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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks to activists with the Sunrise Movement, 13 November 2018. Credit: Sunrise Movement.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks to activists with the Sunrise Movement, 13 November 2018. Credit: Sunrise Movement.
US POLICY
3 December 2018 16:59

Explainer: Why some US Democrats want a ‘Green New Deal’ to tackle climate change

Zeke Hausfather

Zeke Hausfather

12.03.18
Zeke Hausfather

Zeke Hausfather

03.12.2018 | 4:59pm
US PolicyExplainer: Why some US Democrats want a ‘Green New Deal’ to tackle climate change

A growing number of Democrats in the US Congress are hoping to create a new set of policies which would trigger a rapid decarbonisation of the US economy. They have labelled the plan as the “green new deal”.

The proposed policy would, say its advocates, be in-line with the speed and scale of changes that would be required to meet the Paris Agreement’s aspirational goal of limiting warming to below 1.5C by the end of the century.

While its details are still amorphous, the green new deal envisions massive-scale public investments in energy and efficiency measures, aiming to fully decarbonise the US electricity sector – and much of the rest of the economy – by the year 2030.

A number of Democrats, led by representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York’s 14th congressional district, are advocating for the creation of a “select committee for a green new deal” that would work to develop a detailed plan to decarbonise the US economy. The goal would be to have a plan of action in place by 2020, which could be quickly implemented – if Democrats take both the Senate and presidency in the 2020 elections.

The proposed goals of the green new deal reflect the vast scale of changes needed in the near future to put the US on a path to help limit global warming to below 1.5C. It is an attempt to move the Democratic platform toward ambitious climate action.

However, it is also facing pushback from more centrist members of the caucus who argue that the goals may be too ambitious and that the focus should be on potential near-term bipartisan solutions.

A long history of green new deals

The idea of a large-scale public investment in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions is not new. For example, as far back as 2003 the nonprofit Apollo Alliance sought to make an alliance between environmental and labour groups for a “a new Apollo project” to undertake a $300bn, 10-year effort to accelerate the transition to clean energy.

The term “green new deal” has been used by many different groups over the years. It was promoted by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman back in 2007, by the UK-based New Economics Foundation in 2008 and by, among others, the European and US Green parties.

Earlier in 2018, the US thinktank Data for Progress published a detailed policy report on what such a programme might entail, including a commitment to 100% clean electricity by 2035 and net-zero emissions from all US energy consumption by 2050.

The details differ by proposal, but the common theme is a large-scale investment of public resources for rapid decarbonisation, modelled after the emergency measures taken in the 1930s by US president Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

A “solving our climate crisis town-hall event is due to take place today in Washington DC, where the green new deal will be debated by the likes of Ocasio-Cortez, veteran environmental and author Bill McKibben and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

Pushing the Democratic party platform

The recent 2018 midterm elections in the US saw a new group of Democratic representatives elected to take office for whom climate change is a major issue. Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a rising star of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, has brought the idea of a green new deal to the fore in recent weeks, proposing the creation of a select committee of 15 representatives in the House to hammer out the details.

At the same time, the youth-driven Sunrise Movement has ramped up pressure on Democrats to commit to an ambitious climate action, staging a number of protests in support of a green new deal, including one last month joined by Ocasio-Cortez outside of minority leader Nancy Pelosi’s office.

The movement is now pressuring Democrats to support the creation of the green new deal select committee. The goal of the select committee would be to develop:

“A detailed national, industrial, economic mobilisation plan…for the transition of the US economy to become carbon neutral and to significantly drawdown and capture greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and oceans and to promote economic and environmental justice and equality.”

This would be developed through consultations over the next year with a range of experts, including scientists, lawmakers, labour unions and business leaders. The details of a green new deal would be finalised by 1 January 2020 when, advocates hope, a change in the composition of Congress and the presidency could allow a bill undertaking ambitious climate action to be passed by both houses and not be vetoed by the president.

Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal includes a list of goals for the plan that would, ultimately, be developed by the select committee and achieved “in no longer than 10 years from the start of execution of the plan”. The goals include:

This initiative reflects a tacit acknowledgement that little meaningful congressional action on climate change will occur as long as Republicans control the Senate and presidency. Rather, the deal’s supporters want to set the stage for rapid action should voters elect “a Democratic administration and Congress in 2020”. It seeks to establish specific actions for rapid and expansive climate mitigation as a core part of the Democratic party platform (manifesto).

Planning a rapid transition

The goals proposed by Ocasio-Cortez reflect many of the proposals in the earlier “Data for Progress” report, though she suggests an even more expedited timeline, namely, fully decarbonising US electricity generation by 2030 rather than 2035. Ocasio-Cortez specifically calls for 100% renewable generation, while the Data for Progress report calls for 100% clean and renewable generation, which allows for the use of nuclear and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage.

This is an important distinction, as roughly a fifth of current US electricity generation – and the majority of current near zero-carbon electricity – comes from nuclear power. Shutting down all of these power plants along with all fossil-fuel generation over the course of a decade would impose significant additional challenges.

A decade-long transition would also entail the early retirement of a large number of electricity generation assets well before their end of expected life. Depending on the scope of decarbonisation in the transportation sector, it might also entail the early retirement of petrol and diesel vehicles. There has been little assessment to-date of the cost of these proposals.

At the same time, however, these goals do reflect the scope and scale of the transition that would likely be required to be consistent with emissions pathways limiting warming to below 1.5C in 2100.

The figure below, from the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5C, suggests that scenarios that minimise the amount of late-century negative emissions deployment require global emission reductions of around 60% by 2030 from current levels – and, presumably, even larger emission reductions in developed, high-emitting countries, such as the US.

The figure shows CO2 emissions in four future pathways – P1 through P4 – each of which has some combination of positive emissions from fossil fuels and industry, and negative emissions from afforestation and land use (AFOLU) and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Pathways with more rapid near-term emission reductions – such as P1 and P2 – minimise the need for a massive-scale deployment of negative emissions later in the century.

Four illustrative integrated assessment model pathways to limit warming to 1.5C, with increasing reliance on negative emissions – and slower ramping up of mitigation – from left to right. Source: Figure SPM.3b in the IPCC SR15 summary for policymakers.

For the US to reduce its emissions more than 60% by 2030, it would likely require a near-complete decarbonisation of the power sector, along with additional large reductions in emissions from transportation and industry.

The figure below, produced by Carbon Brief, shows the baseline US greenhouse gas emissions in the absence of any new policies in dark blue – based on estimates published by the Rhodium Group. A pathway consistent with limiting temperatures to below 1.5C without a massive-scale deployment of negative emissions is shown in light blue – and involves a 60% decline in emissions by 2030, reflecting the global trajectory to 1.5C. Finally, a scenario with 100% clean electricity generation by 2030 is shown in yellow – and assumes that emissions in other sectors remain flat.

US greenhouse gas emissions – in million tonnes CO2-equivalent (MtCO2eq) for a baseline no-additional-policy scenario (dark blue), a 100% clean electricity by 2030 scenario (yellow), and a 1.5C-consistent pathway with a 60% decline in emissions by 2030 (light blue). Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.

The 100% clean electricity by 2030 goal in the new green deal would only get the US about halfway to being on a below-1.5C pathway, even if the US only took on a global-average level of ambition. Large reductions would have to come from other sectors of the economy, specifically transportation and residential, commercial, and industrial energy use.

Moving away from markets

Many of the climate solutions offered by both the left and right in the US over the past decade have focused on utilising market mechanisms – such as cap-and-trade systems or carbon taxes.

The green new deal proposal moves away from a primary reliance on market-based approaches, arguing that “given the magnitude of the current challenge, the tools of regulation and taxation, used in isolation, will not be enough to quickly and smoothly accomplish the transformation”.

The proposal notes that it is possible that “if we [the US] had put in place targeted regulations and progressively increasing carbon and similar taxes several decades ago, the economy could have transformed itself by now”. But, it adds, “we did not do that, and now time has run out”.

It suggests that while there is a role for a carbon price, the main thrust of the transition should be in the form of large-scale public investment.

The proposal also argues that the private sector alone would be unable to leverage the level of resources needed for such a rapid transition. It suggests that the required investment would be enormous, noting that prior calls for $1 trillion over 10 years reflect a “wholly inadequate level of investment”.

These “massive” government investments would be funded by increasing the money supply via the Federal Reserve similar to the quantitative easing programmes undertaken in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. This would be through new public banks to extend credit and through various taxation tools, such a price on carbon and progressive wealth taxes.

Role for incrementalism?

The new proposal is likely to prove controversial among the wider Democratic caucus, given its scope and price tag. It is unclear at this stage how much support the creation of the select committee will get – though, at the time of publication, 18 of the 235 Democratic representatives had announced their support.

Democrats were already planning on bringing back a different select committee focused on climate change, similar to the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming which existed from 2007-2010 when Democrats lost control of the House. There is concern that having two separate select committees would be duplicative and some more centrist Democrats have expressed scepticism about the scope of the green new deal committee’s goals.

Some Democrats want to focus more on searching for bipartisan solutions that can be passed by the current Congress, rather than gambling on a hypothetical future Democratic takeover of both congress and the presidency.

Prof Dan Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, and former science envoy for the US State Department, tells Carbon Brief that “Democrats need to work within the existing committee system – rather than creating a new select committee – to have any hope of passing something”.

Kammen suggests that while planning for future action is important, Democrats should not abandon the option of finding common ground with some Republicans in the Senate to pass climate policies in the near-term.

The green new deal proposal has received significant attention in the media over the past few weeks. Activist author Naomi Klein praised it in an article in the Intercept, calling it “a comprehensive and holistic plan to actually put the fire out”, rather than a piecemeal approach like past climate policies. On the other hand, the Hill criticised the potentially “exorbitant price tag”, quoting Vibrant Clean Energy’s Dr Christopher Clack that the 100% renewable mandate alone “would cost at least $2 trillion” over the decade. Meanwhile, Vox’s David Roberts stressed the importance of aspirational exercises, even if they are unlikely to be passed into law:

The proposed green new deal reflects a new focus on climate change by Democrats, advancing for the first time a set of measures that reflect the scale and speed of a mitigation response that would be consistent with a pathway limiting warming to below 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. At the same time, it is still far from being a fleshed-out plan, and the proposal to create a green new deal subcommittee in the House thus far only has a handful of supporters and has a long path to go to becoming reality.

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