It is 2012, and international negotiations on climate change are still at an impasse largely because the world’s two largest economies and emitters (the United States and China) are demanding greater commitment from each other. Domestically, the United States is deeply gridlocked in politics over other issues to the point where climate change is no longer a priority to Congress. Meanwhile, China is moving ahead in securing dominance in the clean energy market. Previously, I argued that if the 2012 U.S. elections aren’t positive in terms of getting enough elected officials who understand the gravity of the issue, we may as well just turn to handing over the clean energy market entirely to the fossil fuel industry in its current form through specific economic incentives. Now, I want to answer the question of whether that’s truly necessary. Does the fate of the climate truly rest on the United States alone?
While it is largely believed that without the U.S. the international community cannot truly address climate change, current economic conditions point to the fact that this may not be entirely true. Yes, the U.S. is still the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, and yes China is reluctant to commit to serious greenhouse gas emission reductions without a fair commitment from the U.S. Yet everything points to the fact that regardless of climate change as an issue, clean energy, energy efficiency, sustainable transportation, and everything else that can help address climate change are engines of economic growth that cannot and are not being ignored. This is why President Barack Obama so often claims that the nation “that leads on clean energy” will “win the future.” It’s no longer about whether this needs to be done; it’s becoming an issue of who is doing it the best and the fastest.
The U.S., while still uncommitted to tough greenhouse gas reductions, is leading in investments in clean energy just as other nations like Germany and China are gearing up to claim market share. Just as recently as 2010, China led the world in clean energy investments. The U.S., thanks to the Obama administration, has also seen investments rise to the point where it surpassed China in 2011. Pressure is clearly building to prevent clean energy jobs from being created elsewhere. It’s arguable that if other nations keep pushing, the U.S. would have no choice other than to follow through on making hard commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It is this fact that gives fuel to the argument that the U.S. isn’t necessarily the decision-maker on climate change.
China, along with other countries, are arguably poised to lead the clean energy market. The challenge would be to not just lead in clean energy, but to make hard commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to send a signal to their markets and the world that they are ready to claim a large share of a market that promises jobs and energy security. If China and other countries suddenly became manufacturing centers that supplied the their own markets and the rest of the world for a host of technologies ranging from solar, wind, geothermal, and even carbon capture, political pressure would lead the U.S. to do what it isn’t doing yet to ensure it doesn’t slip through the cracks in this 21st century opportunity to “win the future.”
It is up to China and other countries to leave behind the argument that they need a strong commitment from the U.S. to begin making hard commitments. If the U.S. decides to stay on technologies of the 20th century, that only helps them in winning the future and eventually making the U.S. a market for instead of a supplier of new technologies. There is in fact a way forward without U.S. gridlock, and it is up for grabs. Some countries are already aware, but they need to move faster and more aggressively if they want to truly claim the front seat of this wave of innovation and growth.