Time is ripe for climate action

This morning President Obama released a draft proposal calling for federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, with a focus on carbon emissions from existing power plants. In this historic move, the President has shown that the United States is prepared to take meaningful steps to fight global warming.  

This decision comes after clear and compelling guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court, but the legal path that led to today’s announcement is just part of the story. Decisions made in corporate boardrooms, on Wall Street and on Main Streets across the United States give us confidence that the business sector has never been better prepared than we are today to step up to the challenge of climate change.

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A revolution is transforming how the U.S. produces, delivers and consumes energy – driving us to an ever-cleaner mix of fuels and energy sources. The mix of supply is changing rapidly, with low-carbon sources gaining market share. At the same time, energy consumption is down, despite overall economic growth. This means that implementing the new limits on greenhouse gas emissions will be easier than some have suggested.

According to the Sustainable Energy in America Factbook from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the country’s total annual energy consumption in 2013 was 5.0% below when the Supreme Court made its landmark climate ruling back in 2007. This long-term trend was in part prompted by the economic downturn of 2008-2009. But even as economic growth has returned, energy use is not growing at a commensurate rate, and today our economy is more energy-efficient than ever before.

Over this same period, the Bloomberg Factbook report tells us that use of lower and zero carbon energy sources has grown, while coal and oil have experienced significant declines. Natural gas production and consumption hit an all time high in 2013, and 94 percent of all new electric power capacity built in the United States since 1997 has come in the form of natural gas plants or renewable energy facilities.

The report also found that natural gas prices and renewable electricity generation costs hit all-time lows in 2013. This allowed renewable energy in some places to under price conventional options. Prices of solar modules have rapidly declined, down 80 percent since 2008. The benefits of these lower costs often flow to consumers.   

Another recent report, commissioned by the Advanced Energy Economy, points to 40 emerging technologies that are already changing the US electric power system while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The technology sectors reviewed range from building and industrial efficiency to power generation and grid management and represents a nearly $170 billion annual domestic market, and a $1.1 trillion global market, about the same as the global pharmaceuticals’ sector.  

Deploying these technologies even more widely will not just help states meet new greenhouse gas standards, it will also modernize the country’s electric power system, making it more resilient, reliable and efficient. For some companies, there will be export opportunities around the world by capitalizing on the rapidly growing advanced energy sector.

The proposed rule opens the door for a long-overdue, nationwide discussion about how to balance our need for reliable, affordable power with the growing risk we face due to climate change.   

Jacobson is president of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, a coalition of companies and trade associations from the energy efficiency, natural gas and renewable energy sectors, and also includes independent electric power producers, investor-owned utilities, public power, commercial end-users and project developers and service providers for environmental markets.