Critics of the Green New Deal immediately pointed to this target as unrealistic. Despite numerous federal incentive programs, solar and wind have only increased from three percent to just over eight percent of the US’s energy supply over the past 10 years. Meanwhile, over 60 percent of the US’s energy comes from burning fossil fuels.
Even supporters of climate action were critical of the Green New Deal’s 2030 goal, which far exceeds the emissions reduction targets suggested by the IPCC over the next decade. Many environmentalists and scientists felt that, in the absence of any prescriptions for meeting that bold target, the Green New Deal was distracting from the real goal of building a tangible emissions reduction policy.
But is going green within 10 years truly unreasonable? The basis for the idea was put forward a decade ago, but paired with a precise transition plan that could provide a roadmap for the Green New Deal.
Wind, Water, and Solar
In 2009, two professors, Mark Jacobson from Stanford and Mark Delucchi from UC Davis published a radical plan for powering the entire world on wind and solar energy within 20 years. The plan was to divide the planet into 20 regions, each of which would benefit from a precise mix of wind turbines, distributed solar panels, and, in some places, geothermal and hydrothermal energy installations.
Taking this overview one step further, Jacobson and his colleagues published renewable energy plans for more than 139 individual countries. In the US, the plan calls for 47 percent of the country’s energy to come from solar and 48 percent from wind – 17.5 percent of which would be offshore wind.
Importantly, Jacobson proposed that this massive switch in the US’s energy grid could be completed, or at least well underway, in as little as 20 years. The problem was not technological – solar panels and wind turbines were already well-developed by 2009 – but political and economic.
A Heavy-handed Transition
Achieving an energy transition on the scale that Jacobson proposed, within such a short period of time, would have required unprecedented top-down action from the government. At the time, wind and solar power were relatively scarce in the US, and the first (and still only) offshore wind farm in the country was still six years away. Since Jacobson’s plan required mass installations of residential solar units and wind turbines, implementing the transition would have also required reaching heavily into the lives of individual homeowners and businesses.
Even with the momentum behind climate action in 2009 – a debate on a cap-and-trade system in the US was taking place in the national political sphere – such heavy-handed revamping of the nation’s infrastructure would almost certainly never have received support from the public or from local, state, or federal officials.
In addition, Jacobson’s wind, water, and solar plan was controversial within the scientific community from the day it was published. Soon after its release, a team of more than 20 climate and energy scientists published a biting criticism of the plan in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. With every new iteration of the blueprint for a renewable future that Jacobson has published in the past decade, there has been significant pushback within the scientific community over the economic models and assumptions inherent in his work.
Modeling for the Green New Deal
Despite these shortcomings, Jacobson’s plan has the same radical flair for immediate climate action that the Green New Deal brought to the table – and which has re-energized the national debate over what to do about climate change. So can environmentalists and politicians coalesce around something like the wind, water, and solar plan in developing emissions reduction policy?
At the moment, it seems unlikely that the massive socioeconomic transition that the Green New Deal envisions, and that Jacobson’s plan requires, will take place. After the Green New Deal’s initial fanfare, Democratic politicians are scrambling to distance themselves from the resolution and several Democratic senators are working to introduce alternative resolutions on climate action.
In addition, although there is no price tag on the Green New Deal itself, economists estimate that Jacobson’s plan would cost roughly $15 trillion (based on a 2018 update to his plan) for the US alone, about $125 billion globally. Given the vagueness of the Green New Deal, it is unclear where these funds would come from. Critics also note that avoiding nuclear energy as part of the US’s energy portfolio, as both Jacobson’s plan and the Green New Deal pointedly do, is likely to increase the overall cost of transitioning the country’s energy supply.
That said, Jacobson’s plan could serve as an important model as Democrats and Republicans alike seek out more concrete platforms for emissions reduction. While no realistic political platform is likely to target a total conversion to renewable energy within 10 years as the Green New Deal demands, Jacobson’s blueprint for how wind and solar can make up the bulk of a sustainable US energy grid in 20 years is more palatable and by 2050, which the IPCC considers a drop dead date for complete phase out of fossil fuels, is potentially doable.
In the meantime, any movement from the theoretical debate over what a renewable energy system looks like to developing and implementing concrete plans for the transition to renewables is a win for Jacobson, the Green New Deal, the entire country and hopefully our planet.