Trump Should Embrace the Energy Future

Trump Should Embrace the Energy Future
Chinatopix via AP

President-elect Donald Trump aims to revive the American economy by allowing warrantless emissions of greenhouse gases and increasing the production of oil, gas, and coal. Unsurprisingly, this worries those concerned about climate change, But even those who are not concerned should take note. While fossil fuels will remain an important source of energy in the coming decades, we know the world is moving toward clean energy. Trump says that he wants to keep Americans employed, safe, and ahead of our competitors. To do so, he would be better off to foster the research, business models, and policies necessary to create the low-carbon industries of the 21st century.

The global energy sector is already looking to decarbonize, largely due to concerns about climate change and air pollution. This trend gained tremendous momentum thanks to the remarkable declines in the cost of clean energy in recent years. As the trend continues, fossil fuels will become even less desirable and competitive in the marketplace. Even Royal Dutch Shell (among others) sees oil demand peaking as early as five years from now.

While the march to zero carbon emissions is currently too slow to meet our climate goals, the transition to clean energy will happen with or without us. We should speed it up and reap the rewards.

Our economic competitiveness depends on our participation in the global energy sector. Energy is a more than $5 trillion global business, considered annually, which is nearly a third of annual U.S. GDP. To be sure, the fracking revolution in the United States means we will probably play a more critical role in driving energy production for the next few years. But market trends are pointing beyond fossil fuels, and it would be foolish to leave the development and exporting of low carbon technologies exclusively to China — which is investing heavily in nuclear, wind, solar, and carbon-capture technologies. 

If we want to outcompete other countries such as China — and the president-elect has made clear that he does — we also need to foster alternative-energy technologies and the business models and policies that support them. 

Fortunately, we still have a technological edge in energy innovation. We need to keep turning our efforts toward developing the research, businesses, and policies that will keep this edge. Doing so is a necessary prerequisite both for America’s economic competitiveness and for environmental safety in an era of decarbonization.

Protecting jobs in fossil-fuel production is a priority for Mr. Trump. The best means of supporting fossil-fuel jobs would be to make carbon capture and storage technologies (CCS) work. CCS offers fossil fuels a lifeline in a world of climate action. With it, the United States could reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050 while keeping 700 GW of coal or natural gas power plants online, a number close to what we have in place today. Exporting those technologies to rapidly growing economies abroad will support global decarbonization and future export markets for our domestic producers. 

National security worries should also give Trump pause about the rapid deployment of existing nuclear technologies — led by Russia and China — to countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. The desire to create mayhem is increasing, just as fuel and waste from old-technology nuclear power plants are becoming more readily available. This is a recipe for terrorism and nuclear armed conflict.

A new generation of safer and more efficient fission reactors — whose fuel and waste products are much less desirable to would-be terrorists — is being developed. But not in the United States. Rather, China is partnering with American companies to build the first generation of such reactors. The United States should create newer, safer technology here at home.

For all of the growth and potential in low-carbon energy, fossil fuels are still the biggest source of energy here and abroad. Mr. Trump and those advising him see the new energy resources brought about by the fracking revolution as key to a wealthy and powerful America in the 21st century. They look at all of the criteria that we just mentioned — competitiveness, jobs, and national security — and see opportunities to advance them by exploiting fossil fuels further, as Mr. Trump has said. In this context, a push toward decarbonization might seem downright anti-energy.

But there is nothing anti-energy about the push to decarbonize. The point is to make energy abundant, affordable, reliable, and clean. Eventually, low-carbon energy will be the natural choice; it already is many cases. The rest of the world wants it, and the new administration should be leading the charge to give it to them. Otherwise, we might find ourselves holding the bag when everyone else has moved into the 21st century.

Kerry Emanuel is an MIT professor of meteorology. Joseph Majkut is the director of climate science at the Niskanen Center.

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