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Green New Deal Risks Splitting U.S. Climate Community Over Timelines, Targets

The prospect of a comprehensive Green New Deal to drive rapid decarbonization and create jobs in the United States has been receiving considerable air time in the U.S. congress and media. But with the specifics of the plan still taking shape, a tough political battle is already emerging between Democrats demanding 100% renewable energy by 2035, and a second contingent urging a 100% decarbonization target—a policy which would leave options like carbon sequestration and nuclear generation on the table.

Opinion research indicates support for at least some parts of the plan: in a poll of registered voters conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (YCCC), 81% of respondents expressed moderate to strong support for “a rapid transition to 100% renewable electricity and other green technology initiatives,” DeSmog Blog reports, even though most had heard nothing whatsoever about the Green New Deal itself.

“Notably,” writes DeSmog, “the poll’s language focused on renewable electricity and job creation, but made no mention of the full decarbonization and social overhaul of the American economy that also are central tenets of the full Green New Deal.”

And it remains to be seen whether the full Deal won’t prove too much for centrist Democrats, E&E News reports. Another “litmus test” of climate street cred, the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, is gaining widespread support among Democrats: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) recently signing on, and “at least three other potential 2020 candidates—Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)—have also sworn off fossil fuel campaign dollars.” [Gabbard has since declared for the Democratic nomination—Ed.] But some Democrats are questioning the strategic wisdom of the Deal as written.

Because the Green New Deal “remains a nebulous set of proposals,” even supporters like RL Miller, political director of Climate Hawks Vote, are uneasy.

“Somebody could say they support the concept of the ‘Green New Deal,’ they just find it too expensive to implement,” Miller told E & E. “Or,” she added, “they could say, ‘I support the concept of the Green New Deal, I just don’t think we can get to 100% renewable energy in 10 years.’”

That kind of wiggle room has some urging climate activists to stick to pressuring Democratic candidates to refuse fossil dollars. Paul Bledsoe, an energy fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, agreed with Miller that the Green New Deal is “becoming ‘an empty vessel’ for candidates to fill in for themselves ‘because the actual language, at its core, is a political nonstarter’,” E & E reports. “Any credible Democratic presidential candidate is going to have to have a truly ambitious, robust climate policy to gain the nomination,” he said. But “that said, anyone who proposes phasing out fossil fuels by 2030 is going to get laughed out of Iowa,” traditionally one of the first states in the U.S. presidential primary season.

Undaunted, proponents of the Green New Deal submitted an open letter articulating its core values more clearly to the House of Representatives on January 10. With 643 signatories representing environmental, faith, labour, and other citizen groups across the nation, the letter had considerable support—although, as Grist notes, neither the U.S. Sierra Club nor the Natural Resources Defense Council signed it.

More concerning to the long-term survival of the Deal, however, are the quarrels present and brewing among its proponents. Grist says a major effort is now under way to find common ground between the young, media-savvy creators of the Deal itself, and those who have long been battling in the trenches of climate justice activism.

“To understand the debate surrounding the Green New Deal,” Grist notes, “you need to look beyond its recent prominence in Beltway political circles to the on-the-ground organizations that make up the environmental justice movement. Newcomers like [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) may be leading the charge, but grassroots leaders who have spent years advocating for low-income families and neighbourhoods of colour most impacted by fossil fuels say their communities weren’t consulted when the idea first took shape.”

While the Climate Justice Alliance, an umbrella group representing Indigenous peoples, labour, and other front-line communities, did sign the open letter to the House in support of the Deal, it told Grist its initial reaction to the initiative was that it had been crafted at the “’grasstops” as opposed to the grassroots, writes Grist’s Justine Calma.

More inclusive consultation will be imperative, the Alliance told Grist, or “the plan won’t meet its proponents’ lofty goal of tackling poverty and injustice. Nor will the deal gain the grassroots support it will likely need to become a reality.”

And that’s just one of the two, potentially intractable fault lines the plan faces. The other one centres on the open letter’s declaration that, “as the United States shifts away from fossil fuels, we must simultaneously ramp up energy efficiency and transition to clean, renewable energy to power the nation’s economy where, in addition to excluding fossil fuels, any definition of renewable energy must also exclude all combustion-based power generation, nuclear, biomass energy, large-scale hydro, and waste-to-energy technologies.”

For veteran climate columnist David Roberts, evangelizing the need for 100% renewables is something to be studiously avoided, at least for now.

Getting the Green New Deal from “lofty goals to a concrete policy program” is “inevitably going to be a contentious process,” he writes. “Though everyone (on the left, anyway) may agree about the GND in the broadest terms—a program to address climate change that is just, fair, and adequate to the task—the minute the discussion moves a level deeper, into specifics, the battles begin.”

Roberts allows that “many of those battles are unavoidable. For instance, the question of ’how to pay for it,’ or whether it needs to be ‘paid for’ at all, must eventually be settled.”

But other potential flashpoints can be saved for a later day, he contends. “To wit: The GND is centrally concerned with clean energy, but what exactly is clean energy? What counts and what doesn’t?”

Though some of the groups behind the open letter to the House “later clarified that they meant no new nuclear or hydro — not shutting down existing plants,” Roberts says the framing still left out potential supporters who are convinced rapid decarbonization just won’t be possible without the technologies the letter excludes.

“If the GND insists from the outset on 100% renewables, it will immediately lead to infighting,” he writes. “Policy wonks will attack it as unnecessarily expensive; anyone who believes in a role for other carbon-free resources (which includes more than a few on the centre-left and right) will be shut out.”

While “the debate over how far renewables can go, whether they can ever get to 100%, is fascinating and important,” he adds, “it doesn’t need to be resolved now. We don’t need to have this fight. The language of the GND can, and should, focus on what matters: carbon,” at a time when “the overwhelmingly salient fact is that carbon emissions need to be rapidly reduced and eliminated from the electricity sector. Everyone who understands climate change understands that basic imperative.”

While not everyone fully appreciates the “many powerful social and economic forces pushing against decarbonization,” he continues, “to be a climate hawk is to recognize the existential stakes of the climate crisis, and the unfathomable difficulty of the challenge ahead. It is to recognize that, for the time being, climate comes first, even if it entails some unpleasant trade-offs.”

Which means that, “even if the GND targets carbon-free energy at the headline level, there’s no reason environmentalists can’t go right on fighting for policies that support renewables. Everyone can continue to fight for the carbon-free sources they most support or believe in, including nuclear fans, CCS fans, whoever,” Roberts says. “They would just be doing so under a common banner, a common understanding of the imperative to reduce carbon emissions quickly,” thereby delivering “the social consensus that is desperately needed. It would be a shame to fracture or conceal that consensus over non-carbon disagreements.”

The post Green New Deal Risks Splitting U.S. Climate Community Over Timelines, Targets appeared first on The Energy Mix.

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Ned Ford's picture
Ned Ford on Feb 5, 2019 7:06 pm GMT

This can be much simplifed.  Electricity is 25% of the climate problem (in the U.S., which is critical on the global scale), but it is 80 - 95% of the solution.  Efficiency, wind and solar all cost less than half as much today in almost every state as continued use of existing fossil and nuclear resources.

Where wind or solar are less optimum, we should concentrate on the other one which is.  What is lacking is a sense of how much, and how urgent, and how little all the other thousands of possible avenues of thought matter if we don't solve the giant fossil fuel problem.

There is a concerted disinformation effort.  Wind and solar don't need storage until they are producing more than the grid needs at any moment, but storage is affordable and being developed anyways.  We can't increase existing hydro or biomass significantly.  Nuclear is for people who don't mind paying twice as much for electricity. 

The Green New Deal will have a few thousand extra christmas tree ornaments, but it will create millions of jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in economic growth if we just speed up efficiency, wind and solar to the point that makes economic sense.  A combined rate of 6% per year for the three clean energy resources makes sense.

We need about 60% more electricity in 2040 than we presently have to serve all the new markets - EV's, heat pumps, industrial processes and more.  We don't get that if we don't rapidly increase construction and installation rates today.  And every year we waste is another 2 ppm - at the present rate.  Globally, but if we don't lead the world, we will follow it.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 8, 2019 4:19 pm GMT

Ned, the GND makes no economic sense whatsoever.

Who will be paying the people working those millions of jobs? What will be financing billions of dollars in economic growth - or will dedicated employees at the U.S. Treasury work overtime printing fresh $100 bills?

Mitchell Beer's picture
Mitchell Beer on Feb 7, 2019 1:33 pm GMT

Thanks, Ned. Agreed that these are the basic steps the GND has to deliver. Are you saying there's no need at this point to add a target date for a fossil phaseout, or just that we need to get on with solutions?

Ned Ford's picture
Ned Ford on Feb 8, 2019 10:43 pm GMT

Not that we don't need a target - I say zero fossil generation by 2030 is the target, but I'll be equally happy with the same amount of clean energy with some remaining generation and a good share of the clean renewable electricity fueling electric vehicles and air to air heat pumps. 

Roughly the same rate of wind and solar construction that might get us zero fossil generation in 2030 also gives us about 60% more total generation by 2040, which is the best guess I can make for what a comprehensive climate solution based on saving money will look like.  To be clear, I think that the cheapest, most money-saving solution is also the fastest.  There are some non-carbon and non-energy GHG sources (and forcings, for the technical-minded among us) but none of those matter much if we don't eliminate the coal, natural gas, petroleum and methane which can only be eliminated with clean electricity - abundant, cheap clean electricity. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 8, 2019 4:18 pm GMT

Though the GND avoids the n-word, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's office did put out a statement announcing "the plan is to transition off of nuclear."

Michael Shellenberger of Environmental Progress quickly jumped on it. In Forbes yesterday, he provided a patient and accurate explanation of why the goals of the GND would be impossible to meet without it. He used Vermont - the home state of Bernie Sanders and activist Bill McKibben - as an example:

"In 2005, Vermont legislators promised to reduce emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2012, and 50% below 1990 levels by 2028, through the use of renewables and energy efficiency only. What’s happened since? Vermont’s emissions rose 16.3%. That’s more than twice as much as national emissions rose during the same period."

Columnist David Roberts writes

"While 'the debate over how far renewables can go, whether they can ever get to 100%, is fascinating and important, he adds, “it doesn’t need to be resolved now. We don’t need to have this fight."

Roberts is right - it doesn't need to be resolved now. It needed to be resolved twenty years ago.

Ned Ford's picture
Ned Ford on Feb 8, 2019 10:38 pm GMT

Hi Bob,

It never bothers me to show what a sloppy researcher Shellenberger is.  Vermont closed its one nuclear plant in 2014, so it would seem like a logical conclusion that it experienced a big boom in fossil fuel use.  But that's not what happened.  Download this 14 table spreadsheet from the U.S. Energy Information Adminsration to see that you don't have to take my word for it.

Vermont was generating a lot of power for surrounding states.  It made up the difference by increasing efficiency, wind and solar, cutting natural gas, and becoming a net importing state. 

So literally zero of that 16% increase happened in Vermont's electric sector.  And according to a different link run by the state of Vermont most of that 16% came from transportation, which I'm sure you realize is only relevant to electricity and nuclear power if we agree that electric vehicles are important and should be universal. 

Vermont has the strongest electric utility efficiency program in the U.S. and their total consumption has declined in most years since The Great Recession.  They also have rebound and population growth, but 2017 was the lowest electric sales in Vermont since 2007.  Sales have shrunk every year since 2013, so the closed nuclear plant was totally irrelevant.

I won't explain again how wind and solar and a small amount of storage can provide 100% of our electricity, other than whatever we can muster from hydro, biomass and geothermal.  We don't need storage until we have wind and solar generation above regional peak load, and yet storage is already being developed at costs low enough to justify our expectation of a 100% renewable supply.  Nuclear, on the other hand, just ruined the economy in two states (Georgia and South Carolina).  One of those plants is dead, and some folks in the other state are probably wishing they were dead right about now. 

The jobs are created by building wind and solar and installing efficient products which pay for themselves by costing less than the fossil and nuclear power they replace.  The investment capital comes from investors who are sick of getting fleeced by fracking ponzi schemes and want something with a stable cash flow and real profits.  Efficiency is a little more tricky, since the utilities must be compensated with a small share of the savings that their programs create.  That said, efficiency is an $8 billion annual industry in the U.S.  And some really smart people have already figured out how to make that compensation work. 

The Green New Deal runs the risk of casting the net too wide.  But I hope it doesn't.  It could do wonderful things for our economy if we just let people with real information guide us. 


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 11, 2019 9:40 pm GMT

Ned, I have no idea what I'm supposed to be looking at on the page you cite.

Shellenberger's link, information provided by Vermont itself, shows that GHG emissions from electricity attributable to natural gas increased by a factor of 15 - literally - since Vermont Yankee shut down in 2014. Why? The next year Vermont was forced to import 2/3 of its electricity, and though two-thirds of that came from Hydro-Quebec, the remaining third was bought on the New England market - 44% of which is generated by natural gas.

Does the Vermont Dept. of Public Service expect their state to go "100% renewable" anytime soon? You be the judge (p401):

"Due to Vermont’s participation in the regional wholesale electricity market and the increasing importance of gas-­‐‑fired generators in the system’s resource mix, southern New England’s natural gas supply is a crucial resource to ensure reliable electric service in Vermont.


Approximately 44% of net electric capacity in the region currently comes from natural gas generators. The proportion of electricity generation from natural gas is expected to grow with the scheduled retirement of several large nuclear and coal plants. There is an inadequate supply of natural gas at the regional level during cold periods to maintain low and predictable prices for electricity. Several factors underlie this shortage. Pipeline infrastructure in the region is functioning at full capacity during many of the winter hours, with no room to ramp up supply during peak electric demand. The vast majority of natural gas generators do not have firm contracts with gas pipelines for delivery of fuel; as a result, these generators are not able to receive natural gas during periods of very cold weather when gas is being used for heating needs. Some generators can use oil or propane as an alternative, but these fuels are often much more expensive than natural gas and more polluting. Finally, there is very little natural gas storage capacity in the region, so generators cannot stock up when natural gas is abundant."


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