How the Green New Deal is Already Playing Out

Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

By Taylor McNair

The Green New Deal. It’s all the rage these days, and for good reason. As a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explains, the world has just twelve years to dramatically and rapidly draw down global carbon emissions to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change. The Green New Deal is a lofty and ambitious suite of policy proposals to decarbonize the United States. The plan would create millions of good jobs and reboot the national economy while simultaneously making it more just and equitable. And while it may be short on detail and nuance, what it lacks in substance it most certainly makes up for in political pomp. Supporters of the Green New Deal have demanded endorsements of every major Democratic presidential candidate, shut down Nancy Pelosi’s office, and are now calling for the largest single demonstration at a presidential debate in American history. The Green New Deal has, to say the least, captured the nation’s attention.

Pundits and Politicians Spar on the Proposal

With that excitement, however, has come a flood of grandstanding, misinformation, and attack. Some conservatives likened the proposal to a socialist takeover that would plunge the country into an economic dystopia comparable to Venezuela’s decline. Tucker Carlson claimed the Green New Deal was a religious document that will force us to abandon planes. Perhaps most surprising are the calls from the left, so-called progressive champions who have questioned how we achieve such lofty goals and at what price. When asked about the proposal, house majority leader Nancy Pelosi responded:

“ The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they're for it, right?"

When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D., MA) released their joint resolutions in Congress, pundits, energy experts, and TV hosts were quick to react. #EnergyTwitter was fierce, with competing experts ready to nitpick each and every line item of a resolution that has no binding or material impact on policy yet. The plan is bold, and proclaims that it is the duty of the Federal government to create a Green New Deal that achieves net-zero carbon emissions, creates millions of good jobs, cleans our air and water, and promotes justice and equity.  

In the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer described the implausibility of Democrats ever passing such a lofty proposal:

“In the next six years, immutable political facts will make passing anything out of the Senate especially difficult. Yet the next six years are the period that Green New Deal advocates must care most about. They have  explicitly adopted the goal  of limiting Earth’s temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would require global carbon emissions to be cut almost in half by 2030. That  already appears next to impossible . It will be risible fantasy if no law is on the books by 2025, if not much earlier.”

Robinson goes on to describe the seven things that must happen in order to achieve what the Green New Deal demands: winning the senate, ditching the filibuster, welcoming two new states into statehood, and on. Stray from the path described, and the Green New Deal dies. Navigate it deftly, and Democratic politicians (and strictly Democrats, because, as Brian Schatz (D., HI) so joyfully reminds us, Republicans have no plan) will have done the impossible: decarbonized the U.S. economy while simultaneously reviving it on the order of the original New Deal, this time in an equitable and just fashion that provides good jobs for all and avoids the harshest systemic impacts of climate injustices.

But what if it doesn’t have to happen like this? What if we can achieve rapid decarbonization and economic renewal without lifting a federal finger? What if, more importantly, we’re already on our way to doing just that?

State Energy Policy is Driving Decarbonization

Two states in the nation, California and Hawaii, already have plans to decarbonize their energy sectors and procure 100% clean energy, the former planning on 60% renewables by 2030 and 100% clean energy by 2045, and the latter pursuing 100% renewable energy by 2045. California took it one step further, with Governor Brown signing an executive order to achieve economy-wide decarbonization by 2050. In gas-happy Arizona, regulators have extended a moratorium on the construction of new gas plants, for fear that those plants will soon become uncompetitive compared to cheap wind and solar.

Washington, D.C. recently passed the most aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard in the nation, planning to (sort of) acquire 100% renewable energy by 2032. New York, Minnesota, and New Mexico have all recently released bills in state legislatures calling for 100% clean energy, with New York in particular, calling for the states own Green New Deal. Puerto Rico, who’s recent resource planning guide called for an additional 2 GW of solar and 1 GW of battery storage, is considering the largest build out of solar and storage projects in the nation. In all, over 100 cities, counties, and states have adopted 100% clean energy goals.

Eleven new Democratic governors, seven of which flipped previously Republican held seats, could usher in a new swell of carbon reduction policies. Three of those governors, including Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, have signed onto the U.S. Climate Alliance, which encourages states to pursue policies to achieve the emissions reductions goals agreed to in Paris at COP21, bringing the total number of commitments up to 20 states. While Republicans, and the Trump administration specifically, have agreed to abandon our international commitments, almost half the nation is attempting to put us on a path towards 1.5 degrees Celsius.

State energy policy is, of course, just one small component of the Green New Deal. The GND is a massive, economy-wide decarbonization plan, which would entail stark upheaval of the nation’s transportation, housing, urban design, industrial processing, shipping, and agriculture sectors. Around the country, we’re seeing emerging examples of states and localities planning for this inevitability.  

Energy Sector Emissions are Just One Piece of the Green New Deal

Colorado’s new Democratic governor recently signed an executive order asking the state to craft a zero-emissions vehicle program. Lithium-ion batteries, the most expensive component of electric vehicles, have fallen 80% since 2010. The most valuable car company in the country doesn’t even sell an internal combustion engine model, and Volkswagen alone plans to produce 50 electric vehicle models by 2025. New York City, home to America’s largest bus network, has committed to turning its entire 5,700 bus fleet all-electric by 2040.

Clean energy contracts signed by corporations doubled in the past year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. In the U.S. alone, private sector companies bought a record-breaking 8.5 GW of new renewables, signaling the nation’s top employers desire to move beyond fossil fuels.

Despite rhetoric from the White House, and an unprecedented assault on energy and environmental advancement, the Department of Energy, and its Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, has announced millions of dollars in investments in floating wind turbines, long-duration energy storage, biofuels, and more novel energy technologies.

Over the past year, 25 cities have been chosen by Bloomberg Philanthropies as winners in Bloomberg’s American Cities Climate Challenge. Austin and San Antonio are using their funds to perform retro-commissioning in municipal buildings, as well as deep energy benchmarking and retrofits to reduce emissions from buildings, which are responsible for some 30% of U.S. emissions. Others, such as Denver, are focusing on improving high-frequency transit lines and redesigning cities to be more walkable and bikeable.

Challenges Remain, but Innovations Abound

In the industrial sector, arguably the place where our most difficult decarbonization challenges lie, innovative companies are raising millions to develop solutions to everything from industrial waste processing to emissions reductions from cement production (approximately 2% of global emissions). Connecticut, Maryland, and others have drafted standards to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a powerful greenhouse gas used in heating and cooling.

Farmers around the country are searching for solutions to an industry that represents 9% of U.S. carbon emissions. In Indiana, farmers are testing new tools to monitor tillage practicesand crop covers, which helps retain carbon sequestered in soils. In Louisiana, landowners are reforesting their lands in exchange for carbon credits, simultaneously tackling climate change while also providing a secondary income source.

On the front lines, those who have been most impacted by the fossil fuel economy, and those who are projected to suffer disproportionately from its impacts, are fighting back. Many states have signed legislation that allows for early retirement of fossil fuel plants while simultaneously re-investing the savings in job training and economic redevelopment. In Texas, Puerto Rico, and North Carolina, groups like the Climate Justice Alliance are helping communities devastated by climate change impacts rebuild through a Just Recovery. And across the continent, indigenous communities and First Nations are fighting fossil fuel infrastructure and demanding security from a loss of traditional means of sustenance.

And despite its broad offerings, the Green New Deal still fails to capture important components of this environmental and economic transition, such as land-use restrictions and our physical geographies. Regardless, some cities are picking up the slack. In Minneapolis, the state has banned exclusionary, single-family zoning, which typically prevents dense housing and thus exacerbates climate warming emissions due to increased driving and less efficient housing.

Of course, none of this is destroying the economy. In fact, it’s having the opposite effect. California, arguably the most aggressive climate state in the nation, has seen state economic output grow 16% since 2006, outpacing the 11.6% nationwide average. Cap and trade programs, which cap a region’s emissions and encourages innovative reductions in those emissions over time, have saved customers money on their electric bills, while funneling millions into energy efficiency, clean energy, and transit development. Solar installer and wind turbine technician are projected to grow the fastest among all U.S. professions in the coming decade. And the list goes on, and on.  

A Green New Deal Without the Federal Government?

As Michael Grunwald smartly explains in Politico, the Green New Deal will probably be next to impossible to enact with Trump in the White House. Regardless, it serves an important purpose. The resolution is a call to action, a rhetorical and political tool designed to lay out the great overarching steps forward our citizens must take to transform the carbonized world. This is not to say that we shouldn’t push for a Green New Deal. We must work to decarbonize all sectors of the economy far faster and smarter than we are doing now. We must put our politicians on the spot. We must demand comprehensive and equitable climate action. And we must make this a litmus test not just for every serious presidential candidate, but every elected official in the country, from the statehouse to the White House. However, we should not ignore where this massive movement of global action is already unfolding: the front lines, city halls, public utility commissions, corporate offices, and state legislatures around the country.

Taylor McNair.jpeg

Taylor McNair is a Program Manager at GridLab and a Clean Energy Leadership Institute Fellow (San Francisco, 2018).

Liz Dalton