No Time for Waste: Building an Environmental Economy

In electing Barack Obama to be the 44th president of the United States, many important real and symbolic transformations occurred, among them a call for a new green economy. The president elect has promised a $150 billion “Apollo Project,” a new alternative energy economy to create jobs and build a secure energy future for the country.

This couldn’t come soon enough. Today, as a nation, and as a world community, we are facing two major crises: the dramatic contraction of inflated economies and climate change.  The election marked the rejection of the tired palaver that we cannot advance the economy and our environmental health at the same time. Now we can move to the reality that economic prosperity and ecological sustainability go hand-in-hand. Investing in a green economy is the best way to support them both.

While we rethink our investments and reflect on our priorities, it’s crucial to keep in mind that efficiency is key to both financial and climate recovery. It sounds simple, but now, more than ever, we can’t afford to waste 90% of the energy used to turn on a light bulb on heat waste. We can’t afford to heat and cool the great outdoors because of uninsulated, leaky buildings. We can’t afford to waste oil, imported or domestic, going at 20 miles per gallon.  We can’t afford to waste billions of government dollars building new highways where they aren’t necessary, condemning people to massive commutes. With $700 billion and more gone to support the financial markets, we don’t have the money to waste.

We need a comprehensive approach to energy, environment and economy solutions that will pull us out of these challenging times. By rising to this challenge, we can inject money into the economy, put Americans to work, create new, renewable energy industries, cut our dependence on oil and other dirty fuels, and reduce global warming pollution.

These investments must come soon, which is why we need both immediate and long-term solutions for economic revitalization. There are six areas, identified in a report by the Center for American Progress, where our investments could generate significant returns: (1) investing in our transportation infrastructure by expanding transit and freight rail, (2) making buildings more energy efficient, (3) wind power, (4) solar power, (5) advanced biofuels, (6) and updating our electricity grids.

Many of these investments have immediate results with long-term benefits. They will give people more transportation options. They will reduce gas, heat, and electricity bills. They will demonstrate our country’s ability to mobilize, take on energy challenges, and reduce global warming pollution.

And best of all, they will create good jobs for jobs for electricians, welders, engineers, metal workers, machinists, truck drivers, roofers, insulators and building name a handful of the millions of beneficiaries. According to the same study, if we implement a green economic recovery program in early 2009, we would reduce the number of unemployed people to 6.8 million, down from 8.8 million, with the unemployment rate falling to 4.4 percent from 5.7 percent (the Center for American Progress study was released September 9; unemployment rates hit 6.5% this October).

These are programs, jobs, and investments that can be implemented across the globe.  Energy efficiency is crucial in the United States, and luckily, we have to wait less than 40 days for the Bush administration – and all its inaction on combating climate change – to come to an end.  But, addressing a global problem requires a global solution.

Still we can begin at home to set an example on how to address the challenges of climate change and lift up our enfeebled economy. We need to stop any additional investment in carbon-intensive energy technologies such as pulverized coal power plants and inefficient buses. We need to redraft our national transportation policy.  We need a long-term mandatory and declining cap on carbon emissions that covers all sectors of the economy. And we need complementary performance standards on buildings, fuels, vehicles, appliances, and electricity. In this alone can we improve our environmental and economic health.