Unrealistic. Not ambitious enough. Too little, too late. Worth a shot? Already the subject of a great deal of conjecture and debate, the Green New Deal, a broad set of policy goals addressing environmental justice and climate change, recently reinvigorated by House Democrats, is likely to remain a central issue as the 2020 election approaches. Drexel faculty experts, with background spanning environmental science, engineering, atmospheric chemistry, environmental justice and policy, labor and environmental economics weigh in on the origin, scope and viability of the GND’s goals and similar policy efforts.
Is the scale of the Green New Deal big enough to make a difference?
Patrick Gurian, PhD, associate professor of environmental engineering in the College of Engineering and research affiliate in the A.J. Drexel Institute for Energy and the Environment, studies environmental health and risk associated with greenhouse gas emissions from buildings and infrastructure systems. He has helped develop a plan for Philadelphia to reduce its emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050.
- I think there’s consensus that we need to do something on this scale. It’s the timing that may be a challenge — reaching zero emissions by 2030. I don’t see there as being a single technically justified path but rather choices about how much risk we are willing to run and how much investment on a short time scale we can make.
- The Green New Deal makes reference to both a “moonshot” and industrial shift that allowed the U.S. military buildup for World War II as reference points to the scale of this plan. Research suggests that reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 would require an annual investment that’s about 1 percent of the U.S.’s GDP. At its peak, the Apollo program used about 0.4 percent of the GDP. With the loftier goal and shorter timeline proposed by the Green New Deal — zero carbon by 2030 — we can expect to spend 2-3 percent of the GDP. So it would actually equate to six moonshots.
- There are inevitably tradeoffs with such decisions. If we go the slower path we have more resources and time available for investments in research and technology development, more chance for learning by doing as opposed to doing immediately with the technology we have now. If we focus on reducing U.S. emissions, then we may forgo opportunities to reduce emissions elsewhere that offer more emissions reductions per dollar invested.
- Setting a goal of carbon neutrality by 2030, under the Green New Deal scenario, means that my next car needs to be zero emissions. Saying “zero emissions by 2030” means starting today with investments, rather than allowing gradual market penetration of newer technologies.
- Imagine the same process happening with electrical generation. If we follow a less aggressive path, say 80 percent reduction by 2050, then there’s time to allow our current high-emitting power plants to be retired at the end of their lifespans. But reaching zero emissions by 2030 means some relatively new electric generation plants need to either be retired early, or will need to be completely retrofitted — both of which would have serious implications for capital investment.
What are some specific policy changes that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
Shannon Capps, PhD, assistant professor of environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, leads the Drexel Atmospheric Modeling Lab in the College of Engineering. Her research models the long and short-term effects of fossil fuel and other emissions on air quality and climate.
- Exchanging fossil fuel-based energy production for clean renewable would reduce air pollution that contributes to human health and ecosystem degradation.
- Pollution-free agriculture, especially at the scale of family farms, has never been practiced within the current definitions of air and water pollutants.
- Repairing and upgrading U.S. transportation infrastructure at the scale described with current materials (e.g., concrete) will cause enormous emissions of greenhouse gas emissions.
How might Green New Deal policies intended to transition the U.S. to a “green economy” affect the workforce and organized labor?
Diane Sicotte, PhD, associate professor and environmental sociologist in the College of Arts and Sciences, studies environmental injustice and inequality. Her current work addresses issues related to natural gas extraction, including labor union members’ preferences for natural gas or alternative energy sources; the connection between hydraulic fracturing and plastics production; and the role of natural gas infrastructures in technological lock-in that will ensure continued use of fossil fuel as an energy source.
- The Green New Deal could expand employment opportunities for groups of people who are currently underrepresented among private industry union members. If the Green New Deal included government-funded training programs for retrofitting cars, making homes more energy-efficient, and producing materials and building infrastructure for renewable energy, women and people of color would have more access to skilled jobs and labor unions that represent skilled workers.
- The transition from fossil fuel energy sources will potentially end the livelihoods of coal miners, oil and gas drillers, refinery workers and support activates for those industries — a loss of nearly 900,000 jobs. Green New Deal policies would have to ensure a just transition to renewable energy sources, which means providing retraining and employment to those who lost their jobs in fossil fuels.
- When it comes to the Green New Deal, environmental issues and the U.S. energy system, the attitudes and policy preferences of labor union members and leaders are not predictable. What a “just transition” entails – moving from the current fossil fuel energy system to renewable energy sources (such as solar and wind power), has yet to be fully illuminated. But some of the proposals in the Green New Deal show that building a truly sustainable energy system could potentially reduce unemployment.
- The Green New Deal, and the transition away from fossil fuels, has the potential to transform not just the U.S. energy system, but also the entire system of production. The environmental problems we face are connected — the amount of drinkable freshwater we have is affected by how we produce energy, and gas liquids produced from fracking are stimulating the production of plastics, which increases the problem of plastic waste.
What does social and economic justice have to do with climate change?
Franco Montalto, PhD, associate professor of environmental engineering in the College of Engineering and director of the North American hub of the Urban Climate Change Research Network. His work addresses urban climate resilience and the development of economically and socially sensible solutions to urban environmental problems.
- The consequences of global temperatures cut across multiple sectors. They bring us into sustainability, social justice, economic sustainability and ecological questions. There has been this crosscutting dialogue on how climate action can promote progress in some of these other sustainable development goals.
- We have to consider how this shift will promote positive outcomes in one area, but could create negative ones in another area. What will happen to the people who work in the fossil fuel industry if we shift away from it? We can’t make these kinds of sweeping changes without ensuring that there are safeguards in place to prevent negative social and economic impacts, especially at the local level.
- In general, climate resiliency and environmental policy is moving from products to processes. This acknowledges that there are very complex local social and economic situations. We’re moving toward a participatory approach that looks at the local context, looks at the global context, and then looks for opportunities — ways that you can make the local more responsive to the global, taking advantage of things people are already doing locally.
- We’re at the point where we need to do things that have never been done before. If you take the concept of net-zero seriously, we have our work cut out for us. We have to figure out how the emissions that we release are captured by mid-century if we want to avoid some of these devastating impacts. Just thinking about every time we make a decision we need to now start tracking the emissions consequences of those decisions — everything from where you live, from how you get to work, to what you choose to do as your work. This is really the time for these ideas to be permeating everything we do.
Is the scope of the Green New Deal economically feasible? What kind of impact could a transition like this have on the economy?
- As a mission statement for Congress, the recommendations of the Green New Deal are consistent with private property and constitutional process. I see nothing in the two long lists of goals and projects that that would necessarily disadvantage certain groups within the economy, except of course that the fossil fuel industries will become obsolete. But that transition is necessitated by the objective condition of our planet and not by the whim of political groups among us.
- This is not the first time in history that an industry has become obsolete. Markets adjust to obsolescence. Legislation could easily be prejudicial in its implementation but we don’t know yet what manner of legislation will be proposed, if any. So the House Resolution should be judged at this point not on the number of bad legislative outcomes that we can darkly imagine, but on whether it is relevant to the issues it seeks to address, whether it has a sufficiently comprehensive grasp of those issues, and, being a vision of pubic policy, whether it is intrinsically fair. We can also ask whether a vision of quite that breadth is required at this moment in history, and my own judgment is that the answer to all those questions is a resounding “yes.”
- There is no reason why the transition must be funded entirely by government deficit spending. There exist many mechanisms at the national, state and local level for moving the private sector in the right direction. Loan guarantees to business and tax credits to homeowners have been used to promote clean energy in the past.
- I am in complete accord with the idea that all people must have a stake in their society if we are enjoining them in an heroic effort to preserve it. Our debilitated middle class, after four decades of flat real wages, will not rise to the occasion of climate change unless there is something tangible in it for them. Thus emphasis is rightly placed on good jobs, fair wages, non-discriminatory labor practices, and access to the rudiments of health (air, food, water, job safety, and health care). These are core elements of any sound environmental vision, in my opinion, and not in the least peripheral to it.
- With regard to the 10 year goal, I am pessimistic. But when any plan is not doable in the time frame that seems to be required, we come at it from the opposite direction: Given its necessity, how much of this would be doable in 10 years? And we set our interim goals accordingly. We do not abandon the project and surrender ourselves to extinction.
How might the Green New Deal affect market forces?
Shawkat Hammoudeh, PhD, professor of Natural Resources and Environment Economics in the School of Economics of the LeBow College of Business. His work examines the decomposition of the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC)— which graphs the hypothesis that that there is an “inverted-U shaped” relationship between per capita income and environmental degradation since initial increases in per capita income will lead to a rise in carbon emissions during the first stage of economic development.
This is supported by the evidence that the primary aim of the related countries is to promote economic development, while the negative consequences of environmental degradation are not the priority of the policymakers at the first stage. However, as countries develop, and the accompanying per capita income reaches a threshold, carbon emissions should then start to decline as environmental pollution emissions become a priority of policymakers.
The EKC in the United States is comprised of four components: the scale effect, the technique effect, the composition effect and the trade-natural endowment effect. It also traces their impacts on energy consumption and environmental improvement/degradation.
- The scale effect increases energy consumption and carbon (greenhouse gas) emissions, while the technique effect reduces energy consumption and reduces carbon The composition effect improves environmental quality by lowering carbon dioxide emissions, while the trade-factor endowment is positively linked to energy consumption and carbon emissions.
- In a globalized world, the empirical research shows that trade openness has a negative effect on carbon dioxide emissions. On the other hand, increases in foreign direct investment (FDI) hamper environmental quality by increasing carbon emissions. FDI flows may take advantage of weak regulations and use states with weak regulations as a haven for their polluting activities. There should be a federal policy coordination of state regulations which does not currently exist. The Green New Deal should come from the grass roots and gain approval from labor unions, Congress, the President and the Supreme Court.
- Policies that promote export quality and export diversification can reduce the production of products that are highly energy-intensive. The shift in production of electricity should target the use of green sources of energy in producing cleaner electricity. Biomass energy consumption in the United States is found to lower carbon emissions.
How does the Green New Deal compare to existing environmental policy, what political hurdles does it face?
Christian Hunold, PhD, associate professor of politics in the College of Arts and Sciences, studies environmental politics and policy.
- At face level, the Green New Deal ties concrete goals, such as decarbonizing the economy, to a far more imaginative political vision compared to, say the technocratic federal loan program for renewable energy projects authorized by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act a decade ago. Whether you think that’s a feature or a drawback depends on your perspective.
- The storyline offered by the plan’s proponents is one of modernizing the U.S. economy by reducing carbon emissions, as well as economic inequality, all without sacrificing economic growth. On the one hand, that’s nothing new. The Green New Deal draws on milquetoast, business-friendly environmental political ideas like sustainable development and ecological modernization that have been around for decades. On the other hand, against the backdrop of the federal government’s climate change denial and corporate-friendly regulatory rollback, the Green New Deal looks like progress — transformative even.
- Besides the obvious need for Democrats to win the 2020 election, the GND is up against a politically dominant framing of economic growth and environmental protection as mutually incompatible, of putting the economy and the environment in separate boxes. This view is dogma in the Republican Party, but its hold on the political imagination of conservative Democrats seems no less unshakable. As a result, it’s a lot easier for industry critics to brand greens as job killers than it is for greens to lay out a progressive, politically compelling vision for a livable future.
- Already, there are folks in the Democratic Party who want to put the brakes on the GND by throwing progressive ideas overboard while keeping only investments in energy and infrastructure they see as immediately relevant to addressing the climate crisis. But — as Jimmy Carter found out so painfully 40 years ago — American voters want to be inspired, not lectured to with technobabble. So I think the GND will succeed to the extent its supporters can convince the American public that climate change is not primarily a cause for despair (though it is that too), but a likely permanent condition of humankind, an opportunity, of sorts, that empowers us all to rethink our society’s fundamental economic and political priorities.
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