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A Global Green Deal | The Nation

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A Global Green Deal

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I first proposed a Global Green Deal in 1998 in my book Earth Odyssey because six years of world travel had convinced me that fighting poverty had to go hand in hand with fighting climate change; you can't expect people to starve today to save tomorrow's planet. Relying on a mix of government policies and market mechanisms, the plan would use federal spending and regulation to encourage the rapid deployment of green technologies and practices here and abroad, especially in developing nations. A Global Green Deal follows in the tradition of the New Deal, which President Roosevelt devised to fight the Great Depression in the 1930s; the Marshall Plan, which restored stability in Europe in the '40s and '50s; and the Apollo Project, which put a man on the moon in the '60s and led to the personal computer revolution of the '80s. Like each of these forebears, a Global Green Deal would mobilize America's public and private resources with a wartime sense of urgency. Government would spend more, but it would spend more wisely, and its investments would stimulate enough economic activity that increased tax receipts would cover the costs. The deal would shift taxpayer support away from practices that make climate change worse--i.e., Washington's copious financing of oil and coal projects--and toward green counterparts. Policies that reduce emissions and strengthen climate resilience at the same time, such as the rejuvenation of degraded forests and soils, would be a top priority.

About the Author

Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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The core principles of the deal have been embraced by leaders and citizen groups around the world, such as the prime minister of Japan, the foreign minister of Germany, and labor and environmental groups in Britain and the United States, including the AFL-CIO. In December, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for a very similar plan. In February Ban and Gore urged the world's governments to counter the economic crisis with spending that addresses immediate social needs and "launches a new green global economy." Noting that thirty-four nations are planning $2.25 trillion in stimulus spending, Ban and Gore warned that channeling this money "into carbon-based infrastructure and fossil-fuel subsidies would be like investing in subprime real estate all over again."

Most significant, President Obama has advocated policies that, at least domestically, align perfectly with those of a Global Green Deal. The stimulus package increases federal spending on green energy to three times the current level. But stabilizing our climate also requires that governments stop subsidizing activities that make things worse. Here, Obama still has far to go. The stimulus package contains $17 billion for mass transit but almost twice that much for new roads, according to Friends of the Earth. Senate-House conferees wisely deleted $50 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power plants from the bill, but fossil fuels continue to receive nearly twice as much in federal subsidies as do renewables and energy efficiency. For example, the stimulus package devotes $4.6 billion to research carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that, if it can be made to work--a big if, in some experts' minds--would capture a coal plant's carbon dioxide emissions and store them underground, where they would not contribute to global warming. Without CCS, continuing to burn coal is incompatible with preventing catastrophic climate change, says Hansen. But since it will be many years before CCS can be deployed, the more urgent task is to stop building coal plants and start phasing out existing ones. That goal, which Obama has given no sign of endorsing, is possible only if green alternatives receive even greater government support.

Energy efficiency is the alternative of choice under the Global Green Deal because it is the quickest and most lucrative means of reducing CO2 emissions and sparking economic development. Naysayers often complain that going green costs too much, especially in this time of economic crisis; but evidence suggests otherwise. Corporations and governments alike have found that investments in energy efficiency are extraordinarily profitable. Over a three-year period beginning in 1999, BP invested $20 million to increase energy efficiency throughout its global network of production facilities and offices. The company ended up saving $650 million in fuel costs--a stunning thirty-two-fold return on investment. "Six companies--IBM, DuPont, British Telecom, Alcan, NorskeCanada and Bayer--have each reduced emissions by at least 60 percent since the early 1990s, collectively saving more than $4 billion in the process," according to Michael Northrop of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Happily, the stimulus package contains $9.4 billion to upgrade the efficiency of government and military buildings. Under the Global Green Deal, the government would extend the same opportunity to businesses and households. Federal loans would underwrite the upgrades, and the resulting savings on energy bills would be used to pay taxpayers back with interest. The deal would also boost the efficiency of vehicles, appliances, and power and water use. For example, the rules governing electric utilities would be revised to reward them for selling less power. California did this in the 1970s. Since then, the state's electricity use has been flat, despite a growing population and economy, while the utilities have enjoyed solid profits.

Bringing other states up to California's efficiency levels would save as much electricity as is produced by 60 percent of the nation's coal-fired power plants, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute. To offset the remaining 40 percent, solar and wind power must continue their recent rapid expansion. Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, notes that Texas, of all places, "has 45,000 megawatts of wind power either on line, under construction or in development, which is about equal to the average amount of electricity generated by forty-five coal plants." That's more than Texas can consume, and it illustrates the importance of developing a national "smart grid" so that wind power produced in one region can be transported to customers elsewhere. The stimulus package invests $11 billion in this vital initiative.

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