America is losing its superpower status to China. There’s only one way we can get it back

Between 2010 and 2020, China outspent the US by nearly 2-to-1 on energy transition-related investments and leads in renewable energy employment. If we hope to retain our role as a global leader, we must close that gap

Abigail Ross Hopper
,Tom Steyer
Tuesday 15 February 2022 17:34 GMT
A solar panel range near Huron, California
A solar panel range near Huron, California (AFP via Getty Images)

Louisiana, the third-largest producer of natural gas in America and home to the largest population center at risk from sea-level rise in the country, is on track to double its solar capacity with the addition of a new solar farm, the state’s biggest to date.

The tides are changing across the nation, even in states that have traditionally been politically red and dependent on fossil fuel industries. A third of North Dakota’s energy comes from clean resources. Entire towns are powered by wind energy in Texas. West Virginia will soon be manufacturing zero-emission, all-electric school buses.

We are living at a critical juncture. As the urgency of climate change demands that we cut back on fossil fuels, the costs of clean energy are plummeting. We have an opportunity now to course correct and go full speed ahead toward building our clean energy future. It makes sense for our economy, job security, and costs – which is why so many communities across the geographic and political spectrum are already embracing the transition.

The changes states are making represent hopeful green shoots for all of us that care passionately about the future of the planet. This trend is not unique to America. China, India, the European Union – anywhere you look, countries are in a race to out-build and out-innovate one another to become the guiding light in the world’s clean energy economy. Whoever finishes first has ramifications for every worker and every energy consumer in our country.

One significant example of where we can innovate relates to American manufacturing. In order to meet our clean energy aspirations, we must strengthen our domestic manufacturing capabilities. That means building more of our own polysilicon, wafers, solar cells and panels, racking and tracking products, as well as batteries, wind turbines and other critical components. Thankfully, clean energy legislation could, for example, create a significant production tax credit for solar equipment built in the United States.

America’s eye for innovation and passion for solving big problems ushered in an era of unprecedented wealth creation and prosperity in the 20th century. If we hope to lead and reap the rewards of technological and economic superiority in this century, we now must win the race for climate technology that is already underway. Either we lead this global transition or we risk failing to leave a stable planet for our children.

The societal and environmental risks of inaction are unlike anything we have ever faced. Last year we faced a slew of climate disasters in the United States: a withering heat wave in Seattle, the failure of the Texas power grid during the historic winter storm, another deadly hurricane season in Louisiana, and the devastating wind-driven wintertime wildfire in Colorado.

According to research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there were at least 20 disasters that totaled $1 billion in damages each. Electric utilities stand to lose upwards of $40 billion a year if climate-driven disasters continue – a cost that customers are forced to bear.

The economic impact extends far beyond the cost of addressing the damage to physical infrastructure and property. Every sector of our economy is trying to grapple with a changing climate. The agricultural industry – particularly farmers in the Midwest and South – will face major adaptation challenges, with potential decline in yields of more than 10 per cent over the next two decades.

Labor productivity is expected to take massive hits with the extreme swings we see in temperatures. From premature deaths to direct treatment costs to ongoing outpatient care, the health costs of the crisis already exceed $800 billion per year.

Winning the clean energy race not only mitigates environmental and economic disaster – it paves a path to ensuring Americans benefit from an entirely new way to build capital. Solar, for example, is a $25 billion US industry right now. To meet the Biden administration’s clean energy targets, the solar industry in the U.S. will need more than $800 billion in new private sector investment between now and 2030. This investment will create 750,000 new jobs and help mitigate the impacts of climate disasters by providing solar and battery power during climate-created power outages.

By 2030, the clean tech market will pass oil and by 2040, at over $1 trillion, will be worth more than double the oil market.

And that doesn’t even include the impact on adjacent industries. According to IRENA’s 2021 Renewable Energy and Jobs Report, the global renewable energy sector could account for 38 million jobs by 2030 and 43 million by 2050.

What percentage of those jobs land in the United States depends on what we do today. Between 2010 and 2020, China outspent the U.S. by nearly 2-to-1 on energy transition-related investments and leads in renewable energy employment. If we hope to retain our role as a global leader, we must close that gap – and we can. Innovation, America’s lifeblood, established us as a superpower and will allow us to dominate once again.

The clean energy transition has begun, but races are won with speed. In 2021, American climate tech venture capital grew to more than two times more than pre-pandemic investment levels, producing 28 new climate tech unicorns and accelerating startups around the world with over $37 billion of funding. We can’t stop there. Investors are jumping on the opportunity, and so should Congress. If they don’t, the taxpayer will lose and so will the planet.

Our future doesn’t need to be one of more prolonged and severe mega droughts, more frequent and devastating wildfires, and community destroying storms. It also doesn’t need to be one where we watch countries beyond our shores create the companies that will dominate the global economy, taking opportunities away from American workers. Transformational change does not happen on the margins – it takes widespread societal participation, enthusiasm and dedication.

We need to accelerate the clean energy transition so it reaches every state. The climate provisions being considered in Congress build on the work states – even the most fossil fuel heavy ones – are doing. It will deliver sweeping opportunities to every community ready to advance our clean energy future. Passing robust climate provisions will allow us to turn our climate reality into a climate opportunity. America cannot let this pass us by or we will lose in more ways than one.

Tom Steyer is an American businessman, hedge fund manager and climate activist who ran for president in 2020

Abigail Ross Hopper is the President and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, the national trade organization for America’s solar energy industries

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