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The Green New Deal’s Achilles Heel

The Green New Deal’s Achilles Heel

February 8, 2019

Don’t get me wrong. I am in whole-hearted agreement with the goals of the Green New Deal, as laid out yesterday by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). I want the United States to stop emitting greenhouse gases, create millions of good jobs, and promote justice and equity.

I only have one problem with the plan. It won’t solve the climate crisis.

I’m not talking about the obstacles to getting it passed. I’m not even talking about the obstacles to getting it implemented. Let’s assume that the GND achieves its stated goals, and the United States is no longer dumping its carbon pollution into the atmosphere in 2030. Even if that’s the case, we would still be facing the horrific consequences outlined by the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The only way to solve the climate crisis is for the whole world to stop emitting greenhouse gases. But the tools that the GND would create would not be effective worldwide. Until low-carbon energy is cheaper than high-carbon energy for the bulk of the globe’s energy needs, the pace of global emissions will not slow down very much. And the GND would not do very much to make that so.

The most important tool in the GND toolkit is the mass adoption of existing zero-carbon energy technologies. For some technologies, like solar panels and electric vehicles, the pull exerted by new U.S. demand would indeed hasten ongoing price declines that would benefit the rest of the world.

But for many others, especially in harder-to-abate sectors like manufacturing and buildings, which comprise about a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions today, as well as “negative emissions technologies” that can remove carbon from the atmosphere, there is little reason to believe that the GND would drive down costs. The barriers for these technologies lie on the supply side. We must make significant investments in research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) to improve them before the world will benefit from stronger U.S. demand.

The GND also calls for decentralized, community-focused decision-making in sectors like agriculture and construction. This approach would have the effect of yielding highly customized solutions, tailored to the particularities of each place. Each community would have to go through a similar process of customization, with little prospect of lowering the cost of these solutions significantly over time. And in many parts of the world, American solutions would have very little applicability, because those communities are so different from ours.

Massive public investment is another tool that the GND would rely on. GND proponents do not provide figures but rely on an analogy with World War II. Federal spending rose by about 350 percent during that war. The federal budget for fiscal year 2019 is $4.4 trillion. Doubling that figure, much less tripling it, without triggering crippling inflation by simply printing money, would suck in vast amounts of capital from abroad. That would leave the rest of the world without the means to carry out its own clean energy transition.

The GND is not entirely blind to these challenges. The overall goal as well as the specific goals for industry, transportation, and agriculture are to be achieved only to the extent “technologically feasible.” The GND calls for public investment in RD&D and international exchange of technology. But technological feasibility is a far cry from true affordability. And a passing call for RD&D is a far cry from the extraordinary mobilization of scientific talent and industrial might that won World War II and planted the seeds of postwar prosperity.

The GND should demand solutions that have the potential to become cost-effective globally. Only these solutions will enable the billions around the world who are energy-poor to gain access to essential services like heat, light, and mobility that Americans take for granted, without provoking catastrophic climate consequences. The GND should mobilize science, technology, and industry to find these solutions, which must be robust to the changing price of fossil fuels, which will drop as demand declines.

Unless and until we adopt this kind of GND, a program that focuses on making technologies much better and much cheaper as well as encouraging their rapid adoption when ready, those billions will keep burning coal, natural gas, and oil unabated and the climate will continue to deteriorate.

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