Climate And Energy: The Missing Issue In The US Presidential Election

03/11/2016 12:48
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What is the most important issue in the upcoming U.S Presidential elections? Is it Clinton's email investigation? Perhaps it's cross border migration from Mexico? Or the economy? Or terrorism and national security concerns? In my opinion one of the most important issues is one that's received disproportionately little attention in this election cycle: climate change and energy policy.

The world, after all, still faces the very real possibility of irreversible climate change. And historic steps the international community has taken in addressing climate change - like COP21, could potentially be undermined after November 8th - depending on which way the U.S. public votes.

Inexplicably, there was surprisingly little mention of climate change and energy policy in the Presidential debates. Electoral discourse and analysis has also largely under-represented the issue. Which is precisely why developing an informed understanding of how each candidate could support or thwart one of the most crucial challenges of our generation is so vital and timely.

For one, in efforts to stop climate change, it is imperative the positive legacy of the Obama administration is continued. That is not something a Donald Trump presidency is likely to do - it's something a Clinton administration would.

The Obama administration has done more for green energies than any previous US government. In the past 8 years the Government invested over $2 billion in green companies. This led to a 94% increase in solar output between 2015-2016 alone. However, these incentives will be coming to an end this year. That's why America must elect a President willing to continue in that same spirit of supporting green goals - if not through subsidies, then through other avenues. Hillary Clinton has already proposed a $60 billion investment to fight climate change.

That would represent the most funding the green industry has received in American history (incidentally the fossil fuel industry has itself received far more funding over a much longer period). That fund forms part of Clinton's 10-year plan which would culminate in almost a third of the US' energy requirements coming from renewable sources by 2027.

However, while this is a hugely positive step and one which should be lauded, that figure could be increased and the goals of the program made even more ambitious provided there is a real attempt to foster strong partnerships with the private sector as part of any clean energy plan.

On the other hand, we have in Donald Trump a climate-change denier. He has also expressed his desire to reverse the Paris COP21 climate deal. That's not to say the Republican Party uniformly reflects those same attitudes; in fact, it represents a varied and divided array of perspectives on climate and energy policy, ranging from those who, in the spirit of bipartisanship, have more in common with Hilary Clinton, to those that are climate-change sceptics.

The other major consideration when discussing clean energy is its wider implications on the economy. The renewables industry is worth over $22 billion in the U.S.A and employs over 200,000 Americans, having doubled in number between 2010-2016 - though according to Trump, clean energy has been bad for jobs in America. But whatever one's attitudes to clean energy, it is undeniable that of the various energy sectors, it is the renewable industry that has become far more competitive in preceding years - not fossil fuels. Yes, there has been a recent dip in solar investor appetite after the poor performance of some companies, but the removal of subsidies was bound to have some limited impact on certain players within the solar market. The same thing happened to wind energy companies when wind energy subsidies were removed in 2013, only for performance to rebound shortly after. The point is that it's a positive sign when stronger, more competitive players remain and continue to grow after the removal of subsides. And with costs of solar energy production coming down year-on-year and technological innovation making breakthroughs on a consistent basis, renewable (particularly solar) represents a long-term growth industry. Moreover, we are moving towards a new renewable energy infrastructure in major cities, whether it be for energy supply in transport, mobility or other commercial services that technological advances like solar storage is making possible.

Fossil fuels on the other hand, have a relatively bleak outlook. Financial returns from fossil fuel investments are at historic lows and America's expensive shale oil experiment has seen it squeezed by the high cost of extraction and historically low oil prices.

America needs a President that acknowledges the potential the renewable industry offers America- both ecologically and economically. Of the two candidates for Presidency, it is Hilary who best exemplifies such an approach.

Energy and climate policy also reflects a deeper divide in the attitudes towards leadership and international engagement. At a time when greater transnational cooperation is needed to forge global cooperation in the fight against irreversible climate change, we are witnessing the emergence of two divergent approaches towards political governance.

One approach represents the move towards transnational cooperation, for example by embracing such blocs like NATO or the European Union or indeed major international frameworks like COP21. Indeed, major climate and energy related challenges rely on precisely such broad collaborative frameworks. The other is a reversion to a more insular and singular focus on the nation-state, on borders and protectionism. This election represents each camp being pitted against the other - and given how large a carbon emitter the U.S is, the election outcome could have huge implications for the global effort against climate change.

The fight against global climate change only works when there are strong frameworks for collaboration in place. COP21 is a major achievement that won the support of 189 nations. But it is the multilateral nature of the agreement that will help enforce those commitments. Also, let's not forget the huge potential of the Atlantic clean energy vision. Close, historic transatlantic ties form a powerful basis for collaborative action in tackling climate change and supporting mutually beneficial energy policy. In fact, so significant is the potential for transatlantic energy relations, that collaboration could help shift energy's centre of gravity toward the Atlantic Basin and away from the 'Great Crescent' - the traditional energy-exporting world of Central Asia, the Middle East and Russia.

That is why it is so important to have a new U.S. President that acknowledges the indispensable role played by inter-governmental frameworks and international collaboration in enhancing energy policy and simultaneously tackling climate change.

Finally, while there is certainly reason to be optimistic should a Hilary Clinton Presidency lead to the renewed support of a cleaner energy future, there is still much more that could and should be done over the next four years. Efforts to support the growth of clean energy in ways that are congruent with the needs of the U.S. economy can be scaled up far beyond what either candidate's policy vision offers.

For example, a clean energy revolution requires more effective cooperation with regulators and financial markets. The U.S should follow the experience of Latin American countries like Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, which have launched "capacity" or forward markets for wind and solar solutions to provide electricity supply at utility scale. Colombia too is following suit. This would enable large utility-scale renewable projects within the USA that take a long time to develop, to secure investment years ahead of when electricity needs to be delivered - enhancing the business and financial viability of major renewable energy initiatives.

These are all considerations that ought to bear heavily on the minds of U.S. voters. After all, in just one week, the U.S electorate will vote to choose the leader of the free world. It will be a decision that affects not just America, but the entire world at time of exceptional geopolitical uncertainty.

The need to halt climate change, one of the most urgent threats to global civilisation, and to pursue long-term economically prosperous energy policies should be factors anyone casting their vote next Tuesday takes into count when making their decision.