After Coronavirus, What’s Next? China: More Coal, US: More Oil, EU: More Renewables

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The coronavirus has done something no one ever thought possible. It has completely shut down the great economic engine of globalism and slashed carbon dioxide emissions around the world. Many people are seeing stars at night and mountain ranges during the day for the first time in their lives. The virus may be a once in a lifetime chance for humans to step back, take a look around, and assess where they are, how they got here, and where they want to be in the future.

Solutions Project
Image credit: Solutions Project

Hundreds of thousands of lives have been snuffed out by the virus (so far). The question now is, do we rush headlong backward to the way things were or do we use this moment as an opportunity to assess the damage the human race has done to the Earth and chart a new course, one that forthrightly addresses the challenge of an overheating planet?

The vast majority of carbon emissions come from three places — China, Europe, and the US. The US is planning to spend billions of taxpayer dollars propping up the oil and gas industry. China has embarked on a plan to build new coal-fired thermal generating plants. Only Europe is responding in what might be called a rational, forward thinking way. The recovery plan proposed by the EU focuses on creating a low carbon economy. Here’s a closer look.

The EU Plan

The European Commission’s recovery plan from the coronavirus pandemic will give priority to building renovation, renewables, and hydrogen as well as clean mobility and waste management, according to EUobserver. “For climate change, there is no vaccine. This is why Europe must now invest in a clean future,” commission president Ursula von der Leyen says. She promises to make the Green Deal the cornerstone of the EU’s recovery plan. “We either all go it alone or we walk that road together, we take that leap forward, we pave a strong path for our people and for the next generation.”

A big part of the plan involves creating new jobs for retrofitting existing structures to make them more energy efficient. Hydrogen is also a major component of the plan, but the emphasis is on “green” hydrogen made by splitting water into its component parts using electricity from renewable sources rather than “gray” hydrogen derived from natural gas. Hydrogen for cars may be a non-starter, but it can make important contributions to decarbonzing industrial processes and powering long haul freight operations by trucks, trains, and ships.

The commission also expects the coronavirus crisis will change mobility habits, “making reductions of short haul flights likely and a shift to high-speed train connections necessary.” The recovery plan calls for modernizing the EU’s waste management and farming sectors to reduce dependence on other countries — a hint at how much the pandemic has disrupted the globalization model.

China Is Hedging Its Bets

After the financial collapse of 2008, China embarked on a large increase in the number of coal-fired generating plants. Apparently, it plans to do the same again, figuring that if the US is going to jump back into bed with fossil fuel interests, why should it do all the heavy lifting on greening its economy? One could respond that it’s the right thing to do and that if China truly wants to be a leader on the world stage, it needs to show real leadership on global issues. Our mothers would say, “If Billy decides to jump off a bridge, that doesn’t mean you have to as well.” (Raise your hand if your mother ever said something like that to you.)

Li Shuo, an energy expert with Greenpeace East Asia in Beijing, tells the BBC, “The US position looms very large in China’s political calculus. I think there is a feeling here in China that it is unfair for Beijing to move forward with its climate agenda at the same time as the US is moving backwards.”

Such shortsightedness is hardly the mark of a great nation. China seems to be bipolar when it comes to addressing climate change. On one hand, it is a leader in solar and wind installations. On the other hand, it continues its love affair with coal. On one hand, it is pushing hard for low and zero emissions transportation. On the other hand, it keeps pulling back on the incentive programs it puts in place, making it difficult for automakers to make firm plans for the future. It needs to decide what it wants to be and stick to it.

US Embraces Oil

The United States government continues to demonstrate it is little more than a tool of the oil and gas industries. 40 million people are out of work, and thanks to the coronavirus, many of the jobs they used to have may be gone forever. People can’t pay their mortgages or rent. But while America’s so-called leader and many governors are threatening to punish workers if they don’t go back to work in slaughterhouses where the risk of infection is highest, Republicans in Congress are busy shoveling cash to oil, gas, and coal companies.

In the original $2 trillion stimulus bill, businesses were eligible for government backed loans, provided they were fiscally stable before the pandemic. Suddenly, the rules got changed to allow fracking companies who are heavily in debt to use that money to pay creditors, a move some suggest came as the result of heavy pressure from the White House.

“This is an oil bailout for a specific set of companies,” Graham Steele, the director of the Corporations and Society Initiative at Stanford Graduate School of Business, tells NPR. “(The Fed) had structured the program in a way so as not to lose taxpayers’ money. And now members of Congress and industry have lobbied them. And under that pressure, they have buckled. They have changed the program to help out a specific industry,” Steele says.

The US has a golden opportunity to create new jobs in the renewable energy sector. During the New Deal, the government put Americans to work creating a brighter future through programs like the WPA and the CCC. Those programs created lasting memorials to the American Dream such as the Golden Gate Bride and Hoover Dam. Why not do the same again today? Oh, because some jackass on Twitter said that’s socialism? C’mon, you’re smart enough not to fall for that horse puckey.

Today, renewable energy companies are looking to hire workers with experience in the oil and gas industries. Jeff Bishop, head of battery developer Key Capture Energy, tells World Oil, “Ten years ago, the idealistic change-the-world folks were attracted to clean energy. Today, we still get some of the change-the-world folks, but it’s an increasing number of team members wanting stable jobs in a growth industry.” Tom Buttgenbach, CEO of 8Minute Solar, says his company is looking for former oil and gas workers with experience in power trading, greenfield development, land acquisition, and mineral rights.

There is an enormous need for people to assist in upgrading the built infrastructure so America’s homes, schools, hospitals, and businesses can be more energy efficient. See out recent story about energy improvements to the Empire State Building. If we want people to go back to work, why not give them meaningful work to do?

Mark Jacobson and his colleagues at the Solutions Project have drawn a road map to a zero emissions future that creates tens of millions of new jobs. Drawdown makes many of the same arguments. The plans to lessen the impact of an overheating planet are in place. All we need to do is follow the path they have laid out. America needs to stop looking backward and wishing the coronavirus never happened. It’s time to stop tweeting and begin the hard work of leading — before it’s too late.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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