How to seal the Green New Deal

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezSteve Bullock puts Citizens United decision at center of presidential push Fix the climate with smaller families Dem Sen. Markey faces potential primary challenge in Massachusetts MORE and Senator Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyGOP senator announces bill to block companies from tracking online activity Trump faces criticism for hosting Hungary's leader Bill Nye tees off on climate change skeptics: 'The planet is on f---ing fire!' MORE rolled out a resolution for the Green New Deal this week, laying out high level policy goals to decarbonize the United States while encouraging new economic growth. The concept has broad support across the spectrum.

A poll by Yale University has found that 81 percent of registered voters, including 64 percent of Republicans, are in favor of the Green New Deal. Mobilizing this support into effective policies that address each of the sectors mentioned in the resolution, such as clean energy, agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation, will no doubt be an enormous challenge, but a successful infrastructure package could launch our country into a safer climate future with significant economic benefits.


However, a murky Green New Deal mired in politics and vulnerable to opposition could just as easily peter out. To succeed, the Green New Deal needs a clear mission while being able to withstand scrutiny from a diverse coalition of lawmakers with varied interests. The resolution lays out ambitious “principles” rather than “prescriptions.” As lawmakers develop the details of clean energy policies under the Green New Deal, they should prioritize four key principles to put together a solid package.

First, focus on the carbon rather than the technology. To accomplish massive carbon reductions in a short period, lawmakers must focus on adopting inclusive policies that achieve decarbonization without favoring certain technologies. The original draft Green New Deal proposed by Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement was criticized for focusing on achieving 100 percent renewable energy. This means wind, solar, and hydropower, while excluding zero carbon sources like nuclear power and fossil fuel plants that capture all carbon emissions. The new resolution instead includes “clean, renewable, and zero emission energy sources.”

This approach will both help the United States decarbonize as quickly as possible and will make the Green New Deal far more politically viable. Nuclear power serves as the largest source of zero carbon energy in the United States, and the costs of carbon capture are falling rapidly. Failure to include these types of electricity generation in policies will make an energy transition difficult and expensive, if not impossible. Policies under the Green New Deal should promote heavy investment in expanding zero carbon generation, agnostic of the technology necessary to get there.

Second, commit to lasting market mechanisms. To create a massive shift in the energy sector, policies must create persistent market incentives. Extending investment tax credits, expanding loan guarantee programs, and establishing a national Green Bank would encourage private sector investors to pursue clean energy projects. Placing a price on carbon can monetize externalities that emissions impose on communities for years.

By creating a federal carbon tax or cap and trade system, lawmakers could incentivize a shift away from carbon intensive forms of electricity generation, agriculture, and manufacturing. The revenue collected could fund further projects, such as grid upgrades, for a new electric power system. However, these policies need to have a long shelf life. A clear understanding of what incentives and pricing mechanisms will be in the future would allow investors and developers to pursue clean energy, but concern over administrations changing policies would curtail interest.

Third, build on existing state level policies. As the Trump administration has virtually withdrawn from advancing climate policies at the federal level, several states including Colorado, California, Hawaii, New York, and Washington have implemented aggressive climate policies. By learning from and building on state programs like the bold clean power mandates in California and New York, which aim to reach 100 percent carbon free electricity over the next few decades, and a cap and trade system like the one that covers 10 states in the northeast, lawmakers at the federal level can draft and carry out clean energy policies with a proven track record.

Finally, focus on the economic benefits that clean energy can provide. One of the most compelling motivations to adopt the Green New Deal is that an energy transition could offer a range of opportunities to invest in struggling communities, helping to eliminate poverty as well as emissions. Reducing economic pain is key to creating broad support for the Green New Deal. Communities built on fossil fuel extraction could be revitalized through job training for clean energy programs. Communities that have lost manufacturing jobs sent overseas could likewise benefit from new economic incentives promoting clean energy made in the United States.

The Green New Deal is built on the deeply American principles of justice and equity. Lawmakers must continue to use these as guiding principles in developing each component of the plan. Ultimately, the Green New Deal offers a critical opportunity to address the urgent threat posed by climate change while creating a better economic future for the United States. To enable its success, lawmakers need to build upon flourishing state level initiatives with a portfolio of pragmatic energy policies that are agnostic of technology, mindful of market incentives, and economically inclusive.

Madison Freeman is a research associate focused on energy innovation and United States foreign policy with the Council on Foreign Relations.