According to NASA, 2018 was the fourth hottest year on record with the global temperature being 0.8°C warmer than the mean during1951-1980. The top three? 2016, 2017, and 2015. The highest rise of 0.94°C (2016) may not seem like a lot but its implications of climate change on the earth are devastating, as can be seen. In fact, scientists say that if we were to cross the threshold of 1.5°C and touch even 2°C, it would lead to a spike in mass migrations from regions most affected, wildfires, deadly heat stress; and that is going to cost us millions of lives and trillions of dollars.
Rising temperatures bring along a number of costly natural disasters. A report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the November 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment report stated that changing climate is causing sea levels to rise and an increase in wildfires, severe storms, droughts, and other extreme weather events that threaten human life, healthy communities, and critical infrastructure.
It’s not that we are not aware of this. We’ve all studied environmental pollution and its adverse effects in grades 3 or 4. We’ve all written an essay on global warming, at some point when we were in school, containing something along the lines, “global warming leads to melting of ice-caps, glaciers, leading to rising sea levels”, “it causes floods, droughts” etc. It’s just that now, global warming has reached a critical point and has magnified into climate change.
Generally, when the subject of environment or global warming comes up, the solutions presented are a bunch of fun recycling ideas. We’ve grown up listening to solutions like switch off electronics when not in use, turn off leaky taps, follow the 3R principle of Reuse, Reduce and Recycle, etc. Though helpful, these are, unfortunately, no longer enough to save our planet. According to the IPCC, we have a little more than 12 years to cut the emission of global warming gases by 45 percent. The truth is that without a fairly radical change in this direction, our imploding fossil-fuel civilization will bring the Earth’s ecosystems down around us.
Enter: The Green New Deal, the brainchild of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Congresswoman, and Ed Markey, a US Senator. Only 14-pages long, it is a resolution that is the first step of a plan that has mostly yet to be written. It is important to understand that it is not a bill, not legislation nor a policy proposal. It is a non-binding resolution that sets out, very briefly, some extremely aggressive goals. It is merely meant to kick-start a conversation, set some aggressive targets so that we can then figure out how to achieve them. The first step is to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem and the scope of the solution, the recognition that the oil and carbon-based energy system must be changed to reduce further emissions. As coal and steam powered the First Industrial Revolution, and oil and telephony the Second, so clean energy and digital technologies are now converging toward what Jeremy Rifkin, an American economist and futurist, describes as the “Third Industrial Revolution”.
The Green New Deal is the most ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement (drafted in December 2015 to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change). The Deal essentially says that the world needs to get to net-zero emissions by the year 2050 – meaning as much carbon would have to be absorbed as released into the atmosphere – and the United States must take a leading role as it is responsible for 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions through 2014. Along with achieving net-zero emissions, it also sets out goals like global reductions in emissions from human resources by 2030, meeting 100 percent of the country’s power demand through clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources, creating millions of good high wage jobs, ensuring a just transition to a green economy through job guarantee and universal healthcare & education, securing a sustainable environment for all, etc.
It, however, is more a set of principles and goals rather than policies, i.e. it does not contain any detailed specifics on how to achieve any of the goals. For instance, the deal states that the federal government should invest in renewable power resources and electric vehicles, upgrade existing infrastructure to withstand extreme weather conditions, etc., but it doesn’t offer a roadmap for how to get there or how to pay for it. In fact, the opponents of this new deal argue that the expense of such a mobilization would be massive. This sounds like a huge hurdle but dealing with climate change would be expensive either way, and inaction will be much worse. The National Climate Assessment predicts that the effects of global warming could cost the US upward of $500 billion per year by the end of the century. Natural disasters already cost the US $91 billion in 2018.
Indeed, a near-universal consensus has emerged that dramatic action to fight climate change is necessary. It is important to understand that no one solution is going to be nearly enough to achieve the ultimate goal of the deal. We need to tackle this from multiple angles. As the debate over this initiative rages in the US, a number of other countries and regional governments around the world are moving forward with their own climate policies, for example, China, European Union. Though their goals are nowhere as ambitious as the Green New Deal, they have taken steps to cut down emissions and employ renewable energy resources, even as they continue to seek faster economic growth.
Although China currently remains the world’s largest carbon polluter, a report commissioned by the International Renewable Energy Agency stated, “No country has put itself in a better condition to become the world’s renewable energy superpower than China.” It has one-third of the world’s wind power, four of the top ten wind turbine makers, six of the top ten solar-panel manufacturers, and a quarter of the world’s solar capacity. China hopes to provide ‘green, low carbon and circular development’ to Asia’s 4.3 billion consumers in the development of a Green Belt and Road.
European Union’s efforts are centered on an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) or Cap and Trade that forces polluters to pay an economic price for their environmental harm. Companies are required to measure their emissions and buy permits if they exceed a ceiling. Dozens of smaller countries, regions have set up similar targets. Following this, the concept of a ‘carbon tax’ was brought up to decrease emissions without exacerbating the fiscal imbalance. It is based on the simple fact that when something costs more, people buy less of it. It is ironic that it is free to pollute the air with carbon dioxide even though it is the largest source of greenhouse gases. Putting a fee on carbon encourages people to emit less tax and at the same time incentivizes the development of low-carbon technology. Carbon tax or carbon pricing has actually led to a fall in CO2 emissions.
But if the carbon tax has shown such positive results, why are more countries not opting for it? The problem there is mostly the word ‘tax’. Let’s admit it. ‘Tax’ has become synonymous with “exploitation of the common man”. So how do you put a price on carbon and have the public vote in favor of it? What Canada is doing, for instance, is that it is taking the money collected from the tax and giving it back to the citizens as a rebate, with the lowest income households seeing the most benefits.
So you see, no plan is easy to implement and least of all, free. There is going to be one or the other downside to every solution. But it is important to take the first step and get the ball rolling. It’s not enough to lament the world we would have had if we had acted sooner or to picture the future we want to avoid. It’s like they say, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now”. Though a vague outline, the Green New Deal is the only plan that acknowledges what we know is coming!