As January 20th ushers in a new era for America and indeed for the world, Barack Obama will have a cartload of sustainable development challenges to deal with if his presidency is to be all that he and the public want and expect. While the "Great Recession" could make addressing these challenges perilous and hard fought, with convincing rhetoric and bold action, Obama would do well to address economic concerns through sustainability.
Obama has already taken steps in that direction. During his campaign he pledged to spend US$ 150 billion over the next decade on clean energy, creating an estimated 5 million jobs. While he hasn't given full details, he is expected to aim for doubling alternative energy production by 2012 and to build a new electricity "smart grid", all-the-while modernizing 75% of federal buildings and improving energy efficiency in 2 million homes to reduce consumer energy bills. "In the process, we will put Americans to work in new jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced," he said, referring to sustainability efforts that "will lead to even more jobs, more savings and a cleaner, safer planet in the bargain," including the building of solar panels, wind turbines, fuel-efficient cars and buildings, and the development of low-carbon technologies.
He has asked Congress to speedily enact a stimulus package, which some analysts say could cost more than US$ 800 billion. He believes that without urgent action, America "could lose the competitive edge that has served as a foundation for our strength and standing in the world," along with facing a lingering recession and high unemployment.
"In this crisis, doing too little poses a greater threat than doing too much," said Lawrence Summers, a member of Obama's economic team and who will soon head the White House's National Economic Council.
The world now seems ready to follow America's lead, with some countries, including the UK and South Korea, announcing plans to generate jobs in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors. Collectively, the proposals call for more than US$ 200 billion in low-carbon investments and aim to save and create millions of jobs worldwide.
Michael Jacobs, special adviser to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said these decisions showed "a clear movement" in the right direction. "Governments are recognizing that economic and climate recovery packages are one and the same," he said.
That said, some parts of the world have already taken the lead, and America now must play catch-up. That is the case for fuel efficiency and mileage standards. With the Bush administration's continual refusal to enact fuel-economy standards, America's dependency on oil has only accrued.
May 2008 saw the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set an interim fleet-wide standard of 31.6 mpg by 2015. Studies show that automakers can easily meet these goals and do even better: at least as high as 35 mpg by 2015, and 40 mpg by 2020, with no changes in current technology. Imagine what they could do if they were really willing to jump into technological innovation.
Chevrolet has stuck in its little toe to test the waters, announcing that it intends to introduce its Volt in 2010 a battery-powered plug-in hybrid car (it will run on gasoline for extended ranges, on its battery power for up to 40 miles). But 2010 is a long way away. Toyota has announced plans to speed up the delivery of its plug-in hybrid vehicles to late 2009 rather than in 2010. "Last summer's four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline was no anomaly. It was a brief glimpse of our future," said Irv Miller, vice president of environmental and public affairs for Toyota Motor Sales USA. "This kind of vehicle [ ] is where our industry must focus its creativity."
Obama needs to jump in and set standards that will reduce oil dependency and greenhouse gases and help make the country's car companies more competitive, all-the-while saving consumers money at the pump. He also needs to make fuel-efficient cars a condition of any help that automakers demand from the government.
Members of the business community have a vested interest in seeing Obama tackle financial challenges head-on through sustainability programs. "The financial crisis allows us the opportunity to rethink the role of business and to push forward with the policies and developments necessary to move towards a low-carbon economy. It also highlights the need to work towards achieving widespread energy efficiency, which has the dual benefit of saving money and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"So what must Barack Obama do first to fix the financial crisis afflicting American business and blighting the world? Quite simply, he must lead for the planet as well as his country. Putting the needs of the Earth, on whose resources we depend, at the forefront of political decision-making is an excellent place to start," says World Business Council for Sustainable Development President Bjorn Stigson.