The Green New Deal: Technology Implications and Concerns

February 17, 2019

Congressional Democrats rolled out a new resolution on February 7th called the “Green New Deal.” This initiative is nonbinding for both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but it represents an affirmative signal that the new Democratic cohort is not backing down on environmental issues. The Green New Deal was prompted by the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, and the 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment. Both of these reports contained dire warnings about the path that the global climate is on, and outlined aggressive measures that need to be taken to prevent the most serious impacts of climate change.

A central theme of the resolution revolves around investment in cleaner technologies. However, in a departure from past policy, the package takes an approach that would suggest an acceptance of the use of nuclear energy to meet the goal of “100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” This would also allow for fossil fuel plants that are carbon-neutral, such as ones fitted with carbon-capture systems. The ambiguity of this language is potentially a point of conflict, especially given the accompanying FAQ for an early version of the resolution that stated “the plan is to transition off of nuclear and fossil fuels as soon as possible.” This language appears nowhere in the released version, but represents a tension over nuclear power that has resonated for decades.

…the resolution’s aggressively ambitious goals will likely be its downfall.

Curiously, in contrast to its objectives for greenhouse gas emission reduction, the resolution seems to have a preference for “low-tech solutions” to the removal of greenhouse gases that are already present in the atmosphere. These would likely include approaches such as planting more trees, reducing deforestation, and improving soil management. There is skepticism around whether these types of measures would have an impact. A 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine advocated for the use of “negative emission technologies” which would be able to actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in quantities that low-tech solutions would not be able to match.

The resolution also focuses on transforming the transportation sector. Specifically mentioned are the need for “zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing;” “clean, affordable, and accessible public transit;” and “high speed rail.” The plan calls for a complete revamping of infrastructure in the United States, which it says will lead to millions of “green” jobs.

The Green New Deal is broad in scope. However, the resolution’s aggressively ambitious goals will likely be its downfall. Congressional Republicans met the plan with opposition, calling it a “socialist fever dream.” Some are viewing it as so radical it will be ammunition that can be used against the resolution’s proponents in the 2020 elections. High profile House Democrats such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to co-sponsor the proposal, and there are no plans to bring it to the floor for a vote. The short timeline of the bill makes its goals potentially impossible, as the economic feasibility of overhauling the entire energy sector is questionable at best.

Rachel Posey, 11 February 2019