A Green New Deal must not sabotage climate goals

By Dana Nuccitelli, January 30, 2019

smokestacks and orange skyImage courtesy of Pixabay

Recently, 626 organizations—mostly environmental groups, including 350.org and Greenpeace USA—sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to consider a number of principles when crafting climate legislation like a Green New Deal “to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).” Broadly, there were six major principles in the letter: Halt all fossil fuel leasing, phase out all fossil fuel extraction, end fossil fuel and other dirty energy subsidies; transition power generation to 100 percent renewable energy; expand public transportation and phase out fossil-fuel vehicles; harness the full power of the Clean Air Act; ensure a just transition led by impacted communities and workers; and uphold indigenous rights.

These are generally wise goals, but some concerns about the details caused eight major environmental groups—including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund—to decline to sign the letter. As one national environmental group spokesperson put it, “the details matter… There is some language that gave us some concern.”

To meet climate targets, we need every tool in the chest. Meeting the Paris climate agreement targets of limiting global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming above pre-industrial temperatures—or even a more dangerous but more feasible 2 degrees Celsius—would require massive and immediate global action to reduce fossil fuel consumption and carbon pollution. Simply put, we’ve already burned through so much of our carbon budget that meeting those targets would take everything we’ve got. (We’ve already locked ourselves in to close to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, just based on greenhouse gas emissions to date.)

But the letter includes language that rules out some zero-carbon technologies. For example, it states, “in addition to excluding fossil fuels, any definition of renewable energy must also exclude all combustion-based power generation, nuclear, biomass energy, large scale hydro and waste-to-energy technologies. To achieve this, the United States must shift to 100 percent renewable power generation by 2035 or earlier.”

The listed energy sources all have pros and cons, and groups concerned about their non-climate environmental impacts could certainly make the case for eventually phasing out each one. But the United States currently gets about 32 percent of its electricity generation from natural gas, 30 percent from coal, 20 percent from nuclear, 7 percent from hydroelectricity, 6 percent from wind, and 1 percent from solar, in round numbers. (The remaining few percent come from miscellaneous energy sources such as geothermal, landfill gas, wood, and others.) Were nuclear and hydroelectric power to be eliminated as energy sources at the same time as all fossil fuels, that means that the United States would have to replace its top four electricity sources (nearly 90 percent of its supply) within about 15 years.

Simply replacing all forms of fossil fuels alone (63 percent of the supply) with zero-carbon technologies within this short timeframe would already be an immense task. And the figures here are strictly referring to what it is required for electricity generation in the United States; they don’t even account for other voracious energy-consuming sectors like transportation—which bring the fossil-fuel share of the US economy up to 80 percent, plus another 9 percent from nuclear and 7 percent from hydroelectric power and biomass. Why make the already gargantuan task so much more difficult?

Germany provides a cautionary tale for environmental groups. The country implemented what it called an “Energiewende” (energy transition) strategy that prioritized the phase-out of nuclear power over replacing fossil fuels, despite its goal of achieving a low-carbon energy supply. For example, in the year 2000, 50 percent of Germany’s electricity was supplied by coal compared to 29 percent from nuclear power and 7 percent from renewables. In 2015, the share was 46 percent coal, 15 percent nuclear, and 33 percent renewables. In other words, the country’s coal consumption has remained nearly unchanged since the turn of the century—from 50 percent coal to 46 percent coal. Instead, Germany’s rapid deployment of renewable energy has primarily replaced its nuclear power plants.

There are certainly legitimate objections to nuclear power, but it is nevertheless a zero-carbon energy source. If we consider climate change an urgent, existential threat and if we want to meet the Paris climate targets, then eliminating fossil fuels must be our first priority. Only after fossil fuels have been replaced can we consider doing the same to other zero-carbon energy sources.

Market-based solutions can be effective. Along similar lines, the letter states: “We will vigorously oppose any legislation that… promotes corporate schemes that place profits over community burdens and benefits, including market-based mechanisms and technology options such as carbon and emissions trading and offsets, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, waste-to-energy and biomass energy.”

The letter seems to envision that the needed carbon pollution cuts will be achieved purely through government regulations rather than market-based mechanisms such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system. But it’s unclear why that must necessarily be our approach. Putting a price on carbon pollution is a logical way to incorporate its costs into fuel and energy prices, and 45 top economists across the political spectrum recently endorsed a carbon tax. And rebating the taxed revenue via regular dividend checks is a progressive measure that would benefit lower income communities.

One concern may be that a market-based system pricing carbon pollution would benefit zero-carbon energy technologies that some letter signatories oppose—such as nuclear, hydroelectric, biomass, and fossil fuels using carbon capture and storage. There are environmental reasons to oppose some of these technologies; for example, other harmful pollution from fossil fuels and the disposal of hazardous nuclear waste present very real problems.

But the letter’s stated primary goal is to meet the Paris climate targets, and we’ll fail if we tie our hands behind our backs by ruling out zero-carbon technologies and market-based policy tools. Phasing out nuclear, hydroelectric, and biomass energy should only be considered after fossil fuels have been eliminated. Pricing carbon pollution certainly shouldn’t be ruled out (and in fact should be pursued vigorously), and even carbon capture and sequestration should remain on the table.

If we consider climate change an urgent existential threat that justifies the Paris climate targets, then at the very least phasing out fossil fuels and carbon pollution must be our top priority when crafting climate policy. Other concerns that undermine zero-carbon energy sources must be secondary, lest we sabotage our own climate-preserving efforts.


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Margarita
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Margarita

I would like to know what some of the underlying assumptions about energy consumption in the US are as to why phasing out nuclear and replacing it with renewables isn’t feasible. Also, there are great inefficiencies in the US electrical grid. Why is no one talking about upgrading it? That would certainly help with the intermittencies currently posed with wind and solar, but when talking about replacing technologies, it’s a bit like putting in a new air conditioning system in your house that’s otherwise full of holes. What could the upgrades to the grid contribute to meeting energy demands? And… Read more »

John Hartshorn
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John Hartshorn

The transmission losses on the US electric grid amount to about 5% according to EIA. Since the variability of wind and solar output leads to the need to move power longer distances it’s likely the all-renewables grid envisioned by this version of a Green New Deal would do nothing to reduce and could well lead to increased losses. Heavy reliance on renewables also leads to a dramatic increase in requirements for temporary energy storage to smooth fluctuations in output and save power from periods of overproduction for use at times of relative shortfalls. All energy storage systems involve energy losses,… Read more »

Keith McNeill
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Do the proponents of the Green New Deal really oppose pricing carbon? This needs to be clarified.

Kate
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Kate

Bravo. Well written, well reasoned, well said. And we may not wish to even eliminate nuclear power after fossil fuels are phased out. The technology is still the statistically safest energy form and it is evolving to ever higher levels of safety. Next generation nuclear power will use existing nuclear waste as fuel, leave almost no waste behind, and be melt down proof. It may well be the best or among the best solutions available until fusion or other forms of safe carbon free power ramp up.

Dave Moore
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Dave Moore

Great comments on the letter and I concur. Building coalitions to move quickly to reduce carbon emissions will be key as opposed to demanding radical orthodoxy. International assistance to carbon dependent poor countries should also get more emphasis to help them take the cleanest low carbon path possible and avoid car dependence and avoid deforestation and desertification.

Scott Bean
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Scott Bean

Nice article. One thing to look into: you write: “There are certainly legitimate objections to nuclear power” and “the disposal of hazardous nuclear waste presents a very real problem”. First, I would argue that the disposal of nuclear waste is entirely a problem only at the political level: the know-how to properly package, transport and either dispose of or reprocess SNF has long been utilized in countries, such as France and Russia, while advanced tech is utilized for LLW and ILW. Second, you don’t indicate what these “legitimate objections” are. All too often, opponents of nuclear point to radiation without… Read more »

Brian
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Brian

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has criticized nuclear power over the years. But now you are reluctant to let go of nuclear power. It’s time. Nuclear power can’t help in any significant way because it’s never been more than 2% of the world’s’ total energy demand. Most reactors are old anyway. Every year they run, they generate about a half a billion tons of toxic rare earth type mining wastes. Mining waste and overburden are 100,000 times the refined fuel mass per MWH. That’s 75% or so of coals’ mining mass per MWH. Whole watersheds are contaminated by in situ… Read more »

Fredrik Lundberg
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Fredrik Lundberg

The “cautionary” tale of Germany is misleading. 2000 is a good point of reference, though, as the red-green government was elected in 1998, and started the Energiewende about then. Here is the development of electricity from 2000 to 2018: Nuclear went from 170 to 76 TWh Coal power went from 291 to 229 TWh Gas power went from 56 to 83 TWh Net exchange of electricity went from import 3 TWh to export 50 TWh Renewables from 38 to 229 TWh (Gross TWhs, source: AG Energiebilanzen) For someone who likes nuclear power this is a sad story, but the task… Read more »

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