The “Green New Deal” is upon us, and the question is what to make of it. The Democratic proposal mandates that, within a decade, virtually all fossil fuels — which represent about four-fifths of the nation’s energy supply — shall be replaced with clean fuels that don’t worsen global warming. Just how is this task to be accomplished? The main sponsors of the Green New Deal — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) — don’t say.
The difficulties are made apparent by new projections of energy use between 2017 and 2050 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Over these years, the EIA expects the U.S. population to grow by 19 percent to 389 million, while the American economy expands by roughly 90 percent. There will be more vehicles, homes and offices. To prevent fossil-fuel use from expanding requires the substitution of clean fuels (wind, solar, nuclear) or greater efficiencies in energy use.
To put it mildly, this seems a tall order. Nevertheless, the EIA thinks it is possible with current policies. In 2050, projected U.S. carbon dioxide emissions (5 billion metric tons) are slightly below today’s U.S. emissions (5.1 billion metric tons). Why? Car gasoline mileage improves substantially, pushed by government regulations. Natural gas continues to displace coal in electricity generation, lowering CO2 emissions.
But these gains don’t satisfy the requirements of the Green New Deal. It decrees “a 10-year national mobilization,” comparable to the commitment to win World War II, to eliminate all greenhouse gases. The trouble is that the technology doesn’t seem to exist to win this war without causing the economy to collapse.
This is the crux of the matter. Do a thought experiment, urges David Hart of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a Washington think tank. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Green New Deal achieves its stated goals over a decade.
So what? asks Hart in a blog post. Other countries will continue emitting, and the technologies that work in the United States won’t necessarily work elsewhere. “Until low-carbon energy is cheaper than high-carbon energy for the bulk of the globe’s energy needs, the pace of global emissions will not slow down very much,” he says. The emphasis, he argues, needs to be on research and development and the faster introduction of superior technologies.
To be fair, some gains in de-carbonizing the economy can be easily achieved. A starting tax of $25 a ton on carbon dioxide — which would rise slightly faster than inflation — would hasten the retirement of coal-fired power plants, says Adele Morris, policy director of the Climate and Energy Economics Project at the Brookings Institution, another think tank.
What’s not well appreciated is that the Green New Deal also would require a host of non-energy changes. As Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center notes, it is “an ambitious manifesto demanding — among other things — a massive infrastructure initiative, a guaranteed job with a ‘family-sustaining wage,’ and universal access to high-quality health care, affordable housing, economic security, high-quality education, and healthy food.”
Granting the usual congressional penchant for exaggeration, this is still over-the-top. Most of it is make-believe. No one knows how much the program would cost. Gleckman says it would be “staggering.” The total would easily run to trillions of dollars.
We’ve been here before, as the eminent U.S. historian Richard Hofstadter once pointed out:
“We go off on periodic psychic sprees that purport to be moral crusades . . . [to] wipe out the saloon and liquor forever . . . [or to] destroy the political machines and put an end to corruption, or achieve absolute, total and final security against war. . . . Very often [these evils do exist and] . . . something can be done about them. [But our enthusiasm] often wanders over the border between reality and impossibility.”
This is surely true of the Green New Deal.
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