Priorities: Where Do You Start With the Green New Deal?

©. Alex Wong/Getty Images

We have a lot to do in not much time.

The Green New Deal is out, and it is so TreeHugger, so much to love. And so much Socialism! It's almost like Canada. It is a very long list of very good ideas; David Roberts of Vox does a great summary of it, calling it a high-wire act.

It has to offer enough specifics to give it real shape and ambition, without overprescribing solutions or prejudging differences over secondary questions. It has to please a diverse range of interest groups, from environmental justice to labor to climate, without alienating any of them. It has to stand up to intense scrutiny (much of it sure to be bad faith), with lots of people gunning for it from both the right and center.
credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

© Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy

When one looks at the most recent Livermore Lab carbon graph (they stopped doing these in 2014 for some reason), the two most significant sources of CO2 are power generation and transportation. That coal band looks huge and scary here.

electric generation by source

US Energy Information Administration/Public Domain

But coal for power generation has been dropping for years, and will continue to do so. The fact is that both gas and renewables are now cheaper, and gas dials up faster than coal, making it a better mix with renewables.

Also, seeing where the CO2 is coming from is useful, and the supply side is important, but it is in response to demand. Where is all that electricity going? Where are all the people going in the transportation box? What are they being transported in? It's demand that drives the CO2 generation.

2017 graph

© Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of energy

When you look at the demand side and see all the other sources of electricity, the coal problem seems much less intimidating. Nuclear, hydro, and renewables generate almost as much power. And look where all the electricity is going: of the 12.5 quads of usable power, almost 75 percent is going into residential and commercial buildings, while a quarter of it is going into industry. Almost 8 quads of energy from Natural Gas go straight into our homes and offices for heating, and 75 percent of 9.54 quads of gas go indirectly through generating electricity. While burning gas puts out half the CO2 as burning coal for the same amount of heat, it still puts out a lot.

Electricity use in homes

US Energy Information Administration/Public Domain

Inside our homes, the single biggest use of electricity is air conditioning, followed by water heating. Lighting is dropping all the time as people switch to LEDs. "All other uses" includes clothes drying, which should be a slice of the pie all on its own, as it is a huge draw; according to the NRDC, dryers now consume as much energy as the fridge, dishwasher and clothes washer combined.

commercial electricity use

US Energy Information Administration/Public Domain

On the commercial side, the biggest single electricity suck is refrigeration. (The computers are 7.5 percent and office equipment is 7.8 percent. I do not know why they combined them into a single wedge because the computers are mostly server farms). That refrigeration is the cold chain, "uninterrupted series of refrigerated production, storage and distribution activities, along with associated equipment and logistics, which maintain a desired low-temperature range." That's mostly food, and it doesn't include the fossil fuel to run the trucks and the planes. So one suggestion for a serious reduction in energy consumption might also be: Switch to local, seasonal food for a low-carbon diet.

Natural gas uses

US Energy Information Administration/Public Domain

And all that natural gas? We already know that most of the electricity is going into our houses and offices, mostly to run air conditioning. Combine that with the direct heating of commercial and residential buildings, and you have 61 percent of natural gas going into our houses. (The 35 percent going to industrial uses is mainly to make plastics and fertilizers, but that's another post.) So, the Green New Deal nails it with its recommendation that we "upgrade all existing U.S. buildings and build new buildings, to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability.

CC BY 2.0. The Heights/ Lloyd Alter

The Heights/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

If every building was upgraded to, say, Passivhaus standards, it would take well over half the natural gas and electrical consumption offline, just like that. We could probably get by with the hydro and nuclear base plus renewables, batteries and maybe a few peaker natural gas plants. It would take some time and money to energiesprong every existing building, but we could start by changing building codes to make every new building Passivhaus efficient right now. But that's only half the battle.

Transportation and fossil fuels

Transportation by fuel

US Energy Information Administration/Public Domain

The Green New Deal calls for:

..overhauling transportation systems in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in—
(i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing;
(ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transit; and
(iii) high-speed rail.

Point (i) is not explicit, but their idea of a zero-emission vehicle is an electric car. But no car is a zero-emission vehicle; there is the embodied carbon of making it and the particulate emissions from tires and brakes. Vehicle infrastructure means highways, which are made of concrete. So what we really have to do, beside making zero emission vehicles, is reduce demand. Also, there should be more recognition of alternative zero-emission vehicles that could make a big difference, like bicycles.

share of vehicle miles traveled

US office of energy efficiency and renewable energy/Public Domain

The single biggest use of the car is to get to and from work, followed by shopping and family or personal business. Clean, affordable and accessible public could go a long way to helping here.


Michael Mehaffy via NRDC/CC BY 4.0

But by far, the single biggest determinant of how much one drives is the density where you live. This is the biggest oversight in the Green New Deal; if we are going to get people out of cars and deal with that big honking green bar at the bottom of the Livermore graph, we have to change the way we design our communities. We have to intensify our suburbs. Then we can support good transit, cycling and walking infrastructure.

Alex Baca got this in her post on Slate:

A Green New Deal must insist on a new, and better, land use regime, countering decades of federal sprawl subsidy. The plan already recognizes the need to retrofit and upgrade buildings. Why not address their locations while we’re at it? Suggestions of specific policies that would enable a Green New Deal to address land use have already emerged: We could, simply, measure greenhouse gases from our transportation system or build more housing closer to job centers. Reallocating what we spend on building new roads to paying for public transit instead would go a long way toward limiting sprawl.
credit: Housing in Vienna/ Lloyd Alter

Housing in Vienna/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

A Green New Deal looks a lot like Vienna, where everyone lives in apartments with good access to transit and bike lanes. Just though the wonder of urban design, homes use far less energy per capita because they only have one or two outside surfaces; and the density is high enough so that kids can walk to school, you can walk to shop, you can bike or take transit to work.


© Goad's Atlas

A Green New Deal looks a lot like where I live, a streetcar suburb built up after 1913 at a density where you could buy a single family house, but still be within a five minute walk to the fancy new streetcar line on St Clair. So while I own a car, I never need to use it and rarely do.

Rows of dumb boxes in Munich

Rows of low dumb boxes in Munich/CC BY 2.0

A Green New Deal looks most like Munich, where little buildings built to Passivhaus standards are built around parks, with a streetcar line and a school a short walk away.

Undoing 75 years of sprawl will not be easy, but it is probably less of a stretch than changing every car to be zero emission and building the generating or solar capacity to keep them charged. Suburbia was built on fossil fuels, needed to heat and cool leaky single family houses and drive between them. If we live in places designed around walking and cycling and transit, then that is what people will do.

The Green New Deal is a wonderful place to start a discussion about how to eliminate CO2 emissions and build a better nation. Some find it radical, but I consider the goals of securing clean air, healthy food and a sustainable environment (along with justice and equity) to be reasonable things to aspire to. And it's really not that hard; we just need a whole lot of insulation, density, and bicycles.