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Predictions: $70 oil, the winner of 2016 & more

My predictions for 2016 are based on three big signposts from 2015 that will impact our investment decisions, government policies (especially noteworthy in a U.S. presidential election year), and — if we don't heed the signals, our health and environment.

A young boy from the remote Turkana tribe in Northern Kenya stands on a dried up river bed near Lodwar, Kenya.
Getty Images
A young boy from the remote Turkana tribe in Northern Kenya stands on a dried up river bed near Lodwar, Kenya.

Extreme weather

As 2015 ended, headlines showed that the east coast was baking in record-breaking summer-like temperatures; large swaths of northern England were six feet under water; and African nations like Namibia were suffering unprecedented droughts.

Not one of these are the direct result of our burning fossil fuels, but all of them are part of a trend toward more intense and long-lasting storms, droughts, and heat waves that were preventable if the world had acted sooner to decarbonize our economies. The literally breath-taking air pollution in Beijing and New Delhi, resulting in school closures and banning half the cars from roads in those cities, was also entirely preventable, but will likely continue into 2016 too.

So what does the Paris climate-change agreement under "COP21" mean for the new year? Every country on earth will be finding ways to reduce the use of coal and oil, while incentivizing broader adoption of energy from solar, wind, and biomass; investing in energy-efficiency projects, such as replacing old streetlights with LEDs and adding smart controls to building HVAC systems; and deploying alternative-fuel vehicles at a more rapid pace, including battery- and hydrogen-powered electric cars (with significant investment in the related charging and refueling infrastructure).

Those trends present technology companies and investors in 2016 with great opportunity to meet the demands of growing markets for "green" products and services, which looks especially promising compared to the retreat of conventional energy stocks (and the stock market overall) that has marked the first week of the New Year so far.

Oil heading to $70

According to the non-profit 350.org, more than 500 institutional investors, representing $3.4 trillion in assets, have committed to divest from fossil fuels. The stunning thing about those figures is how quickly this movement has grown. The vast majority of those commitments occurred in 2015 and the pace will quicken in 2016 as investors see coal stocks dropping fast and some, like Peabody Energy for example, even facing potential bankruptcy.

The big winner here in 2016 and beyond will be the air we breathe, because the flight from coal reflects not just environmental campaigns, but the reality that harmful air pollution can be dramatically reduced by substituting abundant natural gas and the growing supply of clean renewable resources.

By contrast, my prediction is that the price of oil will rise again in 2016 to as much as $70/barrel. Why? Because OPEC nations are struggling with low prices. An official in Bahrain told me that they need a price of $104 to balance their budget and even Saudi Arabia has less than six years of monetary reserves left at its current pace of deficit spending. It may have been in their interest to flood the market and lower prices to stall competitive production from Canadian tar sands and U.S. gas fracking projects, but the economic pain will be enough to force cooperation among the major oil producers to reduce output and aim for higher prices soon.

That new car smell

On a brighter note than bad weather and plummeting carbon-heavy stock prices, innovation continues and will create new opportunities in 2016, especially in the automotive sector. In 2016, many showrooms will feature hydrogen-powered electric cars, including the Honda Clarity, Toyota Mirai, Hyundai Tucson, and Mercedes F-Cell. Unlike battery-powered electrics, hydrogen fuel cells (powering the same electric drive trains) can be refueled in minutes to get another 300+ miles of zero-emission driving. New fueling stations are being added in many states and more rapid rollout of the cars will mean a faster completion of that network this year too.

But will cheap gasoline doom these cleaner driving alternatives? My prediction is no, for two reasons. First, consumers are well aware that oil was over $140 barrel as recently as 2008 and still over $100 in 2014 before falling to current lows under $40. Automakers responded with more fuel-efficient cars, especially hybrids in all categories, and their advertising suggests they still think this is a key factor for consumers when buying a car. Moreover, federal regulators have put the pedal to the metal on fuel economy, requiring the fleet-wide average of each company's vehicles to hit 54.5 mpg by 2025. That may make gasoline- and diesel-powered cars more expensive (although they will save money on fuel over time), making electric vehicles more competitive on initial cost and lifetime fuel cost.

So what bottom line do I see in my crystal ball? If you want to earn more "green," and make the world a more livable place for decades to come, look for investment opportunities of the same color in 2016.

Commentary by Terry Tamminen, Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency in the Schwarzenegger administration. He has authored numerous books on sustainability, and is a co-founder of the R20 Regions of Climate Action. Follow him on Twitter @terrytamminen.

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