How Can We Ensure a Green Implementation of the Green New Deal?

Green New Deal proposals and policy discussions often sound like a smorgasbord of different issues.  You hear about job creation, counteracting inequities that have impacted underrepresented communities, research and development, agriculture, transportation, and the list goes on.   Rightly so; the environmental problems of today rest on a complicated, interlocking puzzle of social, technological, and economic problems.   But the underlying goal of any Green New Deal is the dramatic expansion of the renewable energy sector.  That raises a prickly question: how do we do that and protect the environment at the same time? A recent UC Davis/Center for Biological Diversity study led by Dr. Rebecca Hernandez highlighted perhaps the greatest challenge we will face in implementing a Green New Deal:
"Achieving a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources on planet Earth to support human activities, in a manner benign to Earth’s life support systems, is arguably the grandest challenge facing civilization today. The consequences of climate and other types of global environmental change are a cautionary flag against the extrapolation of past energy decisions."
In other words, if a Green New Deal is not guided by a conservation ethic, it will also accelerate habitat loss and contribute to the extinction crisis by promoting industrial-scale development on already-beleaguered wildlands.  The Green New Deal resolution that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced in Congress does have language highlighting the need to "secure for all people" a "sustainable environment" and "access to nature."  How to implement this, and what constitutes a "sustainable environment" with sufficient "access to nature" is left for us to define.

BrightSource Energy mows down desert habitat on public lands to build the Ivanpah Solar project.

There is practically no resolution in the policy or advocacy world to directly address the challenge identified in the UC Davis/CBD study; the challenge of undertaking a rapid renewable energy transition that strives to minimize the footprint of this new infrastructure on wildlands.  There have been policy efforts at the state or local level to attempt to address this, but if we are going to push a Green New Deal at the Federal level, then we need bold and vocal advocacy to ensure that the energy transition adheres to a conservation ethic.

An advocate for or against wilderness?
One might think this is obvious, or that the environmental community is already taking on this challenge.  But we actually remain tepid in taking on this responsibility. Some organizations probably fear that they will sound contradictory, calling for renewable energy but critizing renewable projects that jeopardize wildlands.  Other organizations that ostensibly advocate on behalf of wildlands have explicitly called for the conversion of public lands into renewable energy industrial zones.  Namely, the Wilderness Society in a recent blog post and Outside Online article urged Green New Deal proponents to put public lands in the crosshairs for renewable energy developers.   This would be like the ACLU advocating warrantless searches and wiretaps in response to a terrorist attack.  The constituency we protect has become our sacrifice.  This sacrifice of wildlands is all the more absurd given that we have the technological and policy solutions available to transition to renewable energy with little or no footprint on public lands.

We cannot characterize any Green New Deal proposal as "bold" if it is weak in how it protects the natural world.  Without this component -  maintaining wildlands and biodiversity - we are only continuing the paradigm of trading species, forests, deserts and grasslands for kilowatts. Candidates' are being very forward leaning in their Green New Deal proposals - some include multi trillion dollar implementations plans.   And while some proposals call for investments in distributed generation and "restoration" of some wildlands, they implicitly leave on the table the option of bartering away other wildlands to energy companies.

We should consider a supplemental resolution that calls for maintaining biodiversity and wildlands in our energy transition.  This is not about identifying which of our wildlands and wildlife will be left to future generations and which ones we will sacrifice to powering our economy. Nor is this about a "no net-loss" approach where we sacrifice some wildlands and "restore" others that are deemed to provide "ecosystem services" to human communities.  Neither of those approaches is "bold."

Climate change should be a reason to reassess how we treat the natural world, and not just a prompt to unplug fossil fuels and plug in renewable energy with little or no thought for the consequences such actions have on wildlands and wildlife. We humans caused climate change and its impacts on the natural world; wildlands and wildlife should not have to face double jeopardy for our actions. Is that too bold?

A Resolution Ensuring a Green Transition to Renewable Energy
  • Whereas, fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions have resulted in destructive impacts on our communities, wildlands and wildlife;
  • Whereas, our efforts to address human-caused climate change should involve a radical transition in how we generate and consume energy to reduce our destructive impacts on the natural world;
  • Whereas, wildlife have as much right to exist on this planet as humans and maintaining biodiversity is critical to a sustainable environment;
  • Whereas, we already have the technology and resources available to significantly reduce our energy consumption and to reduce the impact of the energy generation sector on wildlands;
Now, therefore, be it resolved that:
  1. It is our duty to ensure that our implementation of Green New Deal policies:
  • Maintains Biodiversity and Wildlands:  The deployment of renewable energy sources and the evolution of our power grids should not result in the loss of existing wildlands.
    • Recognizes the Intrinsic Value of all Wildlife:  Green New Deal policies should hold all existing wildlife and the wildlands where they reside as equally important to a sustainable environment.  All human communities hold equal intrinsic worth and right to existence.  All natural communities hold the same worth and right to existence.  Attempting to value what "services" an ecosystem provides to a human community is an act of maintaining inequity in our politics and law. [1][2 -PDF]  The Endangered Species Act does not make such distinctions, nor should Green New Deal policies.
     2.  Policies should prioritize investments, technologies and research that spare wildlands during and after our energy transition:
  • Energy Efficiency: How efficiently we consume energy must be considered as important as the source of that energy.  According to the Department of Energy, the United States has the potential to "cost-effectively reduce its electricity use" by 16% in the year 2035, or 741,000 GWh.  Capturing this energy efficiency could significantly reduce our impact on the natural world.
  • Distributed Generation and Storage: Policies should be crafted to prioritize the deployment of distributed generation and storage in the built environment, such as rooftop solar or solar canopies over parking lots paired with battery storage.  
    • Recognize the Value of Techno-Ecological Synergies: Building on the findings of the UC Davis/CBD study, we should implement policies that provide incentives for techno-ecological synergies to significantly minimize impacts on wildlands and wildlife, and obtain other benefits for our communities.  The study identifies at least 10 beneficial outcomes for rooftop solar and storage that are not fully captured in existing policies or power purchase contracts.
    • End The Public Land Giveaway: The current cost for electricity generated from a distributed generation installation is typically higher than for utility-scale projects that displace wildlands. But this cost difference is subsidized in part by the availability of low-rent public lands, or the construction of utility-scale projects on remote parcels of private lands far from our cities. The up-front cost differences between distributed generation and utility-scale also do not properly capture the net benefits of distributed generation to our grid [see Brookings study],  or the costs of upgrading long-distance transmission lines to accommodate remote, central power projects.  Utility regulators and Federal agencies charged with stewarding our public lands need to end this paradigm and put a higher value on land-sparing technologies.
    • Expand Existing Tools and Policies; Innovate and Develop New Tools: We acknowledge a climate emergency and extinction crisis, but we allow utility companies and utility regulators to roll-back and weaken incentives for rooftop solar.  More progressive net-metering policies, feed-in-tariffs, incentives for "virtual power plants," and subsidies for distributed generation projects in disadvantaged communities can ensure deployment of clean energy and its benefits in all of our communities at a faster pace, while maintaining our access to nature.
  • Direct Utility-Scale Energy Projects to Already-Disturbed Lands:  Priority should be placed on utility-scale projects that are built on already-disturbed lands close to our cities. The UC Davis/CBD study identified nearly 827,000 square kilometers of degraded lands that could host renewable energy developments, part of which includes EPA-identified RE-Powering America's Land program.  There is no sufficient excuse to allow energy companies to bulldoze intact wildlands.
  • Reduce Renewable Energy-Associated Material Waste:  We must invest in the research and development of technologies and materials that reduce the impact of renewable energy technologies across their life-cycle, to include the recycling of solar panels and energy storage devices. Lithium and other types of batteries are already a key component of our transition to renewable energy, allowing us to capture and dispatch intermittent energy sources and also electrify the transportation sector.  But we have great strides to make to reduce how much material - some of it toxic - that we mine from the Earth and then put to waste at the end of its useful life. [see Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice]


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