the country’s power from renewables—mostly solar and wind—by 2050, and it is spending massive amounts on cleaning up transit systems, power plants, and factories.

In another part of the world, Saudi Arabia is preparing for a post-oil economy. The nation’s sovereign wealth fund, in conjunction with SoftBank Group Corp. of Japan, recently announced its plans to build a $200 billion solar power plant, expected to produce 200 gigawatts by 2030.

“To put the project's scale into perspective,” says energy engineer and investor Robert Rapier, “U.S. solar PV capacity at the end of 2016 stood at 40 GW. The world's entire installed solar PV capacity at the end of 2016 was 300 GW.  This plant would be 130 times larger than the world's current largest solar plant, the 1,547 megawatt (MW) Tengger Desert Solar Park in China.”

The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman claims that the project will create 100,000 jobs, triple Saudi Arabia’s electricity generation capacity, and save $40 billion in power costs.

While it might seem ironic that the world’s largest crude exporter is making such an aggressive investment in solar, it’s indicative of the opportunity—and necessity—that most global leaders have identified: to diversify their national economies and energy infrastructure to meet our changing socio-economic and environmental needs.

Which begs the question—why is our current administration turning a blind eye to the inevitable truths that other global leaders have embraced?  Why are we shunning the obvious pathway to progress?  And how will this shortsightedness and neglectful behavior affect our nation’s leadership position on the world stage?

How do you think we can encourage the current administration seize the opportunity of climate action?  Write to me at sara.gutterman@greenbuildermedia.com.

Want to read more?  Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.  For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit Green Builder Media at www.greenbuildermedia.com, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter for regular updates and breaking news.

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