A Green new dawn?

5th April 2019

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Chris Seekings

A 'Green New Deal' proposal has caused political waves across the US, with many questioning the feasibility and scope of its climate policies. Chris Seekings reports

From guaranteeing every US citizen a job, to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's 'Green New Deal' proposal has been described as a “watershed moment“ for politics in the country.

But with an eye-watering price tag of $94trn reported, and a timeframe of just 10 years to achieve its goals, others have labelled the proposal everything from “unrealistic“ and “difficult“ to “dangerous“ and “immoral“.

And it is the deal's climate policies that have generated most publicity, such as meeting 100% of power demand through renewables, and, along with the net zero emission goal, performing energy efficiency upgrades to every building in the country.

So are these energy ambitions feasible, or is president Trump correct in his assessment that the deal “sounds like a high school term paper that got a low mark“?

Trapped in the dark

University of Massachusetts economics professor Robert Pollin has been designing what you might call green new deals for years, and has also been advising presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on healthcare and environmental policy.

Having put together green programmes for Spain, Puerto Rico, India and several US states, he tells me that it is implausible to expect a zero-greenhouse gas emission economy within a decade. “Just at a contractual level, if you have a power plant that burns coal with 10 years left on its contract, it takes a lot of time, money and legal mumbo jumbo to get out of that.“

Pollin has just finished a study on a green deal for Pueblo, Colorado, which has committed to 100% renewable energy by 2035. “But they have a contract with their utility and they can't afford to get out of it,“ he explains. “That is just one example of a small city that is totally sympathetic to the cause, so imagine multiplying that 1,000 times in much less sympathetic settings for the whole country. You would have to break thousands of contracts and lay off millions of people – it is extremely difficult.“

The federal government does have authority to set restrictions on emissions, but Pollin says it should follow recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and aim for a 50% emissions cut by 2030 and 100% by 2050. “That is realistic, but is very challenging in itself, so why aim above that goal?“

Vague and expensive

Shortly after the Green New Deal was proposed, the centre-right advocacy group American Action Forum published a financial breakdown estimating how much the objectives would cost. Although it has since distanced itself from the $94trn price tag that others calculated using their figures, the group's director of energy, Philip Rossetti, tells me that his estimate of $5.36trn for a low-carbon energy grid is generous. “We generate a lot of electricity from clean sources pretty cheaply, but we have difficulty ensuring we generate at the right time,“ he says. “My estimate assumes a lot of new storage assets coming online to complement renewable assets, and the costs for that can be wildly disparate. Some say we would need multiple days of storage, but I only calculated for about four hours' worth.“

“The language is sufficiently vague that it only implies a mobilisation within 10 years, not zero emissions“

It is also unclear how the deal's energy policies would actually be implemented and enforced. The US has different methods for managing electricity markets in different states. Some are part of interconnected regional transmission organisations with a shared market, while others have a top-down system where a monopoly company has a regulatory compact with the state. “So it is really not clear from the proposal what policy mechanism would deal with that,“ Rossetti says. “They simply said they would achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, which leaves it open to the imagination as to whether it would be a mandate, subsidies, or something else.“

And he believes that this approach was intentional. “I have heard people say that the language is sufficiently vague that it only implies a mobilisation within 10 years, and not actually achieving zero emissions, and I think that is by design.“

Rhetoric or reality?

Pollin highlights how this use of language could be dangerous for the credibility of the climate change movement. He received an email from the office of senator Ed Markey, who co-sponsored the deal, asking for advice shortly after the objectives were proposed. “Well they might have done that a little sooner!“ Pollin says. “They rushed it, and although I support the aims, I don't think it is ever a good idea to draw out things that are outlandish.“

Others disagree. Stanford University's professor of civil and environmental engineering, Mark Jacobson, explains that 90-95% of the technology is already available to transform the country's energy infrastructure. “If you look at California – most populous state in the US and fifth largest economy in the world – its electric power sector is already close to 50% renewables, so the next 50% should not take more than 11 years.“

Jacobson, who co-founded The Solutions Project with Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo, tells me that nine states already have laws or have proposed laws to get to 100% renewables in the electric power sector. And he has even built a home for himself that runs completely on wind, water and solar. “I will never pay another energy bill in my life, so what they say about renewables being too expensive makes no practical sense.“ But after insisting the deal is “technically and economically possible“, he admits it is unlikely that energy for transportation, buildings, heating and cooling will be 100% renewable by 2030.

“We are not quite ready yet with things like long-distance aircrafts and ships. For those reasons I think it might take until 2035 or 2040 for transportation. With electricity, we can certainly do it by 2035, but different sectors will go at different speeds.“ He also points out that utility-scale solar and onshore wind are already the cheapest forms of new electricity in the US.

And as for the deal's price tag, Jacobson highlights the hundreds of billions of dollars in health costs incurred by air pollution and fossil fuels every year, along with an estimated seven million annual deaths globally. “I look at this as a health, climate and energy security deal, so we can't afford to delay by even one year.“

Political willpower

One thing that everyone agrees on is that the Green New Deal is never going to happen under the current leadership. The government continues to heavily subsidise fossil fuels, and Trump has shown no sign of backing down on his promise to pull out of the Paris Agreement. “The problem is we have someone in charge of the federal government who is an anti-climate person that wants to mislead the American people,“ Jacobson says. “But policy is based on economics, and it is straightforward for policymakers to take away subsidies from the fossil fuel industry, which has been leeching off society for 100 years, causing illnesses and wasting taxpayers' money.“

“A just transition has to be incorporated into any green new deal“

There are many who believe that climate change is so serious it requires economic mobilisation similar to that seen during World War II, although Pollin tells me it is not as simple as that. “I recently met Bernie Sanders in Washington and told him the deal was unrealistic, and he said 'what about WWII? We changed the production capabilities of our economy overnight'. I told him that back then we had 20% idle capacity and a lot of scope to expand things – plus we are not in a war now, and we need to the get the working class and unions on board.“

A recent poll found that 70% of US citizens support the push for 100% renewable energy, but that doesn't stop sections of the media blasting the Green New Deal as some sort of job-killing socialist plot. “Investing in green infrastructure generates more jobs than maintaining the fossil fuel infrastructure, energy costs will go down because we are investing in efficiency, and renewables are at cost parity anyway,“ Pollin says. “I don't know what works in terms of rhetoric and persuading people, but a just transition has to be incorporated into any green new deal, so it addresses pension protections, guaranteed re-employment, retraining and relocation support as needed – I think it's fair to say environmentalists have not given enough attention to this.“

Although it may be technologically possible, the overriding feeling is that a 2030 target for net zero emissions and 100% renewable energy is not yet politically and socially realistic. “But that doesn't mean we shouldn't shoot for it,“ Jacobson says. “It is better to set a goal that is too ambitious than one that is not ambitious enough – the more renewables we can install the better, and we will transform our infrastructure. It is happening as we speak.“

Image credit: Getty Images


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