There isn’t a lot known about the Green New Deal or “GND”. Its proponents are certainly making the rounds, but it is light on specifics, heavy on urgency, heavily coupled with advancing jobs and justice, racial, climate, and environmental.
As readers of this blog know, I’m a climate hawk, but, as our collective opportunities for containing emissions have slipped away, I am an increasingly pragmatic one. And despite blogging about GND before mostly with a pessimistic riff, I continue to be a so-called and self-described solar revolutionary, agreeing with John Farrell and ILSR that democratization of power generation is critical for helping restore our representative democracy.
Recently, the GND has been reviewed by others:
- Dr Severin Borenstein of the Berkeley Haas Energy has written about its job creation aspects.
- Dr Catherine Wolfram tries to puzzle out what the policies of the GND actually are and aren’t, based upon their own documents. Dr Wolfram is also from Berkeley Haas.
- A commenter there, gcitytimes, has there and elsewhere highlighted some basic problems with the plan, as understood, and unintended consequences.
It’s the remarks from this Green City Times which concern me here, not in an antagonistic way, but in an embellishing, enhancing way. I don’t agree with their comments on natural gas as a needed backup, for example, something about which I strongly disagree, but in many other respects they are looking properly at the pragmatics of rapid transition.
Speaking of antagonism, I’m not fond of many opinions at Berkeley-Haas, and I’ve written so there in the comments, particularly with respect to their negativity towards full scale renewables rollout and their critiques of the proposals by Professor Mark Jacobson of Stanford University. I have looked a life cycle emissions from these, as well as potential environmental impacts. That said, a number of the Berkeley-Haas points on GND are notable.
But the observations of Green City Times concern me in other ways. Green City Times clearly understands (that link is cited from their remarks) that zero emissions plans mean much more than renewables electricity and transportation, extending to heating and building. Their remarks raise serious concerns about the “command economy” approach which GND advocates champion, let alone the distractions of trying to solve social inequities at the same time. GND’s thinking on this is clearly in line with the Naomi Klein anti-markets This Changes Everything.
Surely, racial, social, environmental, and climate justice are important concerns and need to be addressed. But, as I’ve repeatedly noted, my judgment is that well-meaning people who think we can afford, as a fraction of U.S. GDP, to do a transition to zero emissions, and repair damage from climate change already baked in, and prepare the infrastructure of our towns and cities for future damage, and undertake a heavily funded campaign of implementing social, racial, climate, and environmental justice measures do not understand the scale of forthcoming threats climate will present. Justice is important to pursue, as is protection of small ecosystems, but survival of civilization is going to need to take precedent. Pursuit of justice will, unfortunately need to go slower than we might like, and some small ecosystems will need to be sacrificed. Large scale built-out of wind and solar energy does have ecosystem impacts, even regional ecosystem impacts. (Afforestation is much worse.)
Returning to the GND, as described, please consider five particular concerns I have.
First, by dismantling markets wholesale, as seems to be proposed, GND would also destroy market incentives for technological innovation for energy and transport. What would replace them? Government grants?
Second, the same might well eliminate incentives for people to continue to use solar PV on their roofs? What are SRECs (and WRECs) for that matter but market incentives? No markets; no incentives.
Third, GND is really in a hurry. I understand the urgency. But my concern is that GND is in a unthinking, emotionally-charged hurry. Accordingly, in their huge ambitions they might well create lateral and unintended consequences contrary to their principal ethical goals. In a rush to roll out EVs without supporting a steady stream of innovation, they might well lock EVs into use of a supply chain dependent upon Cobalt from the Congo and other conflict minerals.
Such use is being managed, now, by companies like Tesla, but doing so slows down the renewables rollout, not something people in a rush want to hear. Moreover, the ultimate goal of EV technology is to get free of these expensive and conflicted materials, which can in principle be done, but it demands market incentives to do it. For example, wind turbines use of rare earths, which are frequently mined in conflict regions, is no longer leading practice. Dr Amory Lovins has documented this.
Fourth, if an energy transition is to be done in an environmentally sustainable way, the assessments of environmental impacts, like it or not, are going to take some time. This can be done, but it will slow down the transition. I’m not saying that deployments necessarily need to preserve all local ecosystems, such as the ecosystems a solar farm will disrupt, but some consideration of larger impacts should be retained. A headlong rush won’t leave time for consideration. Big changes make big impacts. Unavoidable.
Fifth, the energy transition needs engineering skills and expertise currently employed by big energy companies, many of them with fossil fuels at their profit core. Is someone going to be disqualified to participate because they worked for these companies? Perhaps not, but I’ve seen this done locally, when anti-pipeline groups sought environmental impacts of proposed natural gas pipelines and excluded any companies which had done work for energy companies. Carbon sequestration technology and engineering needs experts on drilling and pipelines.
If the objective is to get free of fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and minimizing social justice impacts, this needs to be carefully thought about and planned. Moreover, it needs to be recognized from the start that these objectives are in strong tension: We will never get to fossil fuel free as quickly if this is coupled to environmental justice concerns. Everyone needs to recognize it will be slower with racial, environmental, and climate justice coupled in.
Like it or not, the transition will take a good deal longer than GND proponents imagine, no matter how it is done, command economy or not, justice concerns coupled in or not. I don’t agree with fossil fuel companies claimed that their products will continue to be needed for decades. No. But there is no evidence zeroing emissions can be done by 2050. Should we give up? Of course not.
I’d be in favor, for example, despite my concerns about GND above, of declaring that the permits for any fossil fuel extraction will be zeroed by 2030, and with rates of extraction capped per annum by a ceiling consistent with limiting the total amount of consumption, this being governed by a linear ramp beginning in 2020. This would effectively stranding those assets, cause a spike in price, whether or not there was a Carbon Tax.
“We don’t have time for a revolution.” — David Wallace-Wells.