Forget the small decline in greenhouse emissions we’re seeing during the COVID-19 pandemic; the climate emergency remains as dire as ever. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans are suddenly out of work. Many in the environmental movement are putting those two facts together and calling for trillions of federal dollars to be spent on a massive new workforce that will build up renewable energy capacity and green infrastructure.
A recent survey of more than two hundred central-bank and treasury officials in the G20 group of affluent countries concluded, “Recovery packages that seek synergies between climate and economic goals have better prospects for increasing national wealth, enhancing productive human, social, physical, intangible, and natural capital.”
Meanwhile, the Green New Deal—the vision embodied in a 2019 joint congressional resolution and now being written up in detail—included a “green jobs” push long before the pandemic hit. It also calls for social, economic, racial, gender, and workplace justice—all of which are needed, especially now that the economy’s imploding.
The “New Deal” part of the Green New Deal, therefore, may turn out to be pretty straightforward. Where things break down is in the “Green” part. It lacks any direct mechanism to eliminate fossil fuels from the economy on a crash deadline. And there is nothing in it that would end our long-running assault on the Earth’s ecosystems in pursuit of profit and wealth accumulation.
The national climate discussion appears to be based on an implicit assumption that as new energy capacity comes online in the coming decade or two, it will push an equal quantity of fossil-energy capacity off-line, joule for joule. History and research argue against that assumption, showing that with economic growth, new energy sources mostly add to the total energy supply rather than replace existing sources.
Growing economies need a growing pool of energy on which to draw, because, historically and materially, increasing GDP is accompanied by increased energy demand. For example, between 2009 and 2018, during a historically rapid buildup of U.S. wind and solar capacity, three-fourth of that new output went into increasing the total supply, without displacing fossil-fueled capacity.
Carbon taxes, sale and trade of permits, utility incentives, and other means of giving “renewable” energy sources a leg up in the market are being suggested and tried. But these and other market interventions are weak, indirect approaches to reducing emissions. None of these widely debated climate strategies has included any mechanism to directly and rapidly eliminate fossil fuels from the economy, without fail.
Eradicating emissions will require a statutory limit on all fuel extraction and use, one that lowers annually on a strict schedule, along with a system to guarantee justice and material sufficiency for all people and excess for none. The reduction or elimination of greenhouse emissions, however, will not reverse the broader ecological damage. That will require a transformed economy that operates on less total energy and resource extraction.
There is no time for trial and error. The top-priority target must be to drive emissions down to zero in time, without fail. It doesn’t matter whether the target is set at 1.5°C, 2°, or even a catastrophic 2.5° above pre-industrial temperatures; any of those will require immediate, steep annual reductions through the next decade and beyond. If the action taken proves to be inadequate, it will be too late to try something else. By the time failure is apparent, no alternative policy will be capable of keeping warming within acceptable limits.
Go to zero. Go directly to zero.
Were the United States to get serious about climate, the first move would be a tight cap on the total quantity of fossil fuels extracted and allowed into the economy. Limits on oil, gas, and coal all would ratchet down simultaneously year by year until the burning of all three is eliminated on schedule.
If our rate of fossil-fuel phaseout is based on the 2019 United Nations’ Emissions Gap Report, which calls for an annual greenhouse emissions reduction of 7 to 8 percent of today’s supply, then we could reduce fossil fuel supplies by, say, 7 percent each year, thereby cutting them to zero in about fifteen years. The government would enforce the cap through a system of non-tradable permits. No company or individual could pull any amount of fuel out of the ground without handing over the permits to cover that amount.
The buildup of wind, solar, and other non-fossil energy capacity won’t be able to proceed fast enough during that time to compensate for the precipitous decline in the supply of dirty energy. And the handy liquid fuels that for a century have powered road vehicles, farm tractors, freight trains, and air travel will be steadily closed off at the tap. The result will be a smaller, less flexible energy supply. We can easily live with less energy, but it will require massive changes in American life.
In The Green New Deal and Beyond, I cite extensive research and analysis demonstrating that “renewable” energy sources can never be scaled up to satisfy 100 percent of current U.S. energy demand, let alone growth of that demand. One scenario purporting to achieve that goal would result in wind farms covering 6 percent of the entire land surface of the forty-eight contiguous states. Global “100 percent renewable” plans would require solar installation on at least as many square miles of the Earth’s surface as are now occupied by all food production and human settlement combined.
Then there are the twenty-plus minerals critical to the manufacture of a new electric grid and electric vehicle fleet as well as components for wind turbines, solar arrays, high-speed rail, and other features of the new infrastructure. Even today, with the big electrification scale-up still in the planning stage, mining of those metals is creating ecological and humanitarian nightmares.
The world’s reserves of critical metals lie mostly outside our borders, so people and landscapes around the world would endure the worst impacts of fully electrifying a high-energy U.S. economy. Just as America’s quest for more and more fossil fuels has been a source of oppression and war across much of the world, a future quest to keep wind, solar, and battery factories supplied with resources dug up on other continents could bring further humanitarian disasters.
The only clean and just choice left to us as a society is to adopt a much leaner diet of energy and materials. That does not have to be a grim ordeal; in fact, it will provide opportunities to scale back the damage, by both military and civilian forces, that potent, portable energy sources, especially liquid fuels, have empowered.
Coping with the cap
With declining energy supplies, the production of goods and services, and therefore the accumulation of wealth, will slow. A smaller economy could mean an improvement in our circumstances. Decades of research have shown that when median incomes are high, further increases in GDP do not bring improve people’s life satisfaction.
What will improve the quality of life for millions of Americans and make us a more humane and ecologically sound society is to cure our distortions of economic power and cruelly high level of inequality while at the same time bringing the bloated GDP down to size.
A slowing of economic activity is not going to be popular at all in the pointy part of the economic pyramid. Big Petroleum and Big Coal in particular will never go along with anything like a fast-declining cap on their products. As they have throughout their history, they will use their great wealth and pervasive influence in Washington to fight or sabotage any serious attempt to further regulate fossil fuels.
Given such resistance, the next Congress, if it’s serious about heading off climate catastrophe, will have to nationalize the fossil-fuel sector. There will be worries about compensating those who own the oil, gas, and coal reserves, but that won’t be a problem. The companies can simply be told, “Because under the law, the vast majority of your reserves can never be sold, they now have a value of zero. So they aren’t assets anymore. Sorry.”
The fossil fuel giants can be replaced with two brand-new public cooperatives—People’s Carbon for coal and People’s Hydrocarbon for oil and gas—whose business plan will be to put themselves out of business within the next decade or two. Their allocation of fuels must be conducted under democratic oversight nationally and administered locally.
The cooperatives will allocate their diminishing allotments of fuels into the various economic sectors. As the War Production Board did in the 1940s, they will direct fuels toward essential agriculture and manufacturing, and barring their use in wasteful or superfluous production.
With oil, gas, and coal use suppressed and new energy capacity still ramping up, there will be upward pressure on fuel and electricity prices. To avoid severe inflation, not only in energy but throughout the economy, the federal government will need to impose price controls on all energy, as the Office of Price Administration did in the 1940s and the Nixon Administration did in the 1970s.
As the flow of energy into the economy contracts, it will also be necessary to ensure economic security for all households and greater equality overall. In The Green New Deal and Beyond, I discuss policies for achieving economic sufficiency and justice, such as planned allocation of resources and production, shorter working hours with full pay, and price controls with rationing of essential consumer goods.
Meanwhile, contracts for the buildup of green infrastructure and wind and solar capacity must give preference to community and neighborhood power generation, prohibit profiteering, and prevent environmental harm. They will shut large corporations out as much as possible.
National home-insulation and efficiency efforts and affordable-housing construction will have to surge, starting in lower-income neighborhoods. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has gotten a jump on this by introducing the Homes for All Act, which would provide for 12 million affordable, environmentally sustainable housing units.
Rail travel must displace air travel. Green public transportation within urban areas should expand, not by digging under cities but by taking over existing streets and expressway lanes, gradually displacing private cars completely.
Fair shares for all, not a free-for-all
Price controls will keep the energy affordable, but they won’t increase its supply. The energy crisis of the 1970s and empty store shelves during the COVID-19 pandemic, among many other events, have shown the corrosive impact of shortages on society as a whole. Measures must be in place to deal with shortages before they develop.
With the cap lowering each year, supplies of fuel or electricity will become insufficient to fully satisfy unchecked demand. A fair-shares rationing system will be needed in order to ensure that households have equitable access to electricity, gas, heating oil, and vehicle fuel.
The simplest and fairest approach will be to allot to each household every week or month a fixed number of credits per adult, free of charge, to be surrendered when paying utility bill and fueling up vehicles. Because the total power supply will be decreasing, it will be necessary to ration all electricity, whether it’s generated by fossil fuels or non-fossil sources, to ensure fair shares.
Even with price controls, however, economically stressed households will not be able to afford their full share of rationed goods. It will then be time to enact big national policies such as “universal basic services,” which would guarantee access to energy and other goods and services regardless of income.
Whatever basic procedures and formulas end up being used for fair-shares energy rationing, they will need to be applied equitably throughout the nation. However, they could and should be administered locally, democratically, and inclusively. Local decision-making was the key to both U.S. and U.K. rationing systems during World War II.
With rationing of energy applying to everyone equitably, the more affluent households would see the biggest reduction in their consumption, because they are the biggest energy users today. How we use our energy allotments would still be up to us, our neighbors, and our local communities. We would all be living under the same energy limits, but individuals and communities would be the ones who decide how to use their share.
To emphasize the central point: A Green New Deal-style renewable energy buildup will not be the force that drives down emissions. That new energy infrastructure will serve one purpose only: to partially fill the hole left by the forced exit of oil, gas, and coal. The direct suppression of fossil fuels will stimulate demand for wind and solar energy; the conversion won’t happen the other way around.
Acceptability versus necessity
The idea of a Green New Deal went viral in 2018 because it proposed to steer clear of regulation, carbon pricing, international obligations, punishment of polluters, and other policies that are viewed by politicians and their corporate patrons as threats to wealth accumulation. Therefore, it did not pose a threat to big business, aside from the coal and petroleum giants.
In contrast, the nationwide declining cap on fossil fuels that I am calling for, followed by adjustment of the economy to planned allocation and production (policies described in detail by Larry Edwards and me in the report “Cap and adapt: A failsafe approach to the climate emergency” at Resilience.org in 2019) would be about as welcome in corporate America as Carrie Nation at a cocktail party.
The Green New Deal vision, capital-friendly as it is, has not escaped verbal abuse by the Right. The attack has come from all the predictable angles—it’s big government, it’s socialism, it will hurt coal country. Donald Trump came up with some of the most hallucinatory inventions: that the legislation would mean “no more airplanes, no more cows,” would include “trains to Europe, Hawaii and Australia,” and would set a limit of one car per household.
In his ignorance, like the stopped clock that’s correct twice a day, Trump unintentionally made some valid points. Achieving the deep, on-schedule emissions cuts that are essential in the years ahead would indeed require deep reductions in car and air travel, elimination of confined animal-feeding operations, and many other profound changes in the “American way of life.” There are Green New Dealers who acknowledge the need for such deep changes, but those policies did not make it into the joint Congressional resolution, nor are they envisioned as part of the grand plan.
Under the pandemic, most planes have been grounded and vehicle traffic has thinned, but corporate pressure to get all of those sources of greenhouse emissions revved up again will be intense. Meat consumption has dropped, but only amid the cruel sacrifice of that industry’s workers. All of this to restart the capital-accumulation engines.
Few are questioning the drive for unlimited growth, including the group New Consensus, which is working to flesh out the full Green New Deal plan. In their publicity, they have predicted that it could be fully paid for by the growth it stimulates, that the prosperity generated by the Green New Deal will “rapidly grow the nation’s tax base, vastly expanding federal revenue even without raising marginal tax rates.”
Meanwhile, a fact sheet accompanying last year’s House resolution for the Green New Deal stated, “At the end of the day, this is an investment in our economy that should grow our wealth as a nation, so the question isn’t how will we pay for it, but what will we do with our new shared prosperity.”
Paying for a green transition through economic growth sounds easy and painless, but it would be self-defeating. If, say, once this pandemic has finally passed, a twenty-five-year renewable buildup were to stimulate a consistent 3 percent growth rate in the broader economy, GDP would double during that time, swamping any achievements in decarbonization and energy efficiency.
If we’re expecting the just transition to increase prosperity, then we’re going to need a new definition of prosperity. The word should not signify rising profits and growing wealth; rather, it should indicate the high degrees of economic and ecological stability and justice necessary to sustain a much more just society far into the future.
Race for the flag
Eliminating fossil fuels on a tight schedule seems politically unrealistic, but that’s no reason to surrender. Maybe, just maybe, we can find a political opening for necessarily bold climate action. We’re seeing in pandemic time that when the predicament is dire enough, there can be broad popular agreement to set aside the pursuit of a boom economy and deal with the disaster at hand. Energy policies that would have been deemed too radical just a few months ago could finally get traction in the next year or two.
My purpose here is to plant a flag marking how far climate policy will have to go if America is to eliminate fossil fuels by the ecologically necessary deadline. Whenever more politically palatable but weaker proposals such as techno-fixes or carbon pricing are floated, we must insist on the fact that speculative half-measures will not drive emissions down in time.
If half-measures are nevertheless adopted, we all need to be fully aware that we are still heading for an Earth-wide meltdown unless we stop, turn, and head for that flag before it’s too late.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen a contraction of energy consumption as economic activity has plummeted. The World Meterological Organization predicts that global carbon dioxide emissions will fall by 6 percent this year, the steepest annual decline since World War II. But without decisive, transformative interventions, that decrease will be only temporary.
If our collective recovery from the coronavirus is left up to the political and economic powers-that-be, the singleminded drive for wealth accumulation will be re-established ASAP, with consequent increases in emissions.
If reckless re-expansion is achieved, it won’t last long. We are already well into ecological overshoot, and growth of the human economy is going to end—permanently—one way or the other.
No one can predict when or where the irreversible contraction will begin. Nor do we know yet whether the degrowth will be achieved democratically, fairly, and peacefully, or simply happen, in a scene that looks something like a remake of Mad Max shot in a sauna. But we’ll know soon enough. That choice will be made, either by us or for us, in the next decade, maybe two.