California must continue to lead on clean energy

13 September 2010

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, argues for California's leadership on clean energy innovation in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Four years ago in Long Beach, I, along with 15 business leaders, met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss how to deploy clean energy around the world. Our message was clear: Adopt policies that put a price on carbon emissions, and investment in clean energy will follow.

Two months after the meeting, on Sept. 27, 2006, Schwarzenegger signed the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32) into law, unleashing a wave of private-sector investment in clean energy. Last year, California's clean-tech sector received $2.1 billion in investment, accounting for 60 percent of all clean-tech investment in North America. The clean-tech sector is now one of the fastest growing sectors in the state, creating jobs at a rate 10 times faster than the statewide average and employing more than 500,000 Californians.
As a result, California is home to seven of the top 10 clean-tech businesses in the country, earning it a reputation globally as a pre-eminent leader on climate change and a favorite to provide the technologies for the clean-energy revolution taking shape around the world.
But despite this success, some vested interests are supporting a November ballot initiative - Proposition 23 - that would suspend AB32, arguing that its implementation will cost California jobs. While I'm not an economist, I disagree.
With the unemployment rate in California near its 20-year high, undermining one of the state's fastest growing sectors would only make matters worse. Instead, California should continue to support the growth of its clean-tech sector, which promises to bring hundreds of thousands of new jobs to the state.
In addition to the economic benefits, the public health benefits of AB32 are undeniable. The independent California Legislative Analyst's Office concluded that suspending AB32 "could halt air quality improvements that would have public health benefits, such as reduced respiratory illnesses," and that "these public health benefits translate into economic benefits, such as increased worker productivity and reduced government and business costs for health care." In short, suspending AB32 means jeopardizing the progress being made to clean California's air - which is why groups like the American Lung Association are strongly opposed to Prop. 23.
For our part at Virgin, we recognize that what is good for the environment also can be good for the bottom line. That's why all the airlines that carry the Virgin name - including Virgin America*, the only California-based airline - have adopted environmentally sustainable practices in their core operations. As a result, Virgin America has been able to improve its financial performance while operating one of the most fuel-efficient fleets in the United States.
AB32 also has an impact beyond California's borders. As one of the first government policies in the United States to price carbon and promote clean energy, it represents a bright vision for a cleaner, more prosperous world. It's a world where we are no longer reliant on oil and coal and, as a result, one that is more secure, clean and safe, even for the most vulnerable nations.
Due in part to California's consistent leadership, more and more people around the world now share this vision. City, state and national governments across the globe are pressing forward with ambitious clean-energy policies. Businesses are reducing their emissions and saving money by finding new ways to conserve energy. And investors are pouring billions of dollars into the development of clean-energy technologies like electric vehicles, information technology-enabled energy efficiency solutions and advanced renewable energy that will power the future.
At a time when Californians have the most to gain from the clean-energy revolution they helped create, they should not take a major step back by suspending AB32. They should move forward as they always have, providing an example of what is possible for the rest of the world.

*Note: Virgin America is a U.S. controlled, owned and operated airline, and is a separate company from Virgin Atlantic. Virgin Group is a minority share investor in Virgin America.

Richard Branson is founder of the Virgin Group, co-founder of the Carbon War Room and a member of the Climate Group's International Leadership Council.

This article was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle on the 12 September 2010 

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