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  • Addressing climate change in a way that is fair and equitable is the challenge of our time.
  • The power of energy efficiency is too often overlooked as a tool to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The Biden administration should prioritize efficiency as a cost-effective solution for meeting climate goals.
  • Paula Glover is the newly appointed president of the Alliance to Save Energy and formerly president and CEO of the American Association of Blacks in Energy.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

It’s the great challenge of our time: How do we tackle climate change in a way that doesn’t raise energy costs or suppress economic growth? How do we make the clean energy transition while ensuring that no community is left behind – whether a struggling Rust Belt town whose manufacturing base relies on natural gas or a New Jersey neighborhood whose residents breathe dirty air?

Having worked in the energy sector for 25 years, I’ve wrestled with these questions as long as I can remember. Climate change is an existential threat that we must attack aggressively. The damage from last year’s record hurricane season is a preview of the unsustainable damage we’ll incur if we don’t meet this challenge – with our most vulnerable communities too often hardest hit. The costs of inaction are far greater than action. But there will be costs in fighting this crisis, and we can’t leave people behind.

Too often the critical role that energy efficiency can play is overlooked. Energy efficiency is a proven climate strategy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions more than any other solution, supports nearly seven times as many jobs as the wind and solar industries combined, and significantly lowers energy costs. Yet we are doing far too little to stimulate investment and activity in this field, particularly in Washington. Somewhere along the way, energy efficiency lost its shine, and the climate imperative requires us to get it back.

Bang for your buck

Just look at a program like Energy Star, the trusted blue label for energy efficient products. Energy Star has brand recognition north of 90% and is extremely popular nationwide in consumer markets. But its real impact is grossly undervalued. 

On a shoestring budget, Energy Star saves consumers and businesses more than $35 billion a year in energy costs, and it reduces greenhouse gas emissions by a remarkable 330 million metric tons, which is about 5% of total US greenhouse gas emissions annually. Yet the program’s funding has been shrinking for years and now stands at less than $40 million. 

For too many Americans, energy costs are a major burden. An energy bill that accounts for 3% or 4% of an upper-middle-income family’s budget often sucks up 10% to 15% of the income of a household in poverty. Energy efficiency can save those families hundreds if not thousands of dollars a year.

Creating economic opportunity

We also need to give underserved populations and people of color greater access to the enormous economic opportunities of energy efficiency. Even after losing more than 300,000 jobs due to the pandemic, companies working on energy efficiency projects remain by far the largest clean energy employers with more than 2 million US workers. About 60% of those are construction jobs, the vast majority of which are with small businesses. 

We need tax incentives, small business grants, and funding for public building retrofits to rebuild the efficiency economy. And we need strong workforce programs alongside those investments to train and connect low-income and underserved populations with jobs while giving minority-owned businesses a fair shot at the work.

Unfortunately, we’re moving in the wrong direction. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global energy intensity improvements have been declining since 2015. The agency recently projected that the COVID-19 pandemic will exacerbate that trend, with efficiency investments dropping in 2020 and energy intensity gains continuing to fall. 

With efficiency expected to account for more than 40% of emissions reductions needed to meet the Paris climate accord, we have to do better – not just to reduce carbon emissions, but to do it in a way that saves people money and creates economic opportunity. This is energy efficiency’s sweet spot.

The good news is that energy efficiency remains a popular, bipartisan ideal. Republicans and Democrats agree that we shouldn’t waste precious resources, particularly when it hurts our economic productivity and competitiveness. 

Yes, there are upfront costs: It takes money to retrofit a building or upgrade a heating system. But the long-term savings far outweigh the costs, and when you factor in efficiency’s broader impact, it should be an easy priority for the Biden administration and the new Congress.  

Glover is the newly appointed president of the Alliance to Save Energy and formerly president and CEO of the American Association of Blacks in Energy.