Facebook Twitter

Opinion: Utah’s economy could benefit from focusing on climate issues

Surveys show air quality is a top concern among Utahns. By working on that, the state could do more than its share for climate change

SHARE Opinion: Utah’s economy could benefit from focusing on climate issues
Baked and cracking earth near Salt Lake City, where horses used to drink water, illustrates to severity of the current drought.

Baked earth is all that’s left of a watering hole near Salt Lake City that used to sustain a herd of wild horses. This July 12, 2018, photo illustrates the seriousness of the current drought. Instead of arguing over climate change, Utahns should resolve to lead the way toward a cleaner economy, starting with solutions to poor air quality. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Record heat and the drought this summer are putting the issue of climate change on Utahns’ minds. While a run of unfavorable weather measured in weeks or months does not in itself equate to climate change, it does invite us to pay more attention to the issue.

The causes and effects of climate change, as well as the proper responses, remain matters for some degree of debate. And those debates, by the way, are worth having openly. No one who relies on good information should fear a zesty discussion.

But there are two things upon which all Utahns should be able to agree: First, that cleaner air is a good thing (and with cleaner air comes decreases in greenhouse gas emissions); and second, that Utah should take advantage of the opportunities arising with the move to a cleaner economy, instead of leaving the field to other states.

Climate-focused economic changes are occurring in response not only to public policy decisions but also to private initiatives — and they are gaining momentum. Even during the comparatively laissez-faire federal administration of the previous four years, the decline in CO2 emissions accelerated; from 2016 to 2019, as the economy boomed, greenhouse gas emissions fell 4.8%. That was faster than the previous four years (which saw a 3.5% decline).

This suggests the possibility not only of a partial decoupling of emissions reductions from economic cycles, but also a gradual decoupling from the policy arena.

With climate-focused economic changes gaining steam, the question becomes: How can Utah best position itself to benefit from these changes and mitigate negative economic consequences?

That’s the topic of the recent Utah Foundation report, “Going for the Green: How Utah Can Thrive in the New Climate Economy.” The report doesn’t seek to determine which public and private efforts are substantially effective (or cost-effective) in addressing climate change. Rather, it recognizes that various efforts are afoot regardless, and that they represent both economic opportunities and challenges for Utah.

Opportunities may be emerging for Utah to leverage federal funds toward large clean energy projects. Utah will also need to look for opportunities to support the transition of certain counties’ economies away from coal-fueled electricity generation.

Renewable-energy development through 2040 could create an estimated 39,000 construction jobs and 900 operations jobs in Utah, along with investments and tax revenue for local communities. There will also be significant opportunities to take advantage of the sun and wind.

Indeed, solar could reasonably become a cost-effective part of the energy portfolio in every county in Utah. Utah is already seen as a national leader in renewable natural gas and stands on the cutting edge of carbon capture and storage, positioning this state to lead on those and other climate-focused strategies.

Looking forward, there are multiple steps Utah can take toward becoming a leader in the new climate-focused economy. These include:

  • Creating a state commission and/or office dedicated to addressing climate challenges and climate-focused economic development, including the needs of rural areas and electricity transmission for Utah’s renewable energy power sources.
  • Developing a technological solutions laboratory.
  • Creating a fund to support entrepreneurs seeking to create marketable clean energy innovations.
  • Encouraging clean transportation options.
  • Exploring more stringent building efficiency codes.
  • At the federal level, determining whether it makes sense for Utah to support approaches such as an agricultural producer carbon sequestration credits program and a carbon pricing mechanism.

One last point. Some would argue that the vast challenge of global climate change is far beyond little Utah’s ability to make an impact. Fair enough. But as Utah Foundation surveys have repeatedly found, air quality is a top concern in this state. If we prioritize efforts around solutions that have a clean air payoff — and make major new progress on air quality — we will likely do more than our part for climate change.

Peter Reichard is president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at peter@utahfoundation.org. Find the new Utah Foundation report on the new climate economy at utahfoundation.org.