By Lynn Scarlett
With teams representing 206 nations assembled in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympic games, some Americans are watching every second, entranced by the drama of human athletic competition and the venerated “Olympic spirit.” But even those who were not glued to a screen watching everything from fencing to gymnastics to water polo more than likely are stopping to check the front page of their newspaper to see the daily rundown of the medal count, because whatever else is true of Americans, we like being in the lead.
It is no different with international diplomacy and economic policy. The question of U.S. leadership is always at the front of our minds. Americans are proud of their country, believing it to be the best nation on earth. The question is never whether the United States can lead the world in myriad ways, but whether it should. And usually, the American spirit being what it is, anything less than the best is just not good enough.
Last November, 185 nations signed the Paris Agreement, which committed the nations of the world to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The United States committed to reductions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025 over 2005 emission levels. A key component to reaching this goal is the reinvention of the energy sector. The energy sector of our global economy has long been due for an overhaul. We need cleaner sources, an upgraded grid and new options for energy storage and carbon sequestration.
But is the United States a leader in this effort?
Given that the Clean Power Plan is on hold as the Supreme Court reviews it and congressional action is stymied, it would be tempting to believe that the United States is, in fact, lagging when it comes to transitioning to the 21st-century clean energy economy.
After all, Europe is embracing clean energy sources with gusto, and even the Chinese are implementing market-based emission reduction tactics like cap and trade systems. But the picture is more complicated than that.
Take a look at this infographic that shows the percentage of electric production from wind energy in 2014:
Note that the state of Iowa is sporting a higher percentage of electric generation from wind than Portugal, Spain and Ireland. Even without cross-cutting national policies, some state policymakers and legislatures are demonstrating that they can start the wheels of innovation and begin building a path for U.S. leadership in the energy industry of the 21st century.
Tracking that leadership among 50 different states working with differing energy needs and policy ideas is no small feat. The Nature Conservancy recently partnered with former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s Center for the New Energy Economy to launch the State Policy Opportunity Tracking (SPOT) tool, which synthesizes existing information from over 17 different sources related to 38 clean energy policies at the state level and provides a means of determining where each state stands with respect to five key policy components.
While it is not intended to be a scorecard, SPOT can provide — at a glance — an insight as to where the future is brightest for clean energy, and where we can get to work today to establish the United States as a leader in the clean energy economy of the 21st century. The Nature Conservancy is already at work in each of its 50 state chapters, marshaling its resources and relationships to make as much progress as we can, even in the absence of a comprehensive federal policy.
The glimpses of possibility shown by what is happening at the state level suggest that if the full economic might of the United States were brought to bear under a cohesive federal policy, our role as a world energy innovation leader is all but assured. New technologies are being brought to bear, new business models are being explored. Investors are adding new capital, and the market is hungry for new opportunities to the tune of over $348 billion invested in clean energy in 2015 alone, a new record. We can lead, follow, or get pushed out of the way by other nations that rise to the challenge faster, with more vigor and more comprehensively. Our energy future is up to us.
Image credit: Richard Hamilton Smith
Infographics credit: The Nature Conservancy
Lynn Scarlett, Global Managing Director for Public Policy at The Nature Conservancy. In this role, she directs policy in the United States and the 35 countries in which the Conservancy operates with a focus on climate and nature- based solutions. Most recently, she was the Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Lynn also served at Interior as the Acting Secretary of the Interior in 2006.