By William Brent
Back on September 9, John Podesta’s Center for American Progress released a study called Green Recovery, which promised two million new jobs from a $100 billion investment over two years. That day was also my birthday, so my attention was elsewhere. But nearly two months later in the wake of the financial meltdown, taking a second look at the report seems worthwhile, since now more than ever, a road to recovery for the United States and the world could very well be paved with green bricks. Conversely, it could also be a story of “low carbon prosperity” that sounds good, but ends up dead on arrival. The landscape has changed greatly since September 9. To use one last Wizard of Oz allusion – we are no longer in Kansas. Credit has dried up, global stock markets are in chaos, unemployment is spiking and consumer confidence is at record lows.
As a result, does this now put the basic assumptions in the Podesta report in question? ($50 billion in tax credits, or half of the proposed $100 billion, for example, would seem a non-starter today). More importantly, even if the assumptions are unchanged, will the perceived cost of carbon policy at a time of economic instability suck the political will out of Capitol Hill, a place over the last three decades renowned for monumental cowardice in the face of monumental challenge. The stakes couldn’t be higher, especially on the eve of an Obama presidency and Podesta heading the transition team. It would be great for the Center to produce an update to their report, taking these new factors into account. But until that happens, some prominent voices in October continued to build a case for this notion of a Green Recovery as a message/vision worth rallying around.
Deutsche Bank, in its Investing in Climate Change 2009: Necessity and Opportunity in Turbulent Times , argued that the economic turmoil of the past month sets the stage for a one-time windfall:
We believe that, when combined with energy security, climate change policies will play a role in government efforts to stimulate their economies in 2009. Governments now have an historic opportunity to define long-term regulatory frameworks to encourage private investment in climate change initiatives. Additional opportunity exists for governments to boost their economies by funding infrastructure projects that will serve to foster energy independence and climate-proof their economies.
As a result, the debate around climate change has started to shift away from issues of cost and risk toward the question of how to capitalize on investment strategies that span a vast array of asset classes and industries.
Similarly, Goldman Sachs GS Sustain weighed in, citing a “warming investment climate” for sustainability, and an increasingly clear rationale for corporations to view low carbon action as a key business driver:
Going forward, we expect the importance of climate-change performance to rise further and extend to an increasing number of sectors where the direct costs and benefits of companies different strategies may currently be less quantifiable but will, in our view, become increasingly important aspects of their ability to achieve and sustain industry leadership.
Finally, economist Nicholas Stern has also provided a valuable perspective, noting that the right policies will offer a globally sustainable model for growth:
Let us grow out of this recession in a way that both reduces risks for our planet and sparks off a wave of new investment which will create a more secure, cleaner and more attractive economy for all of us. And in so doing, we shall demonstrate for all, particularly the developing world, that low-carbon growth is not only possible, but that it can also be a productive and efficient route to overcome world poverty.
It all sounds good. Public works programs, a la the New Deal, to make smart upgrades to the outdated grid and public transportation infrastructure, jobs that can’t be exported coming from installation of solar panels and other clean energy solutions, cost curves from McKinsey that provide a roadmap of affordable carbon abatement measures including significant savings from energy efficiency, etc.
But there will also be those that counter with a picture of inefficacy and a price tag that’s too high, as we caught a glimpse of during Senate infighting in June over possible climate policy. Already, new messaging against aggressive climate policy is emerging. A recent letter to a Florida paper offered a glimpse of the opposing camp and its messaging, criticizing Gov. Crist’s recent recommendations on climate, and warning of a “carbon police state”.
What’s so exciting right now from a market positioning and messaging point of view, is that the global economic crisis provides the first real opportunity for the clean energy industry to fundamentally pivot away from the politically and emotionally charged topics of “climate change” and “green” (and its polarizing, Al Gore/treehugger affiliation, which turns off a large part of the population) and own outright the promise of growth, recovery and prosperity, issues that everyone can relate to and support.
The rubber is about to hit the road. The next three to six months offer a chance in the United States for elected officials to be heroes or hucksters. It is no secret that the oil and coal industries have outspent the renewables industry by tens of millions of dollars in the past two years in campaign contributions, so it won’t be surprising to see some of our politicians fold. What’s needed is a concerted effort on the part of the broader clean energy community – the Apollo Alliance, Cleantech and Green Business for Obama, Environmental Entrepreneurs, Change to Win , USCAP, Evangelical Climate Initiative </>, ClimateWorks Foundation <http://www.climateworks.org/>, US Conference of Mayors, etc – to unite and make sure that the message that is delivered in Washington, D.C. and state capitals is this – climate change notwithstanding, the clean energy economy is a legitimate and feasible road to recovery. It appears that two additional stimulus packages are set to emerge from DC in the near term, one lame duck and one post inauguration. The industry achieved its biggest win so far in the $700 billion stimulus package, with an 8-year extension of the investment tax credit for solar, and it is possible clean energy will benefit from the two upcoming packages as well. But that is just a start, and our thinking needs to be more expansive and inclusive. It’s the Recovery, stupid.
William Brent heads the Cleantech practice at Weber Shandwick, a leading international public relations and public affairs consultancy. He is a former China correspondent and serial entrepreneur. He currently lives in the Puget Sound area. His blog is www.mrcleantech.com