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The First Green New Deal Worked. Now We Need a Second One.

Cass R. Sunstein

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- What if the U.S. already had a Green New Deal, and nobody noticed?

Between 2009 and 2016, that’s exactly what happened. The U.S. government did a great deal to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Without a lot of fanfare, it restructured major components of the national economy in the process.(2)

Here are a few highlights:

- The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation required both cars and trucks to become a lot more fuel-efficient. The greening of the fleet produced substantial cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

- The Department of Energy issued over three dozen sets of energy-efficiency rules, covering refrigerators, washers, vending machines, dishwashers, dehumidifiers and many other products. 

- The U.S. quietly put a price on carbon, in the sense that it adopted an official figure for the “social cost of carbon,” meaning the cost of a ton of carbon emissions. That figure -- about $40 -- was used to help make numerous choices about the stringency of air-pollution regulations.

- The EPA imposed unprecedented restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions from new power plants, making it difficult for new coal-fired power plants to be brought online.

- The EPA also imposed unprecedented limits on greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants.

- Congress authorized large subsidies to those who buy electric vehicles, in an effort to jump-start a technology that promises to cut emissions significantly.

This list does not even include the new regulatory standards for methane, large investments in clean energy research and tax credits for wind and solar projects, among other reforms. The major initiatives were generally undertaken only after a careful economic analysis showed that the benefits exceeded the costs.

In total, the first Green New Deal sharply cut greenhouse-gas emissions in the U.S. For example, the rule governing heavy-duty vehicles during model years 2014–2018 was estimated to reduce CO2 emissions by about 270 million metric tons (and to cut oil consumption by about 530 million barrels over the covered vehicles’ lifetimes). 

As a result of these diverse initiatives, the country was well on its way toward meeting its obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Most of the Democratic candidates are promising to do much more, including committing to zero carbon emissions in a little over a decade and to trillions of dollars in investments (including an eye-popping $16.3 trillion from Senator Bernie Sanders).

Those are staggering commitments. They do not seem realistic. Instead, voters who are concerned about climate change, the economy and the budget should be given concrete answers on what might actually be done – in, say, the first days, weeks and months of a Democratic administration.

The answers would begin by noting that the Donald Trump administration has made significant dents in the first Green New Deal. On Day One, it would be straightforward for a new president to require the administration to restore everything that has been eliminated – and to show that its ambitions did not stop there.

The U.S. could develop even stronger fuel-economy standards, thus increasing the proportion of hybrid and electric cars. It could consider more aggressive restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants. 

A more ambitious step, going well beyond the first Green New Deal, would be to introduce new legislation calling for carbon taxes, the best and most efficient way to reduce carbon emissions. The political obstacles would be formidable, but such taxes – starting low and increasing over time – could be a major part of a legislative climate package in early 2021.

There is also an argument for stronger renewable-fuel standards. Such standards might include economic incentives and automatic enrollment in green energy, allowing consumers to opt out if they find it unduly expensive.

The Democrats’ current House resolution embracing a Green New Deal emphasizes climate change above all but also includes a progressive wish list of rights to social goods: a livable wage, family and medical leave guarantees, high-quality health care, affordable housing, economic security and workplace standards across all employers and industries, and so on.

These ideas, appearing to draw on Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, deserve serious discussion. But how are they connected with climate change? A second Green New Deal should not be diverted. It should focus squarely on the green.

When he was governor of New York, Mario Cuomo observed that politicians campaign in poetry, and govern in prose. The first Green New Deal was written in prose. Despite its ambition, it is hardly enough. It is time to think, pragmatically, in prose, and step by step, about the concrete contents of a second Green New Deal, starting in January 2021.

(1) As administrator of the White House Office of Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012, I was part of a group that helped oversee some of that restructuring.]

To contact the author of this story: Cass R. Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “The Cost-Benefit Revolution” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”

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