Why the new, bolder U.S. climate goal will boost the economy

“The benefits of a strong climate action by the Biden administration won’t stop at America’s borders,” write the authors. “It should inspire other countries to raise their sights.”
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The Biden administration just announced a bold, new greenhouse gas emissions target for 2030, setting a clear marker for climate action. The announcement comes at a critical moment as the country begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and looks to strengthen its economy and reestablish itself as a leader on the global stage. Based on analysis by several leading organizations, including the World Resources Institute (WRI), the goal to cut emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030 is both ambitious and attainable.

Some may wonder if this is the right time for such a big commitment, given the multiple challenges the country currently faces. A growing body of evidence shows that smart climate action can propel the country out of the pandemic, while creating millions of jobs, including in rural areas and for people who need them most. As President Biden said last week in his first address to Congress, “If we act to save the planet, we can create millions of jobs, economic growth and opportunity, and raise the standard of living for most everyone around the world.”

Many major companies have already committed to achieve science-based and net-zero emissions. For example, Walmart is one of nearly 500 companies that has set a science-based target that is compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The company aspires to achieve zero emissions across Walmart’s global operations by 2040; and through “Project Gigaton,” it has engaged over 3,000 suppliers to avoid 1 gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions from the company’s supply chain by 2030, equivalent to taking over 200 million cars off the road for a year. To date, its suppliers report over 375 million metric tons of emissions avoided through initiatives related to energy, product design, waste, packaging, sustainable agriculture, and forests.

Setting a high bar for climate action is not a risk but an opportunity. In fact, not acting on the climate emergency is a far greater risk. Here are five reasons why:

Supporting the zero-carbon transition is a smart investment

President Biden has pledged to decarbonize the power sector by 2035 and to spend more than $174 billion to accelerate the switch to electric vehicles and build a nationwide network of charging stations.

These actions will benefit businesses and consumers. Renewable energy is now cost-competitive with fossil fuels in many markets. Coal production in nearly all of the U.S. is more expensive to operate than it would be to build a new solar farm. Similarly, many electric cars are already cheaper to own than gasoline or diesel vehicles, given the savings over their lifetime. As the U.S. ramps up its electric fleet, these vehicles are expected to reach purchase price parity in the mid-2020s.

Clean energy can be a job engine 

We have seen a boom in renewable energy jobs in recent years, despite a slowdown during the pandemic. We also know that investing in solar, wind, or energy efficiency creates twice as many American jobs as investing the same amount in fossil fuels. 

According to new research from WRI, the number of jobs in the clean energy sector outnumbers jobs in fossil fuel production in four out of five rural counties. That’s why we’re seeing states from Kansas to Iowa to Arizona diversifying their economies by installing wind turbines and solar farms. It’s true that some jobs in clean energy don’t pay as much as similar jobs in the fossil sector, and more needs to be done to ensure these are good-paying jobs.

A recent analysis from Moody’s found that the American Jobs Plan would create more than 2 million jobs by the mid-2020s than without it. Many of these jobs accelerate installation of wind turbines and solar panels, manufacture electric vehicles, weatherize buildings, restore forests, and more, and in so doing, help reduce emissions.

The new emissions targets will stimulate innovation

Public and private sector investment in research and development can help drive innovation, especially in zero-carbon technologies. The U.S. stimulus funds and investments through the American Jobs Plan should be channeled in this direction to help the U.S. expand its share of clean energy and identify new market opportunities.

In 2019, the United States lagged behind China in investment in clean energy research and development by almost $30 billion. Meanwhile, Norway is outpacing the U.S. in electric vehicle sales per capita. Achieving the 2030 target can help the U.S. close these gaps and reap additional economic rewards.

Shifting to clean energy will produce public health benefits

Air pollution from burning coal and oil takes a toll on people’s health and is felt hardest by vulnerable populations, especially in Black and brown communities. Expanding the fleet of electric vehicles will reduce air pollution. A study by the Goldman School of Public Policy found that shifting to 100% electric trucks and cars by 2035 in the U.S. would prevent a total of 150,000 premature deaths by 2050.

Climate change will cost the economy if the U.S. doesn’t act 

The consequences of climate change are visible all around us. Last year the U.S. experienced 22 climate- and weather-related disasters costing together more than $95 billion. Many businesses, including Walmart, are already feeling the strain, in forms such as supply disruptions and the need for more refrigeration owing to extreme heat. 

The benefits of a strong climate action by the Biden administration won’t stop at America’s borders. It should inspire other countries to raise their sights, unlocking additional action. It’s well past time for the world to respond. The message to other major emitters is clear: You’re up next.

Kathleen McLaughlin is executive vice president and chief sustainability officer of Walmart and president of the Walmart Foundation. Manish Bapna is interim president and CEO of the World Resources Institute.

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