Inflation Will Be With Us As Long As Fossil Fuels Are

Oil and gas are getting more expensive all the time— and raising the cost of everything they carry across the world. Clean energy is the answer for the crises of tomorrow and today.

Originally published on Friday, March 18th, 2022

From one angle, the past two weeks have been a hard road for climate action.

Fossil fuel prices have spiked to unsustainable levels the world over, forcing policymakers to choose between making good on ambitious near-term emissions goals and keeping the lights on.

The United States Supreme Court is considering, for the sake of a law no longer in effect, whether the government’s environmental agency should be able to regulate greenhouse gases at all— and they appear to be leaning ‘no.’

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of cataclysmic IPCC reports carries on.

Then on Monday, Senator Joe Manchin blocked Sarah Bloom Raskin’s nomination to the Federal Reserve board because she supports integrating climate change risk analysis into the Fed’s projections for the US economy. The Senator and beneficiary of a coal brokerage firm deemed her views too “political” for the post.

But seen another way, it’s times like these when the promise of a clean energy future seems more tangible and practicable than ever.

Energy shocks have been around for decades, but this time consumers finally have an alternative to the tyranny of high gas prices in the form of electric cars— and they’ve taken notice. Carbon trading schemes are starting to pay impressive dividends just as increased fossil fuel output will drive demand for credits.

And climate solutions may well prove to be the solution for this week’s top-of-mind issue in economies across the world: inflation.

Clean Energy Cuts Inflation


In his press release opposing Raskin’s nomination, Senator Manchin reasoned that under current economic conditions the Federal Reserve needed to be “hyper-focused” on preventing inflation.

It was a curious argument considering that President Biden essentially made the same point when announcing a ban on Russian energy imports just a week earlier, albeit in favor of clean energy as a means of cutting inflation and emissions.

“In the long run, the way to avoid high gas prices is to speed up – not slow down – our transition to a clean energy future,” the President said in a press release.

That’s because in economic terms, fossil fuels are inflationary while renewable technologies are by definition deflationary.

Fossil fuels generally become more expensive over time as the most accessible reserves are depleted, requiring producers to scour increasingly far flung corners of the globe to meet ever-increasing demand. Beyond that, most of the world’s oil is controlled by OPEC, a cartel that can, and does, withhold supply and raise global energy prices as it pleases.

And of course, the sheer ubiquity of fossil fuels makes them a driver of inflation. In an economy where virtually every industry runs on oil, gas or coal, any sharp price swing for those commodities is bound to be mirrored in the products they help produce.

Indeed, one study recently pinned almost a third of the inflation seen since the beginning of the pandemic on the rising cost of oil.

Renewable energy technologies don’t have these problems (for the most part).

Wind and solar require significant up-front investment, but once they’re installed, their output is, well... renewable. Without the need for constant inputs or elaborate maintenance, clean energy sources have a marginal cost of nearly zero.

This is a large part of the reason why the cost of utility-scale solar energy fell by nearly 80% in the period from 2010-2019, surpassing the expectations of even the most fervent clean energy evangelists at the time. Ever since the first wave of solar farms were brought online, they have churned out electricity (and profits) unimpeded by the high maintenance or refinery processes associated with fossil fuels.

The difference hasn’t been lost on investors, either. As solar projects have proven their economic mettle, debt financing has overtaken equity investments for new solar farms, reflecting a growing sense of confidence among investors who are also happy to take advantage of low interest rates.

To be fair, solar and other renewable technologies aren’t guaranteed to be inflation-proof in the future.

Cobalt is a key component in producing lithium-ion batteries, and the vast majority of the world’s production comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRC is just two decades removed from a civil war, and it’s not hard to foresee scenarios where the country’s already-tenuous security situation spirals downward due to, among other things, the outsized effects of climate change that are already bearing down on the country.

That, in turn, could lead to supply disruptions and ensuing price hikes that would hit consumers across the world.

But even here, the emergence of alternative energy storage technologies like gravity storage and molten salt promises to shore up vulnerabilities from foreign extractive ventures tied to lithium-ion batteries.

These promising technologies are still in their infancy, and even a full-scale investment in existing renewables today wouldn’t impact energy prices for months, if not years.

Either way, the chain keeping energy and inflation together won’t be broken until both energy and energy storage can be produced without hard-won minerals from half a world away.

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