Talk of a “green new deal” is all the rage in Washington policy circles, as Democrats take control of the House of Representatives and begin promoting progressive new ways to address climate change. Notably, the charismatic new congresswoman from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has called for a massive program on a scale of the post-World War II Marshall Plan to make the country carbon-neutral within 10 years. That means moving aggressively on renewable energy, electric vehicles, conservation, and other strategies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even the most ardent supporter, however, doesn’t expect anything of substance to pass until 2021, when a climate-change denying obstructionist is out of the White House – they hope – and Democrats regain control of the national agenda.
But here in New England, there’s no need to wait until 2021. Many of the technical solutions to carbon neutrality are already at hand; getting there is a matter of will, scale, and speed. A Northeast regional compact — say among the New England states, plus New York and New Jersey — would represent about 15 percent of the US economy, greater than California. Launching a successful green new deal here would create a blueprint the rest of the country could follow and advance the urgent work of cutting emissions in states that are, not incidentally, some of the most vulnerable to climate-related storms and sea-level rise.
A model already exists in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which currently includes the six New England states plus New York, Delaware, and Maryland (New Jersey is about to rejoin, after a politically-motivated hiatus, and Virginia is now taking steps to climb aboard). This compact, which Massachusetts joined in 2007, is the first mandatory, market-based program to cap carbon emissions from power plants. It employs a pollution-credit trading scheme that has reduced emissions by 49 percent from 2005 levels, creating jobs, saving billions, and spurring economic growth. “We have a chance in New England to put together something that exceeds the rest of the country,” said US Senator Ed Markey, an early champion of the compact. “We should be looking at all of the smart policies that make us the laboratories of climate democracy.”
Last month nine states plus the District of Columbia announced a similar joint effort to spend a year developing a carbon-pricing system for the transportation sector, to help wean consumers from polluting fuels and raise funds that could be reinvested in clean technologies and public transit. At this stage it is only a study; the states will decide individually at the end of the year whether to implement the plan.
These cap-and-trade approaches are fine as far as they go, but they are cumbersome and rather slow to make a dent in actual emissions. We don’t have the luxury of time, as the National Climate Assessment report issued over Thanksgiving makes compellingly clear. That report, with input from 13 federal agencies, said the catastrophic effects of climate change — including wildfires, floods, drought, and hurricanes — are already here, and intensifying.
A more direct carbon tax may be a political nonstarter, even in progressive Northeastern states, but straightforward public investments could be made through bonds issued by a dedicated financing authority or development bank of the sort most states already have.
As with the original New Deal, such public spending will create jobs across a range of skill sets, from insulating leaky buildings to inventing a battery that can efficiently store excess energy created by renewable sources. Markey notes that the clean energy sector has created more than 100,000 jobs in Massachusetts alone, and these include blue-collar roofers and researchers with multiple PhDs. Combatting climate change is a matter of urgency, yes, but also of opportunity.
It’s important to add that a carbon-neutral future does not require a sacrifice in living standards — freezing in the dark, as opponents like to put it — but an enhancement, with side benefits in public health from cleaner air. In fact, restructuring the economy around green energy will require a more robust power grid, to accommodate fleets of electric vehicles, small-scale solar and wind generators, and heat pumps that replace dirty carbon-fueled home furnaces. And upgrading the grid is another task that can be accomplished regionally.
A green new deal offers states willing to invest now a dividend of abundance and ease. Why wait for Washington to catch up?
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.