Back when President Obama was elected in 2008 I wrote a blog post about "What's Next for the Green Economy". At the time we were in the midst of economic turmoil, and expectations ran sky high for what Obama would achieve, including action on climate change and the growth of the green economy, as well as turning around the entire economy. Now it's time for the sequel—Revenge of the Republicans. Another election has come with power switching hands, and the economy is still in rough water—I can't help but wonder once again what this means for the green economy. The more I think about it the more I see there is more than one answer to this question. If you're looking for the U.S. Government to take sweeping action on climate change, odds are things don't look good. But in other ways the prognosis for the green economy remains strong. Here's why.
First the bad news for the green economy. Having strong, consistent action by the U.S. Government to fight climate change would help greatly to drive the long term growth of industries like renewable energy. With the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, the odds look remote for sweeping legislation to reign in greenhouse gas emissions. The Republican leadership has already expressed its opinions regarding climate change legislation, particularly anything like the previous cap and trade bill. Even with the Democrats in solid control of both Congress and the White House the 2009 climate bill stalled in the Senate, so I would not hold my breath waiting for the U.S. to take action now. The EPA may move forward with their stated plan to regulate greenhouse gases if there was no legislative plan in place, but this will encounter strong resistance as well.
But there are other ways to approach the problem. Obama and the Congress can shift from an emphasis on sweeping cap and trade legislation to smaller targeted bills tacking specific initiatives like electric cars, energy efficient buildings, and renewable energy. By taking on specific initiatives and industries and avoiding hot button topics like cap and trade, he may find workable compromises with the Republicans that still support the growth of the green economy and green jobs in a way that works for everyone.
Meanwhile the U.S. Government is not the only game in town. Failure of the federal government to act makes action by the states more important than ever. On election day Californians voted down Proposition 23, signaling continued support for aggressive action to fight climate change. Proposition 23 proposed to postpone adoption of AB32, California's own legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Passage of Prop 23 would have hampered the growing cleantech industry in the state, driving investors, environmentalists, industrialists, and cleantech companies to band together to fight the measure, including Vinod Khosla, Bill Gates, John Doerr, and Sergey Brin as well as a group of San Diego CEOs lead by Yeves Perez, CEO of the EcoHub, and Robert Nobles, CEO of Envision Solar. With the failure of Proposition 23 to pass, and the continued implementation of AB32, California will once again take the lead in environmental issues and economic development, supporting both economic and environmental progress.
In addition to action by the states, business sustainability efforts will continue across the U.S. just as they have throughout the Great Recession, because more and more businesses know that being green isn't just the right thing to do—it's the smart thing to do, reducing waste to save money and boost the bottom line. Some of the biggest corporations in America like WalMart, DuPont and 3M are committed to sustainability because they know it is essential for their success in the years and decades ahead.
And people across the country will continue going green to save money, maintain their health, and create a bright future for their kids. With the remains of the Great Recession still squeezing the budgets of millions of consumers, going green can be an important part of their efforts to thrive, changing their lives from over-consumption and debt to saving money and resources by joining the newly emerging conserver economy. Going green can be the perfect strategy to save money by wasting less on energy, for example, or by swapping instead of buying goods through companies like Swap.com.
And countries around the globe will continue to grow their own green economies. The green economy is the business opportunity of the 21st century, and essential for our well being globally. If we don't lead the way in the growing need for renewable energy, clean water, good food, and good jobs, then other countries like China are sure to pick up on these crucial fields and reap the rewards they have to offer. With the world's population continuing to grow, and available resources staying the same or shrinking, the need for clean and green businesses will just keep growing as well, regardless of the current composition of the U.S. Congress.
So while it will be a shame (but not really a surprise) if the U.S. legislative agenda devolves into gridlock, this will not stop the long term drive toward green from moving forward. The green economy will continue to move forward not because lawmakers made it happen, but because it's a change whose time has come. You may be able to slow change for a time, but sooner or later the future comes, no matter how hard you try to stop it.
Glenn Croston is the author of "75 Green Businesses" and "Starting Green", helping businesses to go green and grow green. He's also the founder of Starting Up Green, and the Home Sustainable Challenge, helping people everywhere to thrive in the new conserver economy.