The “Green New Deal” – Part 2: Can Its Goals Be Achieved?

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

In the previous segment of the “Green New Deal” series, I provided an explanation of the Resolution co-introduced by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA). As I outlined in Part 1, the “Green New Deal” offers a strategic blueprint for Congress to act on the issues of climate change and economic inequality. The Resolution emphasizes that both are urgent and intertwined issues that are serious threats to the American people and economy, and lays out a series of goals accompanied by a 10-year mobilization plan through which to achieve them.

In this segment, I lay the Resolution under the magnifying glass for closer scrutiny: could the goals as laid out in the “Green New Deal” be achieved? And what exactly would the federal government have to do to give the United States the best chance of successfully rising to the Deal’s highest ambitions?

The simple answer is: it’s hard to say. Although the “Green New Deal” Resolution names a substantial list of goals, some of them remain broad and aspirational—and more importantly, the Resolution does not provide for concrete pathways toward achieving them. On the one hand, this makes sense: after all, the Resolution on its face would be more of a symbolic commitment on behalf of Congress to begin legislating towards addressing economic injustices and climate change. However, it makes it hard to assess what it would look like to actually “build resiliency” against the consequences of climate change on the federal level, and it’s tough to foresee how Congress might navigate around more sensitive issues like “historic oppression.”

At the very least, what we can scrutinize is where the “Green New Deal” chooses to be more specific and tangible. After all, the Resolution is explicit about a “10-year national mobilization” by which its goals should be achieved. So, I have chosen to examine the following questions (notwithstanding the low probability that the Resolution will be passed by both the Senate and the House):

  • Could the U.S. achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in that timeframe?
  • Can we completely meet national power demand through “clean, renewable, and zero-emissions energy sources” in 10 years?

If the current Congress were to adopt the Resolution, the ten-year timeframe would take us to 2030. This is not a coincidence: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Assessment from this past October projects that 2030 serves as the deadline by which serious global action needs to have been taken if we hope to cap global warming at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Could the U.S. achieve net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in ten years?

The most hopeful among us would look at the incredible amount of innovation that has taken place across the energy, building, and transportation sectors over even the last 5-10 years and believe that hitting net-zero emissions in that amount of time should be possible. However, I will argue that this is incredibly optimistic—and thus unlikely—largely because we are late to the game.

Net-zero GHG emissions means no net additions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. This means that in addition to extensive decarbonization efforts, any remaining emissions would need to be accompanied by a “compensatory carbon negative process,” that is GHG removal from the atmosphere (often referred to as “carbon sequestration”). This could entail the creation of carbon sinks through means such as afforestation, or the implementation of carbon capture and storage.

However, current emissions trends suggest that even under our most ambitious commitments, net-zero emissions is not a likely reality until around the middle of the century—and is based on the assumption that the United States follows through on the Obama administration’s Mid-Century strategy presented at the COP22 Climate Conference. The technical report presented by the United States around November 2016 offers different scenarios for becoming net-zero by 2060. And of course, that was under the assumption that the U.S. would have followed through on its policy agenda at the time which included not just the country’s commitment to the Paris Agreement, but also the full implementation of the Clean Power Plan. But, up to this point, most of these policy commitments have been revoked, watered down, or put on hold since the 2016 elections. Consequently, our emissions trajectory points to no serious decline in emissions for the foreseeable future.

Current projections and models suggest that the most ambitious policy moves towards carbon minimization, which would yield even greater emissions reductions than the United States’ nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement, would bring the U.S. closer to net-zero emissions—but still not before 2050. These moves include many of the goals laid out in the “Green New Deal,” and include the implementation of a price on carbon (see below). In particular, this would policies that:

  • create perks, sales mandates, and subsidies for electric vehicles;
  • continue to advance fuel economy standards across the entire transportation sector;
  • completely electrify the building sector and ramp up energy efficiency standards across urban, rural, and commercial environments;
  • transform the energy grid by eliminating coal completely, extending the lifetime of nuclear plants, scaling up electricity storage across the grid, and ramping up renewable energy production as much as possible;
  • adjust industry standards having to do with energy efficiency, cogeneration, system design, and emissions;
  • improve agricultural and land use management and practices that include ramping up on afforestation and reforestation;
  • advance and implement carbon capture and sequestration; and
  • end subsidies for fossil fuel production, and impose taxes on fossil fuels.
U.S. emissions trajectories

U.S. emissions trajectories (Source: https://us.energypolicy.solutions/scenarios/home)

And while this accounts for fairly ambitious policy, it doesn’t account for economic or political feasibility – which are and will remain our greatest obstacles on the road to carbon neutrality. If an approach exclusively oriented around carbon minimization still only sets the middle of the century as a reasonable timeframe by which we would come close to achieving carbon neutrality (as this the case in Europe as well), I cannot imagine what we would have to do to get there in 10 years. And considering the present political landscape, carbon neutrality by 2050 is looking less and less likely.

Could we meet national power demand through renewables or zero-emission technologies by 2030?

As of 2016, just under 30% of nationwide greenhouse gas emissions came from the power sector (i.e., a fraction of the U.S. total GHG emissions pie). While current trends suggest this goal may not be achievable either in the next ten years, there’s reason to believe that a completely clean or renewable power sector is possible in the next 20-30 years: state action.

Hawaii (2015) and California (2018) each passed legislation that set the target for the state to achieve 100% clean electricity generation by 2045. Other states are starting to take action on this front as well, including Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Washington. Colorado governor Jared Polis set an even more ambitious target of 100% renewable energy generation by 2040. In addition, some traditional coal-producing states, such as Illinois and Pennsylvania, have also started to turn the page on the energy picture.

The federal government could theoretically pass policy that expedites the national transition to a completely zero-emission power sector, very much in the spirit of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan that would have required states to meet certain standards and create emissions reductions plans. However, the political U-turn of the last few years now means that states must take the lead on climate action (a process that could be hampered by a federal government hostile to action on climate change). After all, states are best equipped to evaluate their separate energy pictures and set targets accordingly, but they also must work together in order to integrate and ensure stability of their advancing low-carbon power networks across state lines. It is just a matter of how much this momentum will carry to other states, and how quickly those states will act. And as a side-note, it is important to account for how the federal government will treat and handle federally managed lands, and how this may play a part in how states are able to implement policy and advance their goals.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), current projections indicate a less optimistic trajectory toward the end of 100% renewable/zero-emission power generation. As of 2018, renewables account for 18% of electricity generation, but natural gas and coal account for 34% and 28% respectively (and nuclear sits at 19%). At present rate, the 2030 mark shows dips in nuclear and coal and a rise in natural gas and renewables. However, by 2050, we would still only achieve about 31% power generation from renewables. Natural gas will rise to 39%, and coal and nuclear will dip to 17% and 12% respectively.

Electricity generation trajectory graph

Electricity generation trajectories (Source: https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/)

The EIA cites declining natural gas prices and the increased competitive pricing of renewable technologies for these projects shifts in the fuel mix for electricity generation. However, while these trajectories lean towards a decline in the carbon intensity of the fuel mix, this is by no means a portrait of meeting national power demand through purely renewables and zero-emission technologies. Keeping in mind that the EIA also projects electricity demand to increase under all economic conditions and across all demand sectors, the task will be that much harder. We can infer from these projections that the challenge of meeting power demand without carbon emissions by 2030 is likely not achievable. Looking to 2040 seems more reasonable considering where states are headed. However, political and economic barriers still remain in the way of deviating from the current trajectory – and technological innovation (e.g., a smarter power grid, increases in renewable capacity factors, etc.) will also be an indicator of whether or not this goal is possible.

The Big Picture

The Resolution as worded calls for serious and ambitious climate action on behalf of the United States, especially as it pertains to net-zero emissions and 100% clean power. However, the ten-year timeframe appears to be largely out of reach: political will, economic cost, and the pace of technological innovation remain as the primary road-blocks, and these are reflected in current emissions and energy trends. With that said, aggressive policy action makes these outcomes more likely by the middle of the century. The “10-year mobilization” may not necessarily be need to be received as an explicit deadline by which to meet all the aspirations contained within the “Green New Deal,” but instead it could be a more serious motivator that is symbolic of how urgently we must address these issues.

Part of the exercise in evaluating even at surface-level how feasible some of the more tangible goals are in a decade’s timeframe is understanding why the “Green New Deal” may struggle to make in-roads politically. As I will examine in Part 3 of this series, it is this language that while on one hand is a testament to the seriousness of the Resolution, it is also the tool by which opponents may tear down the “Resolution.” Part 3 will provide a more in-depth look into the likelihood of such a Resolution passing Congress, even after some modification, and will offer some reflection on how Congress has already responded.