The oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has placed renewed focus on clean energy, writes adjunct professor Bruce Usher, a carbon finance leader and executive in residence at the School.

In an op-ed in the New York Times (“Red China, Green China” May 6, 2010), Usher says that the United States lacks the political will to become a world leader in clean energy while China has been moving ahead with creating jobs and policies in the sector. Last year, China spent a total of $35 billion — double the amount of the United States — on projects related to renewable energy. In 2008, China held 84 percent of global market share for clean-development projects. Usher called for aggressive action by the United States to compete with China in the clean-tech race, outlining three actions to develop new technologies:

First, institute national feed-in tariffs or a renewable portfolio standard — two ways to require that utilities buy clean energy in a minimum amount or at a certain price. Such standards have been effectively put into practice in several states, most notably in Texas with wind power, but only a federal program will provide the scale necessary to compete with China, which has a national feed-in tariff program of its own.

Second, establish a price on carbon via either a tax or a cap-and-trade program to encourage low-carbon technologies. The Clean Development Mechanism placed a price on carbon in developing countries, initiating thousands of emissions-reduction projects in China. Putting a price on carbon in the United States would provide an incentive for domestic developers to build similar projects here.

Finally, get serious about supporting the research and development of carbon capture and storage, and maintain America’s lead in a field that offers enormous opportunity but is too large for any one company to finance. Coal is the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the first country to develop economically viable capture-and-storage technology will dictate the terms for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired utilities globally.