With the COVID-19 pandemic driving the economy toward another recession, policymakers are looking for ways to revitalize the workforce and our financial system. But as they think about how to rebuild the economy, and what our future looks like post-coronavirus crisis, it’s crucial to take steps that simultaneously prioritize our climate goals.
“There’s no doubt that this economic downturn caused by the outbreak is going to focus political attention on job retention and creation . . . especially after months of curtailed economic activity,” says Devashree Saha, a senior associate at World Resource Institute, where she supports local and federal policymakers as they work to reduce emissions and enact clean energy. “But I think this also provides an almost historic opportunity to emphasize low-carbon industry and infrastructure.”
Despite what some may think, economic growth and the climate are not at odds; research has actually shown that we can have economic growth that is both strong and environmentally sustainable, thanks to technological innovations and investments in sustainable infrastructure. Saha does not want to minimize this pandemic’s current health impacts on the public, but she notes that it’s important to look at the big picture of the world we’ll be living in after this. “In many ways,” she says, “how the U.S. government and we as a society respond to this crisis is going to go a long way to determine whether we create a more sustainable and resilient economy for the future.”
Policymakers will create stimulus plans to boost the economy. The question, though, is where should we focus those recovery efforts. “There is a risk that we respond by doubling down on fossil fuel use and promoting carbon-intensive industries,” Saha says, “but that could be a very shortsighted approach, because this is an opportunity to not only rebuild the economy but to build it back better than before.” Writing in a blog post for WRI, Saha identified four areas where investments would both bolster the economy with new jobs and help us be more environmentally friendly. Here are four simple pillars that should guide the recovery:
Make buildings and homes more energy efficient
Within the energy sector, efficiency is the fastest-growing segment, and already employs twice as many workers as all fossil fuel industries combined. Every $1 million invested in energy efficiency creates at least eight full-time jobs, whereas $1 million invested into fossil fuels creates about three, and there are millions of buildings that can be retrofitted. “Energy efficiency and retrofitting, and improving the energy efficiency of American homes and businesses, has to play a leading role in putting Americans back to work,” Saha says.
Modernize our transmission infrastructure
The U.S. desperately needs to update its electrical grid, and this would be a great time to implement renewable energy sources into that system. The Brattle Group says the U.S. will need $30 billion to $90 billion in energy transmission investments by 2030. Investing in this in an environmentally friendly way wouldn’t just create jobs—simulations have found that $1 billion invested into energy transmission creates 13,000 full-time-equivalent years of employment—it will also lower power costs for Americans.
Invest in zero-emission public transportation
Transportation infrastructure across the country is aging, and with millions of Americans sheltering in place at home, declining ridership will only further strain public transit agencies. Every $1 invested in public transportation, it creates $4 of economic activity in the community. Ramping up federal spending to invest in zero-emissions systems would create jobs, lead to long-term savings, and boost the economy of growing urban areas, plus it decreases pollution.
Increase reforestation and tree restoration efforts
Reforestation isn’t just necessary abroad, it can also happen locally. Sixty billion trees could be restored in the U.S. both in rural and urban areas, according to WRI research, and $1 million invested in reforestation or forest management sustains nearly 40 jobs. A federal investment of $4 billion would mean more than 150,000 jobs per year, as well as tons of carbon sequestered from our atmosphere.
These aren’t the only options as we look to make investments in our economic and environmental future. We could also prioritize low-carbon investments such as electric vehicles and wind turbines, Saha notes. Of her top examples, Saha says they “all have the potential to not only create shovel-ready jobs, they can revive economic activity in local communities that are facing serious economic crisis due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Over the long term, all these investments are also decarbonizing the U.S. economy.”
Saha admits it feels wrong to talk about a possible silver lining as we’re in the midsts of the coronavirus pandemic, but eventually, economic activity will revive—and the small respite our planet has seen due to reduced emissions from less air travel and driving won’t last; it may actually worsen as people plan to travel more once they can. It’s important to think about how that revival can align with environmental benefits, especially as the bottom is falling out for the fuel industry. “I think the COVID-19 outbreak is almost like a stress test for us,” she says “Businesses, companies, and even governments—how well are they prepared for a volatile future in which energy consumption and policy changes are dictated by climate change?” Investing in climate friendly economic activities now would be a win-win, she says, and maybe make that future a little less volatile.