A Green New Deal is Technologically Possible. Its Political Prospects Are Another Question.

Source: By Lisa Friedman and Trip Gabriel, New York Times • Posted: Friday, February 22, 2019

WASHINGTON — President Trump derided the Green New Deal as a “high school term paper that got a low mark.” Congressional Republicans mocked it as “zany.” Even Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, called the proposal a “green dream,” and some of the party’s 2020 candidates are starting to describe it as merely aspirational.

Yet, despite that disdain, the goals of the far-reaching plan to tackle climate change and economic inequality are within the realm of technological possibility, several energy experts and economists said in recent interviews.

Getting there will cost trillions of dollars, most agreed, and require expansive new taxes and federal programs. It certainly could not be accomplished within the 10-year time frame that supporters say is necessary, according to these experts.

The Green New Deal, in other words, is an exciting idea for many liberals and an enticing political target for conservatives. But, most of all, it is an extraordinarily complicated series of trade-offs that could be realized, experts say, with extensive sacrifices that people are only starting to understand.

[Here are answers to nine key questions on the Green New Deal.]

Proposals for a Green New Deal — which would aim to slow climate change and catapult myriad industries into cutting-edge, low-carbon technologies — have been debated for more than a decade. But the subject was given new urgency last year by a high-profile United Nations report that said the Earth was on track to experience food shortages, fatal heat waves and mass die-offs of coral reefs by 2040, sooner than earlier projections. The report called for staggering changes to the global energy economy.

If the planet follows its current trajectory, the result by century’s end would be “catastrophe,” said John P. Holdren, the former science adviser to President Barack Obama. “The world would be almost unrecognizable compared to today’s world.”

“The evidence the climate is changing is becoming so overwhelming people are seeing it in their regions and in their lives,” he added. “We are really to the point where we’re seeing bodies in the street from severe flooding and severe wildfires.”

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The challenges in the Green New Deal for the economy, for Democratic presidential candidates running on it and for voters start with the fact that 80 percent of America’s energy now comes from relatively cheap and plentiful fossil fuels.

Replacing them with sources that do not emit greenhouse gasses will cost trillions of dollars; potentially increase energy costs for millions of families; and entail federal intervention in swaths of the economy, like transportation, where there is already a mixed record of government success. Republican critics gleefully noted last week that California’s Democratic governor scaled back a state-owned bullet train linking San Francisco and Los Angeles because of costs.

Republican critics gleefully noted last week that California’s Democratic governor scaled back a state-owned bullet train linking San Francisco and Los Angeles because of costs.Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Republican critics gleefully noted last week that California’s Democratic governor scaled back a state-owned bullet train linking San Francisco and Los Angeles because of costs.Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has already said he will bring the plan to the floor, a move to force Democrats — particularly the six presidential candidates in the Senate who have endorsed the blueprint — to cast a vote that Republicans can use to brand them as socialists and extremists. Most 2020 hopefuls standing up for a Green New Deal have done little more than endorse it as a slogan and have rarely been pressed on its specifics.

But while the scope of the Green New Deal is enormous, experts believe that the economic trade-offs — saving trillions on potential catastrophe by spending trillions to prevent it — are worth serious consideration given the scale of the threat, and that a deep policy discussion would help voters and other Americans grapple with the environmental threats.

Technological challenges. And political ones.

The Green New Deal, which is a congressional resolution without the force of legislation, calls for a “10-year national mobilization” to make the United States carbon-neutral across the economy. That means, as much carbon would have to be absorbed as is released into the atmosphere. Mr. Holdren, who is now a professor of environmental policy at Harvard University, said the Green New Deal’s timeline of achieving that goal around 2030 is not feasible.

“As a technologist studying this problem for 50 years, I don’t think we can do it,” he said.

“There’s hope we could do it by 2045 or 2050 if we get going now,” he added.

Mr. Holdren said worldwide energy infrastructure — an investment of $25 to $30 trillion — turns over every three to four decades, and an aggressive transition to non-carbon energy begun today could achieve zero emissions by midcentury. That is the deadline urged by scientists from 40 countries in last year’s report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The more ambitious Green New Deal was introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts. Its sweeping targets also include supplying 100 percent of the country’s electricity from renewable and zero-emissions sources within a decade; digitizing the nation’s power grid; upgrading every building to be more energy efficient; and overhauling factories and transportation, including cars, trucks and trains “as much as is technologically feasible” to remove greenhouse emissions.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced the resolution during a news conference this month.Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced the resolution during a news conference this month.Pete Marovich for The New York Times

The plan does not include a cost estimate, though it presumably would require massive new government spending and disrupt existing jobs and industries.

In addition to its climate goals, the plan includes far-ranging and politically problematic social promises, including guaranteed high-wage jobs, housing, paid vacation and health care.

Ethan Zindler, head of North American research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a clean-energy research group, said the power goal alone would be an enormous lift.

He noted that 37 percent of electricity in the United States comes from zero-carbon sources, including 20 percent of which is nuclear. If no new policies are enacted and all existing nuclear plants are kept online, the United States can rise to about 44 percent clean energy by 2030.

“We are quite optimistic that renewables will become the lowest-cost option” in the near future, Mr. Zindler said. But a 100 percent transformation to clean energy in a decade would necessitate not just shutting down coal, but also decommissioning natural gas plants.

“That would be extremely, extremely difficult to do verging on impossible without causing some real harm to the economy,” he said.

Mark Z. Jacobson, a Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering, was more optimistic. His research influenced a California law last year requiring the state to use 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2045. Mr. Jacobson said that 80 percent of the Green New Deal’s target of net-zero greenhouse emissions across the economy could be achieved by 2030, and 100 percent between 2040 and 2050.

“You don’t need any miracle technologies,” he said.

He laid out a multistep plan: converting all energy to electricity and heat, and generating both solely with wind, solar and water resources; heating and cooling buildings with electric heat pumps; and powering factories with furnaces that use electricity. The only economic sector that can’t be electrified with existing technology, he said, are long-distance airplanes and ships.

The Green New Deal “is technically and economically feasible,” he said. “Socially and politically, it’s a different question.”

‘Time is not our friend’

Architects of the Green New Deal envision creating millions of high-wage jobs through its massive clean-infrastructure build-out. Labor unions have been cool to the plan, though, fearing that jobs in the renewable-energy sector won’t be as high-paying or plentiful as those in oil and gas.

But Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of Tufts University’s Center for International Environment and Resource Policy, said she believes the resolution’s jobs goals are reachable.

There are now about 786,000 Americans working in the renewable energy industry, according to the most recent figures from International Renewable Energy Agency, compared to 3.8 million in China and 1.2 million in Europe.

There are 3.8 million people working in the renewable energy sector in China compared to about 786,000 in the United States.China Stringer Network/Reuters

There are 3.8 million people working in the renewable energy sector in China compared to about 786,000 in the United States.China Stringer Network/Reuters

Ms. Gallagher said the nation seems to have ceded some of these jobs to Europe and to China. “There’s no reason why we couldn’t get those back and build a stronger clean-energy industry in the United States,’’ she said. Overhauling the transportation and buildings sectors within a decade are by far the biggest challenges the Green New Deal presents, she added. Both require major financial investments, regulations and — in the case of spurring electric-vehicle development and public transit — probably new taxes.

Ultimately, many experts said, it would not be possible to achieve Green New Deal goals without building into the economy a cost for emitting greenhouse gases — such as a carbon tax, which has long been a Republican, business-oriented approach.

Adele Morris, policy director of the climate and energy economics project at the Brookings Institution, said a greenhouse gas tax imposed on fewer than 3,000 taxpaying entities — corporations and municipal plants — would target 85 percent of United States emissions. And Daniel C. Esty a Yale environmental law professor and former commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said a $5-per-ton price on carbon that increases $5 each year over 20 years would put the United States in “full transformation mode” within a decade.

Republicans have mocked the Green New Deal as a “socialist wish list” untethered to economic realities. But the plan is popular with the Democratic base. A poll last week commissioned by environmental groups in early primary states — California, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada — found 74 percent of likely Democratic primary voters reacted favorably when the Green New Deal was described to them.

Although six Democratic presidential candidates are co-sponsors of the Green New Deal — Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — it is unclear how familiar or supportive they are of its specifics. Most have offered general praise for its goals. Ms. Klobuchar, in an interview at a CNN town hall Monday, called the Green New Deal “so important right now for our country.” But when pressed on whether the specific goals are achievable, she said, “I think that they are aspirations,” and some compromises will be needed.

Mr. Sanders, who on Tuesday announced his candidacy for 2020, intends to release a plan for reaching the Green New Deal goals, said his spokesman, Josh Miller-Lewis.

In a recent interview Mr. Sanders said, “I’m prepared to be as bold as we can.”

He said: “We are already spending many billions of dollars a year dealing with the impact of climate change,” a figure certain to rise.

Mr. Booker, challenged by a Fox News reporter on Monday about the high costs to upgrade lighting alone, said, “This is the lie that’s going on right now,” while Ms. Warren, urging ambitious goals last week, said, “Republicans are stuck somewhere back in the 1950s.”

[Check out the Democratic field with our candidate tracker.]

The few congressional Republicans who want to address climate change have been wary of the Green New Deal. Representative Francis Rooney of Florida, the Republican co-chairman of the Climate Solutions Caucus, said he would likely vote against the resolution because of its lack of details and dismissal of “free enterprise and capitalism.”

“I don’t want to distract us from focusing on practical things we can actually accomplish like a carbon tax, like developing the infrastructure necessary to fight sea level rise,” he said.

If the Green New Deal advances beyond a resolution to bill-writing, its policies have no chance of passing in the currently divided Congress, with a president who has mocked global warming as a hoax.

Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-fossil-fuel group, pointed out that such policies could not even pass in Democratic strongholds like Washington State, where voters in November decisively rejected a ballot proposal for a carbon tax.

Mr. Pyle argued that Green New Deal boosters are not being realistic about the environmental consequences of constructing high-speed rail, manufacturing zero-emission vehicles or retrofitting buildings.

“How much steel is this going to involve? How much concrete? Think about the sheer amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere for retrofitting alone,” he said. “It’s almost as if they are suspending reality to get to their end goal.”

But environmental activists said the details and hurdles are less important than the broad ambition of the plan, which proposes a national mobilization with the scale and urgency of the original New Deal.

“The science is clear: Time is not our friend here,” said Carol Browner, a White House climate adviser to Mr. Obama and chief of the Environmental Protection Administration under President Bill Clinton. “So I have to say I’m as excited about this as I have been about anything in the environmental space in a long time.”

Lisa Friedman reported from Washington and Trip Gabriel from New York.