What’s in the Green New Deal?

March 13, 2019

MIT Technology Review:

Here are four key takeaways.

1. Clean, not renewable

For some, the concern had been that the proposal would limit energy generation to renewable sources alone, mainly wind and solar, as some environmental groups had advocated.

Instead, the package adopts a relatively technology-agnostic approach to how we clean up the power sector, stating that the nation must meet “100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.”

That seems to allow for the use of carbon-free sources like nuclear power and fossil-fuel plants with carbon-capture systems. Most energy researchers argue that such steady carbon-free sources will make it faster, easier, and less expensive to overhaul the energy system. That’s because wind and solar generation fluctuates wildly, which requires expensive forms of energy storage or transmission, in the absence of other consistent sources.

2. No new nukes?

That said, at least one of the authors obviously wants to rapidly get rid of nuclear power and fossil-fuels plants.

An early version of an accompanying FAQ, released this morning from Ocasio-Cortez’s office, stated that the plan wouldn’t include any new nuclear plants, adding: “It’s unclear if we will be able to decommission every nuclear plant within 10 years, but the plan is to transition off of nuclear and fossil fuels as soon as possible.”

The nuclear language didn’t appear in a later draft, though.

“Although a fact sheet from one of the resolution’s sponsors has created confusion, the text of the actual resolution makes it abundantly clear — we must embrace every zero-carbon resource available to eliminate climate pollution and dramatically increase our investment in clean energy innovation,” said Josh Freed, senior vice president at Third Way, a clean-energy think tank, in a statement.

3. “Natural” carbon removal

Both the UN’s climate panel and the US National Academies have concluded that we’ll need to remove massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to prevent dangerous levels of warming.

So another area of concern before the proposal was published was whether or not it would embrace methods of removing carbon dioxide directly from the air — and if so, in what form.

The released framework does specify that the law would allow or require “removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reducing pollution,” but it gives clear priority to “proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage, such a preservation and afforestation.”

These kinds of approaches — planting trees and improved soil management — probably won’t be enough, according to the US National Academies report. That’s because they would place competing demands on agricultural lands needed to feed the world. That report called for significant federal funding for research and development in other approaches, like direct air capture machines that can suck carbon dioxide out of the sky. No mention of them appeared in the Green New Deal proposal.

4. Possibly impossible

All told, the proposal betrays a clear preference for natural solutions and renewable power, with perhaps a grudging acceptance that other technologies may be required.

The broader question, of course, is how much this proposal will matter. It certainly won’t become law in anything like this form under the current Congress and president.

And whether it’s economically feasible to overhaul nearly the entire energy sector in a decade is highly questionable. Energy researcher Christopher Clack, chief executive of Vibrant Energy, found that such a rapid transition would cost around $48 trillion, or around $5 trillion a year, which is roughly a quarter of the nation’s annual GDP, he said on Twitter.

Even if Democrats do retake the Senate and White House in 2020, the Green New Deal may still be doomed to fail. In addition to cleaning up the energy system, the proposal guarantees all Americans good-paying jobs, high-quality health care, clean water, and affordable food. Such a wide-ranging bill may not stand much of a chance whoever is in charge.

But some hope the sheer ambition of the Green New Deal becomes a rallying point in US politics that inspires legislators, activists, and voters, widening the window of what’s politically possible.

Excerpting an extremely long Vox piece here. 


The first use of the term “GND” in the US may trace to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who called for one in a 2007 column (and in his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded) as a kind of green globalism. (Funny thing, politics.) As Kaufman notes in a story on this history, none other than Barack Obama was taken by Friedman’s idea and included a GND in his 2008 platform. (It can also be argued that Obama’s stimulus bill was a proto-GND in itself.)

Around the same time, in 2007, British economist Richard Murphy began discussing a GND and founded the Green New Deal Group, which funneled some ideas to the Labour Party. The UN also took up the idea, calling for a global GND in 2009.

But then Tories won in the UK in 2009, the Republicans swept the 2010 midterms, and the idea mostly went quiescent, at least among politicians.

In 2016, a GND became the centerpiece of the Green Party presidential campaign of Jill Stein; indeed, a GND has been part of the US Green Party’s platform for over a decade. (It is also central to the platform of the European Greens — see this study from the Wuppertal Institute.)

Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign included a GND. And then, in the 2018 midterms, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, now a representative-elect, took it up.

I asked the same question of everyone I talked to: What are your bottom lines? What must be in a policy platform for it to earn the name GND? Answers varied considerably in their details and emphasis, but they clustered around three basic principles.

1) The plan must decarbonize the economy.

The young people who will have to live with the effects of climate change want a plan that begins with what is necessary rather than what is deemed politically possible. “We want the policy to match the findings in the IPCC report — to match the scale of the problem,” says Waleed Shahid of Justice Democrats. Or as Gunn-Wright puts it, “We need to go all the way.”

That means decarbonizing the US economy: getting the electricity sector to zero carbon as soon as possible and other sectors shortly thereafter. That is a gargantuan undertaking that will touch every American life.

Ocasio-Cortez’s platform calls for 100 percent renewable electricity within 10 years, but very few policy experts believe that is possible. Carlock, along with most other wonks in the field, thinks it’s preferable to shoot for 100 percent “clean and renewable energy,” to make room for non-renewable carbon-free options like existing nuclear plants or any new developments in nuclear, biomass, or carbon capture and sequestration. And they also think it’s best to push the target out a bit. (Carlock has it at 2035.)

2) The plan must include a federal jobs guarantee and large-scale public investments.

Again, the GND is not just climate policy. It’s about transforming the economy, lifting the up the poor and middle class, and creating a more muscular, active public sector.

The GND “opens an opportunity to renegotiate power relationships between the public sector, the private sector, and the people,” says Gunn-Wright. “We are interested in solutions that create more democratic structures in our economy.”

Weber says that the key is to “connect [the GND] inextricably to the economic pain that so many Americans still feel, and show people that there’s a way to build a better economy and improve their lives through action on climate change.”

To that end, the GND would involve large-scale investments, on the order of trillions of dollars over 10 years, alongside a federal jobs guarantee. A job paying at least $15 an hour, with good benefits, would be available to anyone who wanted one.

Politically, this is the key to the GND. It’s a program that can involve everyone and help everyone — and, theoretically, gain support from everyone, even those in red states who do not care about climate change. The investments and the job guarantee take the GND out of the realm of environmental policy and move it into the realm of transformational economic policy.

3) The plan must include a just transition.

Several people I talked to stressed that they want to avoid the mistakes of the original New Deal, many elements of which entrenched or exacerbated racial inequalities. Everyone wants to make sure that the plan includes protections for those hardest hit by historical discrimination and those set to suffer most from the effects of climate change — in Ocasio-Cortez’s document, “low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous communities, [and] the front-line communities most affected by climate change, pollution, and other environmental harm.”

Part of that is workforce training and the job guarantee, part of it is ensuring that all those jobs come with strong labor, environmental, and nondiscrimination standards, part of it is investments in those communities to fund programs like lead remediation, and part of it is making sure that all the investments — that all parts of the GND — follow strong environmental-justice standards.

Beyond these three core principles, the GND is still capacious enough to include a wide variety of preferences and perspectives. Journalist Aronoff best expresses the maximum, self-avowedly socialist version, painting an idyllic picture of a family provisioned with publicly funded work, child care benefits, and elder care. The Sierra Club has a somewhat more modest version.

As the GND brand spreads, traditional advocacy and policy groups are likely to break off more manageable chunks under the same rubric. After all, the GND is so sweeping that virtually any climate policy can claim to be part of it.

The delicate dance is to keep the GND fuzzy enough to allow a broad coalition of people and interests to see themselves in it — which is, somewhat miraculously, what seems to have happened so far — while specifying it enough to avoid having it watered down into a feel-good buzzword.

And that has to be done while navigating all the prodigious challenges ahead.


14 Responses to “What’s in the Green New Deal?”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    Re: New nuclear

    Even if you include storage, renewables seem to be the more reasonable option.

    Plus, leave aside the waste problem, nuclear has a much higher carbon footprint than renewables.

    Plus plus, nuclear takes way longer to install than renewables.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Why are you spouting anti-nuclear propaganda here? What’s your agenda?

      • Sir Charles Says:

        My “agenda” is a transition to zero carbon emissions ASAP. Without another toxic legacy radiating for hundreds of thousands of years. What I’m posting isn’t “propaganda”, it’s bare facts.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      AIUI, nuclear power plants have a relatively high up-front carbon cost in construction, including a lot of concrete, but long term their carbon cost is “amortized”. Siting is expensive, too, in terms of finding a location with access to water (lake/river/coast) that is large enough, and protected from from rain-bomb flooding, SLR, and overwarming. Chinese plans to create “dry nukes” would do a lot to reduce siting limits, if they can pull it off.

      • J4Zonian Says:

        We’ll probably reach 1.5°C over preindustrial temps in about 10 years. The consensus for the point at which irreversible melt of all Greenland ice is guaranteed is 1.6°. That alone is more than 20′ of SLR; and of course it comes with even more SLR from Antarctica and the world’s glaciers.

        So short term is the only term that matters, so new nukes, new old nukes, dry nukes and all the other nukes can’t possibly do anything but fail completely– raise emissions and make things worse while they take resources away from efficiency, wiser lives, and clean safe renewable energy construction. 2050 is way too long to eliminate emissions.

        Solar PV and wind almost always vary gently and predictably, especially with distributed generation–contrary to the MIT piece. 24/7 CSP and clothesline paradox solar are dispatchable over each day at least; storage, including well-managed EVs, will make PV and wind (especially high-capacity factor offshore wind) essentially dispatchable at least over a day. Hydro, micro-hydro, geothermal and the small amounts of waste biomass we can afford to use are dispatchable. We can provide all humanity’s energy needs with 100% clean safe renewable energy.

        PS. You forgot drought–lack of water, in addition to overheating water; they’ve both caused nukes to shut down. Both are already happening more; that will get worse.

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      Once more unto the breach. Let us test these generic numbers to a real location, say Ireland. Purely random choice.
      Solar, at above 50 deg Latitude, in the land where ‘if you cannot see the mountains its raining and if you can, its going to rain’. is hardly an economic option. Hydro, of which there is a surprisingly large bunch, is relatively small scale, low storage unfortunately. So we are left with wind. Wonderfully strong westerly Trades off the Atlantic will do the job, except when they stop. Like they did last June for 2 solid weeks. When you get 14 days of whole country power storage, place it next to the flying pig farm. In short, those economics do not work everywhere. Solution, power cable to GB nuclear to fill the gaps. Provided they have it to spare of course.
      The nuclear waste problem is a made up problem.
      Median build time for conventional reactor, in China, 5.5 years.

      • Sir Charles Says:

        Ireland’s predominant renewable resource is wind. Our biggest single polluter, Moneypoint, is offline since September last, and surprise, we haven’t had any power outage. We could be Europe’s leading exporter of offshore wind energy, but there is only one small wind farm off the shores of Wicklow. A second small farm is planned, but only with a capacity of a quarter of Moneypoint, which is as much as one nuclear reactor. 120 of those boys below could deliver as much as a nuke at an area of just 20×20 km. Way cheaper and safer than nuclear energy.

        When you have an incident at a nuclear reactor you’re losing a gigawatt in just seconds. Meanwhile, wind is predictable many hours in advance. As our electricity still mainly comes from fast reacting gas plants, our grid is well prepared for wind energy even without storage and interconnection. What we now need in addition are interconnections and storage. For the latter I see big potential in EVs and their batteries (even second hand).

        • Sir Charles Says:

          I know it’s anything but enough, but just to give you a figure for Ireland:

          Renewable electricity generation accounted for 30.1% (normalised) of gross electricity consumption. The use of renewables in electricity generation in 2017 reduced CO2 emissions by 3.3 Mt and avoided €278 million in fossil fuel imports. … wind generation account for 25.2% (normalised) of the electricity generated making it the second largest source of electricity generation after natural gas.

          Click to access Energy-in-Ireland-2018.pdf

          Most of that is onshore. We could easily double the input of wind energy without any major changes in the system. I’m constantly lobbying our government and representatives to ramp up renewable energy installation, in particular offshore wind. And I have a notion that they start listening. Just the pace is far too slow.

          • Sir Charles Says:

            Errata: Two of the three units at Moneypoint are online again since end of January. It’s not easy getting information about, because MSM tend to keep such news under wraps. The whole power plant is due to be decommissioned in 2025 when its licence expires.

      • Sir Charles Says:

        BTW, build time for a nuclear reactor in the UK… Please google for Hinkley Point C. You’ll see how many years it’s been taking and how many tens of billions of £££ are just being burnt. Europe is not China. And China has now also lost its taste for nuclear energy. This article by a pro-nuclear site sums it up:

        The bigger problem is financial. Reactors built with extra safety features and more robust cooling systems to avoid a Fukushima-like disaster are expensive, while the costs of wind and solar power continue to plummet: they are now 20% cheaper than electricity from new nuclear plants in China, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Moreover, high construction costs make nuclear a risky investment.

        • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

          So nukes are poor on Economics today. RE can sell power during good weather and still make an overall profit including down time. When even approaching the mythical 100% RE, this changes, with excess power produced on good days lowering prices, even to negative. Still no income when the weather bad. So cheap production is overshadowed by bad economic returns. All becomes trivial compared to the cost to the economy of no available energy. That is before the cost, catastrophe, of not mitigating AGW.

  2. John Says:

    Reblogged this on jpratt27.

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