Opinion | Energy & Environment

Jobs, the carbon spike and the COVID-19 cliff

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The acute economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the long-simmering climate crisis may seem unrelated, but potential solutions to mitigate both are linked. With a new administration prioritizing the two issues and fortified by a majority in both chambers of Congress, America is in a position to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and climate change simultaneously. 

How are these two crises commensurate? Both are inflicting major health and economic pain. Both require effective coordination and cooperation to control and they painfully underscore why proactive investment in prevention can stave off far larger costs when a crisis arrives.  

On the surface, the speed of each crisis looks very different. COVID-19 struck like a lightning bolt. Almost overnight last March, hospitals filled, then morgues. Cities locked up, and the December labor report logged a net loss of 9.4 million jobs in 2020 - about seven times the average for other job-loss years since 1940.

Climate change unfolds less obviously. While 2020 just tied 2016 as the hottest year on record, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the main driving force for climate change, grow by under 1 percent each year. Yet, in a longer view, the modern rise in atmospheric carbon is even more meteoric than the changes wrought by COVID-19, such as this year's plunge in jobs. A new visualization conceived by one of us, Benjamin Strauss, makes it clear. Compared to almost a million years of the reconstructed past record, the carbon spike of the last century towers like a skyscraper, rising 30 times higher than the average change over a millennium during other historical carbon-growth periods.

The impact of COVID-19 will linger for many years, well after most people are vaccinated. Yet we will be living with impacts from climate change for far longer. Once carbon reaches the atmosphere, it can remain for hundreds to thousands of years. The day the world economy reaches net zero emissions is not the day we end our climate troubles. It is the day the atmosphere can begin a centuries-long recovery to slowly reduce the plagues of a hotter world. 

But there is a common way to help our economy and our climate recover more quickly.  

An ambitious push to build a net zero carbon economy could provide a meaningful share of the economic stimulus needed to power America out of the COVID-19 era. 

One of us, Jesse Jenkins, co-led Princeton University's just-released Net-Zero America study, a granular analysis of what is needed to eliminate net contributions to global warming by 2050. The study also provides a blueprint for an additional $2.5 trillion in capital investment in clean energy infrastructure needed this decade to put America on a path to net zero. 

To be clear: these are investments, not costs. Energy consumers will pay back these investments over many decades, keeping net annual U.S. spending on energy near its historic low as a percentage of GDP. 

Near-term policy to get those investments flowing could be a cornerstone of America's COVID19-linked economic stimulus and recovery. 

The Net-Zero America analysis shows that the first requirement will be to more than double the total electricity generation from carbon-free sources, including wind, solar, hydropower and nuclear energy by 2030. Most of that growth will come from wind and solar power, which already employed more than 360,000 Americans in 2019. By 2030, over 1.2 million Americans could be employed in the wind and solar industries, with 700,000 more skilled workers employed constructing high voltage transmission lines to connect these clean American energy sources to cities and industries. 

Second, electrifying cars, trucks and home heating will enable that new clean electricity to displace oil and natural gas use. The U.S. could leverage today's zero-interest environment to provide low-cost capital to retool and repower American manufacturing to produce globally competitive electric vehicles and efficient electric heat pumps. With many of the world's largest auto markets, from China to California, already planning to phase out sales of internal combustion engine vehicles, the future for American automakers is clearly electric. 

Additional steps for reaching net zero could help to employ skilled workers in the U.S. oil and gas sectors, which are reeling as COVID-19 has crushed short-term energy demand. Pipeline workers could start building a new "carbon dioxide superhighway," a national network of pipelines that can transport carbon dioxide captured at power plants and industrial processes across the country to storage locations concentrated in the Gulf Coast, West Texas and the Dakotas. To make the project work best, the government could fund a program to characterize the best specific locations in the country to inject carbon dioxide deep underground for permanent and safe storage. That's an opportunity to put now-idled drill rigs and crews back to work. So would further investment in enhanced geothermal energy, which applies horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to dramatically expand the nation's renewable energy potential. 

Overall, the growth in clean energy would more than offset employment declines in fossil energy sectors, resulting in a net increase of half a million to 1 million jobs in energy supply sectors by 2030. More would be employed in energy efficiency and manufacturing of clean vehicles and appliances. Almost all states will win; those with the biggest projected boosts this decade include Florida, the Carolinas, Missouri, Indiana, Idaho and Nebraska. 

The coronavirus has caused a profound economic shock. Clean energy alone cannot put America back to work. Nor will near-term stimulus measures be sufficient to fund the decades-long effort to build a net zero carbon economy. Yet ambitious and timely action today can help confront both climate and COVID-19 challenges at once and point our nation toward a cleaner and more resilient future. 

Jesse Jenkins is an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and energy and the environment at Princeton University. Benjamin Strauss is CEO and chief scientist of Climate Central.

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