Two elements of Robert Pollin’s clean energy strategy are particularly compelling.
First, it proposes an opportunistic pursuit of economic growth and industrial development. This vision offers a refreshing change from both the academic literature, which argues pedantically over the merits of various carbon policies, and the political sphere, which quibbles about job estimates or the realities of climate change. Pollin’s approach highlights the domestic growth opportunities in advanced, efficient, and clean energy and the potential for U.S. dominance in a global race to develop new energy technologies and services.
The federal government has failed to act, but states have made progress.
Second, Pollin proposes measures to ease the burden of a societal shift away from fossil fuels. These measures are important both morally and politically. A comprehensive carbon mitigation policy has posed and will continue to pose a formidable political challenge. The United States has resisted the adoption of both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs despite hundreds of bills introduced in Congress over the past fifteen years. Meanwhile, several other jurisdictions have adopted carbon policies: British Columbia has a carbon tax; the European Union and New Zealand have both implemented emissions trading schemes. Pollin does not naively suggest that developing efficiency and renewables will be politically easy. He also knows that, while such a project can create millions of new jobs, they will not come without concurrent losses and will not be cost-free to the average citizen. But if such losses are mitigated by compensation, education, and workforce training, the transition away from fossil fuels has a much better chance of winning acceptance by the American public.
Some of Pollin’s policy proposals may seem abstract, but there is political value in keeping the strategy simple. Moreover, his framework can serve as a guide for concrete policymaking.
Pollin correctly observes, for example, that energy efficiency savings are low-hanging fruit: although Americans have achieved some energy savings over the past decade, there are still easy opportunities for substantial gains. Alongside Pollin’s efficiency recommendations for buildings, industry, and transportation, we should also restructure energy pricing with efficiency incentives in mind, in order to encourage utilities to pursue energy efficiency. We must also improve consumer education through pre-K curriculums, feedback on electricity bills, real-time pricing, and labels that document the lifetime cost of energy consumption associated with cars, appliances, and houses.
Another important opportunity exists in net-metering policies. The majority of U.S. states currently offer such programs, which allow home and business owners to keep small-scale energy systems that draw electricity from, and contribute energy to, the grid as needed. These policies help consumers make better decisions about their energy use, yet many states severely restrict system size and compensation levels. A clean energy strategy should mandate net metering at the federal level with streamlined rules and procedures and provide more generous compensation through a mechanism such as feed-in tariffs, which are offered throughout much of Europe.
The federal government should offer greater assistance to location-specific policies and programs in general. Over the past two decades, as the federal government has failed to pass comprehensive energy or climate policy, the states have made remarkable progress in their pursuit of clean energy goals. As the federal government works to improve its commitment to such goals, it can assist ongoing state efforts by aligning policy design and objectives across state borders and helping localities take advantage of their energy endowments and industrial strengths. In particular, the federal government can develop energy portfolios based on local resources and recommend industrial strategies based on existing industrial competencies and growth opportunities in new energy innovations.
At 1.2 percent of U.S. GDP, Pollin’s clean energy strategy offers a small price to pay to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and help U.S. businesses gain a stronghold in emerging international energy markets.