The Green New Deal has burst onto the American stage, spurring more conversation about â€“ and aspiration for â€“ ambitious climate policy than at any point in at least a decade.
Iâ€™m glad to see it. Suddenly, climate is on the agenda, and ambitions for climate policy are higher than perhaps at any point in US history.
The Green New Deal is a resolution right now. Itâ€™s a statement of intent. It hasnâ€™t yet progressed to the point of detailed policy proposals or legislation, which means now is the time to help craft its details.
For the last decade Iâ€™ve written about and publicly spoken about innovation in clean technology and ways to address climate change. Iâ€™ve helped to lead a climate-fighting citizen ballot initiative in my home state of Washington, invested in clean energy startups, and advised on climate and clean energy policies of other nations.
In that time, my views on what sort of climate policies have the most impact and have the greatest chances of winning over voters have changed. Policies that I thought were foolish a decade ago have revealed themselves to have been farsighted and effective. Policies I thought were powerful and elegant have, on closer inspection, revealed themselves to be far less effective than I believed. And the history of climate and energy legislation and attitudes in the US has demonstrated a path to getting new and more ambitious policies passed.
What Iâ€™ve learned over time is that good climate policy has 3 key traits:
All of that is compatible with a Green New Deal. Hereâ€™s what it could look like.
The conventional wisdom on climate policy is straightforward. Every nation uses its policies to reduce its own emissions. This conventional wisdom is wrong. Carbon dioxide doesnâ€™t honor national boundaries. Climate change is global. And the best climate policies have a global impact as well.
The US, overwhelmingly, is the country most responsible for climate change. The carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases weâ€™ve emitted over the past decades are largely still in the atmosphere, still warming the planet. The worldâ€™s present and future emissions, though, are increasingly elsewhere. The US now accounts for just 15% of the worldâ€™s annual greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. Â And because the developing world is rising in energy consumption far faster than the US, American emissions will be an ever-smaller share each year.
That means that, despite the fact that the US is the largest overall contributor to climate change thus far, the US could completely eliminate its carbon emissions and barely affect the future course of climate.
This means we need a different strategy. Itâ€™s not enough to eliminate the USâ€™s carbon emissions alone. Our goal has to be to drive down the whole worldâ€™s emissions.
The Most Effective Climate Policy in the World
How can the US drive down the emissions of other countries? We can do it by making clean technologies irresistible to the entire world. And there we can take a lesson from the most effective climate policy of all time â€“ Germanyâ€™s early subsidies of solar and wind.
Solar panels and electricity-producing wind farms have been around for decades. Yet, for most of that time, theyâ€™ve been a far more expensive way to produce electricity than burning coal or natural gas. Germany changed that. Starting in 2010, Germanyâ€™s Energiewende legislation heavily subsidized solar and wind. That, in turn, drove utilities and home owners and corporations to purchase solar and wind. And that, in turn, made the technology cheaper. As prices fell, other nations â€“ first European nations, then the US, and then China â€“ jumped into the fray, enacting more ambitious policies that further brought down the price of solar and wind (and now batteries and electric cars).
Why did subsidies bring down the price of technology? Because industry scale leads to industry learning and innovation, and that, in turn, leads to lower cost ways to manufacture, deploy, and manage new technologies. Weâ€™ve seen this for a century. Almost all technologies improve via Wrightâ€™s Law, often referred to as the learning curve or the experience curve. Â In the late 1930s, Theodore Paul Wright, an aeronautical engineer, observed that every doubling of production of US aircraft brought down prices by 13%. Â Since then, a similar effect has been found in nearly every technology area, going back to the Ford Model T.
Electricity from solar power, meanwhile, drops in cost by 25-30% for every doubling in scale. Battery costs drop around 20-30% per doubling of scale. Wind power costs drop by 15-20% for every doubling. Â Scale leads to learning, and learning leads to lower costs.
Germany began subsidizing solar and wind when they were extremely small scale industries, and their costs were quite high. Those subsidies drove German utilities, businesses, and home owners to purchase clean energy. That created a market. That, in turn, led solar and wind manufacturers to leap into the market, competing ruthlessly against one another to bring down their prices faster, offering the best product at the best price to customers.
By scaling the clean energy industries, Germany lowered the price of solar and wind for everyone, worldwide, forever.
The International Renewable Energy Agency finds that, between 2010 and 2019, the price of solar power, worldwide, has dropped by more than a factor of 5. The price of offshore wind power has dropped by a factor of three.
In just the past decade, solar power has gone from being uneconomical anywhere on earth without subsidies, to being cheaper than any fossil fuel electricity in the sunniest parts of the world. Building new solar is now cheaper than building new fossil fuel electricity plants in India, Chile, Mexico, Spain, and in sunny US states like Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and Â Texas.
And because, in general, businesses, utilities, and consumers all around the world will deploy the cheapest energy they can, solar is now the fastest growing energy source around the world.
Happy? Good. Thank policy makers in Germany, and the US, and China â€“ all of whom took action to bootstrap markets for solar and wind before they were cost-competitive.
The lesson for US climate policy is clear: The biggest impact we can have is by driving down the cost of technologies that reduce carbon emissions, to the point that clean technologies are cheapest way to provide the energy, food, and transportation that everyone around the world desires, and then spreading those technologies to the world. That means a mix of early-stage government R&D, government incentives to scale deployment in the private sector, and a very healthy dollop of private sector competition.
1 â€“ As solar volume has grown, prices have dropped, leading to more growth.
Would the Green New Deal drive down the cost of clean technologies in a way that scales to the rest of the world? The current resolution is vague on exactly how the rapid decarbonization in the US would happen. One reason for concern is that the now-retracted Green New Deal FAQ released by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-CortezÂ specifically dismissed the idea that the private sector â€“ even with government incentives â€“ could pull off this decarbonization, and explicitly says that â€śMerely incentivizing the private sector doesnâ€™t workâ€ť.
I agree in one sense â€“ basic government R&D is a high-value investment, especially when the technologies we need to invent donâ€™t even exist yet. The government has a vital role to play. At the same time, the incredible, unprecedented decline in cost of solar power, wind power, batteries, and electric cars has happened both because of early government R&D, and because private sector companies, incentivized by governments, have brought these technologies to market and been forced to compete with one another to provide the best technology at the lowest price. Ignoring this is to ignore what brought us the very best progress weâ€™ve seen in cleaning up the way we produce energy.
The FAQ I reference has been retracted. The Green New Deal hasnâ€™t yet become a detailed roadmap or legislation. As it does, I urge you, Green New Deal legislators and architects: Craft policies that create incentives to build and deploy clean technologies. Then use the market for what itâ€™s good at: fierce competition that delivers ever-better products at ever-lower prices.
The Green New Deal resolution is really quite comprehensive. It touches on almost every source of US emissions.
Even so, thereâ€™s a tendency for climate and energy wonks â€“ and legislators â€“ to focus on electricity and cars when discussing climate policy.
Electricity and cars arenâ€™t our hardest problems. Theyâ€™re both big chunks of our carbon emissions, yes. And they both need more policy to drive them home. (More on that down below.) Theyâ€™re also the areas where weâ€™ve made the most progress, with incredible declines in the price of clean electricity and electric vehicles that put us at the edge of a tipping point. We arenâ€™t over the hump yet, but the solutions are here â€“ and if we continue to push them with policy, we can decarbonize electricity and cars.
Our hardest climate problems â€“ the ones that are both large and lack obvious solutions â€“ are agriculture (and deforestation â€“ its major side effect) and industry. Together these are 45% of global carbon emissions. And solutions are scarce.
Agriculture and land use account for 24% of all human emissions. Thatâ€™s nearly as much as electricity, and twice as much all the worldâ€™s passenger cars combined.
Industry â€“ steel, cement, and manufacturing â€“ account for 21% of human emissions â€“ one and a half times as much as all the worldâ€™s cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes combined.
Add industry, agriculture, and land use together and you have a very sticky, very difficult-to-improve 45% of carbon emissions.
By contrast, electricity and transportation are 39% of global emissions â€“ nearly as big. The good news is that in electricity and transportation, we have momentum.
We do NOT have momentum in reducing the carbon emissions of industry and agriculture.
Decarbonizing Agriculture and Industry
The Green New Deal does, happily, mention these sectors. In agriculture, though, it avoids the biggest chunk of the problem: Livestock.
Livestock around the world â€“ specifically cows, pigs, and other mammals â€“ consume a tremendous amount of the worldâ€™s agriculture output. They drive the bulk of the deforestation around the world (which itself releases carbon into the atmosphere, and reduces forest land that could absorb carbon instead). And cows and pigs belch methane â€“ a greenhouse gas thatâ€™s causes tremendously more warming than CO2 â€“ about 100 times more in the first year, and 30 times more over the course of a century. Livestock in total produce about 15% of the worldâ€™s carbon emissions, as much as all transportation on land, air, and sea combined.
And the worldâ€™s appetite for meat is rapidly growing, with consumption expected to double in the next 40 or so years.
Cows should scare you more than coal.
In industry, meanwhile, steel and cement production both remain incredibly carbon intensive. Weâ€™ve learned to recycle steel using electricity, but making new steel from ore still involves the use of a tremendous amount of coal. (Theoretical ways to make steel without coal exist, but arenâ€™t expected to be commercially viable for another 20 years.) Weâ€™re closer to technologies that could make cement without carbon emissions, but those technologies are still young, expensive, and havenâ€™t been deployed to any significant degree. And the rest of industry â€“ from manufacturing finished goods to making petrochemical products like plastics and lubricants â€“ remains extremely carbon intensive.
These two sectors â€“ agriculture and industry â€“ are on path to be the two largest sources of carbon emissions in the world. And theyâ€™re the ones we have the fewest and least developed solutions for. The Green New Deal â€“ or any serious climate policy â€“ ought to focus first and foremost on R&D to develop methods for clean agriculture and clean construction and manufacturing; and then on incentives to deploy those clean methods, which will initially be extremely expensive, until they hit the scale to compete directly with dirty methods on cost alone.
What would a climate policy for agriculture and industry look like? Â Letâ€™s take a page from energy, where we have a one-two punch: 1) Agencies like the Department of Energyâ€™s Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, ARPA-E, that funds early stage energy science and technology R&D; and 2) A breadth of state and national subsidies and incentives that help those technologies reach higher scale and lower costs. Â
This one-two punch first invents technology (ARPA-E is modeled after the original ARPA, which created the foundations of the internet, originally called ARPANET), and then scales technology to the point that the new clean technology is cheaper than the alternatives.
We can use that one-two punch in agriculture and industry, by creating:
In several of these areas some options exist today, but a need for more innovation and more fundamental research â€“ that the federal government is uniquely equipped to fund â€“ still exists.
2-ARPA-I would fund research to decarbonize industry, starting with the largest industrial sources â€“ steel, cement, and petrochemicals.
As with solar and wind in Germany, scaling use of these methods in industry would bring their prices down, with a target of beating the price of existing, carbon-heavy methods.
All of the above is compatible with Green New Deal language. Itâ€™s just a matter of emphasis. We need to double down on these two areas â€“ agriculture and industry â€“ that are soon to be the largest sources of global carbon emissions, and the ones we have the least progress in solving.
Perhaps the most important question about the Green New Deal is this â€“ what can we actually pass?
The Green New Deal has already moved the Overton window, by elevating the conversation about climate. At the state level, in progressive states like California and New York, Democrats have solid majorities and could pass large parts of the Green New Deal that are applicable at a state level. As I argued just after Donald Trumpâ€™s election, the States are where we can most effectively push for climate action.
What about at the Federal level? Maybe the Green New Deal, by motivating the base, will lead to more electoral victories for Democrats in 2020. Â Or maybe it will hurt in red states like Alabama, where Democrats are defending a Senate seat. Itâ€™s far too early to say.
Democrats donâ€™t have any chance of reaching 60 Senate seats in 2020. They do have the option, if they win a majority and the Presidency, of eliminating the legislative filibuster (using the so-called â€śnuclear optionâ€ť), in which case a simple majority of the House and Senate could pass as much of the Green New Deal as Democrats could achieve consensus on, without the need for any Republican legislators.
What if none of the above occurs? What if Democrats donâ€™t get a Senate majority at all? Or do get a majority, but are unwilling to eliminate the legislative filibuster? Â Could any parts of the Green New Deal pass with some Republican support?
Bipartisan Climate Policy is Possible. In Fact, Itâ€™s Here Now
Yes. Recent history shows that, while climate is a highly divisive issue in the US, clean energy and innovation have massive support on both sides of the aisle.
Consider the following:
Wait. Donâ€™t Republicans hate clean energy?
Nope. Not at all. Americans on both sides of the aisle love solar and wind. Â Solar is the most popular energy source in the US, with 76% of Americans saying that their utility should get more energy from solar. Wind is a close second, at 71%. Â The third choice, natural gas, is 24 points behind solar, at 52%. And a meager 30% of Americans want more coal.
It helps that clean energy is literally everywhere in America. Solar and wind have been built out in every state. Wind power, especially, is booming in rural districts in red states. Representatives from these districts, and Republican Senators from red states like Iowa and Texas that have deployed a tremendous amount of solar and wind, have every reason to support policies that benefit clean energy.
Whatâ€™s more, Americans â€“ on both sides of the aisle â€“ wildly support research into new technologies that can improve their lives. A whopping 85% of Americans support funding more research into renewable energy sources. Ready for the real shocker? Solid majorities in virtually every county and every congressional district in the US support more funding of research into clean energy.
Nearly as many Americans â€“ 82% â€“ support tax breaks for Americans who purchase energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels. And again, the support isnâ€™t limited to blue states or blue districts. Itâ€™s overwhelmingly national.
So Americans donâ€™t just love innovation and R&D spending. They also support incentives to deploy clean technology faster. And, in fact, those two policy levers â€“ more research funding, and incentives to deploy clean technology â€“ get both the most support in poll after poll, the most bipartisan support, and the most geographically consistent support. Â If you want a policy proposal that that will work in red or purple states, or that can win over some Republican Senators and Representatives, clean technology research and clean technology deployment incentives are the two most likely to garner support.
What Bipartisan Policy Would Look Like
If Democrats do get both the White House a filibuster-proof congressional majority â€“ one way or another â€“ and get enough internal consensus, they can drive forward whatever GND policy they wish. Right now, that seems unlikely to me.
In the event that we have a Congress without that filibuster-proof majority, or with enough moderate democrats who balk at the entirety of the Green New Deal, there are still extremely effective climate policies that Congress can put in place.
First, in industry and agriculture, the four policies we mentioned already:
Those policies in agriculture and industry have an excellent chance of getting bipartisan support. They follow a pattern of Americans being willing to invest in new science and technology R&D. And, because they benefit industrial and agricultural states and districts, by giving carrots for deploying clean industry and clean agriculture, theyâ€™re a benefit to politicians from those â€“ often red â€“ states that have the greatest concentration of farms and factories. Thatâ€™s the exact opposite of a policy that penalized farmers or factories for their carbon emissions. Youâ€™d have a hard time getting much bipartisan support for that. Make the policy an incentive that helps farms and industry thrive, and helps them get an edge over their global competitors, and the politics completely change.
In electricity, transportation, and buildings, there are also policies â€“ some of them counter-intuitive Â â€“ that would accelerate us towards a clean future :
3- A nation-sized grid increases the amount of energy we can use from solar and wind, and reduces the overall cost. Source â€“ Nature Climate Change
Long-range transmission is also remarkably efficient and low cost. High-voltage DC transmission lines can send power 2,000 miles with only 10% losses and a small additional cost. That means solar power plants in Texas could be powering New York Cityâ€¦an hour after the sun has gone down in New York. China understands this, and is building the worldâ€™s largest high voltage power grid, moving power from the sunniest and windiest areas in the west to the coastal population centers 3,000 km (1,860 miles) east. Â In the US, meanwhile, itâ€™s nearly impossible to build new long-range transmission â€“ largely because of NIMBY. Congress should make it easier to get the necessary permissions to build transmission, paving the way for a grid with more and cheaper clean energy.
4- Chinaâ€™s Ultra High Voltage Grid moves clean energy 2,000 miles from the sunny and windy interior to the population centers on the eastern coast. Â The US has nothing similar.
5-29 US States have Renewable Portfolio Standards
The solution is for Congress to mandate a Renewable Portfolio Standard nationally, dragging the laggard states up to the standard of the rest. How high should that mandate be? The Green New Deal goal of 100% carbon free electricity by 2030 is incredibly ambitious. And it pushes us into the unknown. Beyond 70 or 80 or 90% of electricity from renewables, integration becomes increasingly difficult as periods of bad weather nation-wide cause serious problems. The technical challenges there can be overcome â€“ perhaps through nuclear, or next-generation carbon-capturing natural-gas plants, or long-term energy storage technologies (which are being funded by ARPA-E).
Those challenges are still real enough that even a clean energy optimist like me gets nervous. A goal of 50% of electricity from carbon free sources in every state by 2030, then 80% by 2040, and 100% by 2050 would be in-line with what scientific models say we need to achieve in order to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. And by scaling both clean energy and the technology to integrate it to high percentages of the total grid, it would drive those technologies down in price for the rest of the world, and pave the way for cleaner grids everywhere.
First, for individually owned vehicles, Congress should improve the federal electric vehicle tax credit. Todayâ€™s $7,500 federal tax credit is capped at 200,000 electric vehicles per manufacturer. Thatâ€™s an absurdly low number in a country that has 260 million cars on the road. General Motors CEO Mary Barra recently called for the cap to be removed. Congress ought to put electric vehicles on the same footing as solar, wind, and batteries: A 30% tax credit â€“ like the solar ITC â€“ with no limit on the number of vehicles its applied to would be simple, clear, and consistent. For individuals buying their own vehicles, that tax credit ought to be structured so it can be taken off the purchase price of the vehicle directly, rather than waiting for tax season.
Second, the same tax credit ought to apply to fleet operators who buy or build electric vehicles to offer rides to consumers. While the pace at which consumers buy new cars is slow, the pace at which they switch miles of transport can be far faster, as they switch some of their travel to fleets like Uber, Lyft, and whatever comes after. Those fleets, today, are mostly gasoline engine vehicles of hybrids. As electric vehicles increasingly become the cheapest per mile, those app-based transport fleets will go electric. And a typical taxi drives 70,000 miles a year, or roughly 4 times the 13,500 miles per year of a typical individually-owned car. That means each electric vehicle deployed as a taxi can have the impact of four individually owned vehicles.
Finally, Congress ought to accelerate the deployment of autonomous cars on the nationâ€™s roads. Why? Because an autonomous vehicle, by taking out the cost of the driver, can cut the cost per mile by half. Some calculations show that an autonomous electric taxi, by 2025, could cost 35 cents per mile. Thatâ€™s 1/10th of what a taxi costs, 1/5th of what a Lyft or UberX costs today, and half the cost of owning and operating your own car. That lower cost would cause even more rapid switching to electric transport fleets, as currently-owned gasoline vehicles increasingly sat unused, or saved for long-distance trips or other scenarios. Some studies find that, even at twice that price, as much as 40% of miles driven would switch to these electric fleets.
6 â€“ Autonomous Electric Taxis could be half the cost per mile of owning and operating a gasoline car â€“ if autonomous vehicles arrive.
Getting to those costs absolutely depends on autonomy. Today, however, autonomous driving is regulated by a hodge-podge of different laws at the State level. Congress should step in and act to standardize safety testing, unify laws between states, and accelerate the deployment of safe, cheap, efficient, electric autonomous taxi services. Â Congress almost did so in 2018. Itâ€™s time to try again.
These three actions would both accelerate the deployment of electric vehicles in the US, and drive innovation in a sector where US companies are currently in the lead, and where they could be global leaders in trillion-dollar industries for decades to come.
7 â€“ Electric vehicles with smart chargers could charge when solar and wind are most abundant on the grid, increasing the amount of renewable energy we can use.
Wait, but what about?
So I didnâ€™t list your favorite technology, policy, or issue? Â Here:
8 â€“ The cheapest ways to capture carbon are on the bottom of this chart â€“ in soils and forests.
What About Climate Justice?
The Green New Deal advances a plan to fight climate change and to ensure that we do so through a just transition. Here, I think a few principles clearly apply.
All of that is fully in alignment with the Green New Deal resolution. Â The GND goes further, though, making the case for universal healthcare, universal higher education, universal housing, a job guarantee for all people in the United States, strengthening unions, reducing discrimination in the workplace, respect for Native American rights and sovereignty, and stopping the transfer of jobs overseas.
Many of those policies are ones I support, or at least where I support the motivations behind them. Yet I am not at all certain those policies should be coupled with climate action. Coupling a long list of liberal priorities with climate action would seem to make it harder to get the bipartisan support weâ€™ll probably need to enact these climate policies. Â That said, the Green New Deal resolution is a high level map, not a specific bill. The original New Deal wasnâ€™t one piece of legislation â€“ it was made up of more than 30 separate bills. Democrats should approach the Green New Deal the same way. They ought to embrace the idea that the overall effort may take multiple years and multiple Congresses to enact, and that itâ€™s perfectly acceptable to support some parts of the Green New Deal and not others. They ought to embrace alliances and assistance â€“ including bipartisan alliances â€“ to pass parts of the Green New Deal where they can.
Climate Action is the Ultimate Climate Justice
Even more importantly, though, acting on climate change itself creates a more just world. Climate change is a slow, insidious, and massive threat to human well-being. Itâ€™s also profoundly unjust. Americans may only emit 15% of carbon emissions today, but all the CO2 weâ€™ve emitted in the past will linger in the atmosphere for roughly a century from when it was released. Add up all the carbon the US has emitted over time, and the US remains the largest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet. We Americans are more responsible for climate change than any other nation, even those with many times our population.
Meanwhile, two billion people live in countries that have emitted the least carbon dioxide over history â€“ the poorest countries on planet earth â€“ which are also the countries where people are likely to suffer the most from climate change. Climate change itself is a deep inequity. The most just thing we can do is to address climate change as rapidly as possible, and to produce and spread the tools that also boost climate resilience around the developing world. Indeed, most of the benefits of fighting climate change donâ€™t go to Americans at all. Americans do benefit. But the largest benefits of fighting climate change go to the billions around the world who have the fewest resources and who live in the nations with the greatest vulnerability.
Lower income Americans also stand to suffer more from climate change than do wealthier Americans. A lower-income American in Detroit isnâ€™t as vulnerable as a subsistence farmer in Botswana â€“ not by a long shot. At the same time, itâ€™s hard to deny that Katrina, for example, hit the poor of New Orleans harder than it did the rich. Wealthier Americans can relocate more easily, can pay energy bills more easily, can rebuild from climate disasters more easily. And here again, the most just thing we can do is to act on climate, as rapidly as possible.
Should we find ways to use the fight against climate change to also address the long history of inequality and injustice, and the differences in wealth and income that exist in the US? If so, should we stop there? Climate change is global. Carbon emissions and the harm they cause know no national borders. The harm of American (and European, and more recently Chinese) carbon emissions will fall most heavily on the poor of the developing world. Should climate policy aim to decarbonize the world as rapidly as possible? Or should it aim to decarbonize and address other global ills?
For me, the answer is clear. Climate change itself is so unjust, so lopsided in who has benefited from burning fossil fuels and who will suffer the most from that combustion, that addressing climate change is, itself, to help undo an injustice â€“ one that threatens billions of people around the world.
Letâ€™s tackle all the worldâ€™s other problems too. As we do so, letâ€™s keep in mind that addressing climate change, even if we donâ€™t succeed at everything else, is a major, vital, and necessary step towards a more just world. Â