State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Green New Deal and a Vision of Environmental Sustainability

It’s true the Chinese government is still exporting coal fired power plants and the Trump Administration is doing its best to ignore climate change, but the widespread and growing attention paid to environmental sustainability is difficult to ignore. This past summer, Andrew Spicer and David Graham Hyatt, business professors at University of South Carolina and University of Arkansas, wrote an insightful account of Walmart’s effort to operate more sustainably. Spicer and Hyatt observed that:

“The company’s efforts to operate more efficiently produced significant environmental value – and helped its bottom line. The efficiency of its fleet of trucks doubled within a decade. Walmart has now converted 28 percent of the energy sources powering its stores and operations globally to renewables. And last year, the company diverted 78 percent of its global waste from landfills, instead finding ways to recycle, reuse or even sell the garbage. Its goal is to eventually get to 50 percent renewables and zero waste in Canada, Japan, the U.K. and U.S. by 2025.”

Spicer and Hyatt found that efforts to convince Walmart’s shoppers to pay more for sustainability seemed to fail, since these shoppers had little leeway in their household budget to pay a “sustainability premium.” They also found that the absence of agreed-to sustainability metrics made it difficult to even know which products were sustainable and which were not. All of this led Walmart to focus their attention on the suppliers of goods they sold and to use their vast purchasing power as the world’s largest retailer to push sustainability through the supply chain. Suppliers were pushed to demonstrate their use of renewable energy, reduction of waste, limited environmental impact and care in sourcing raw materials. Walmart’s power as a consumer altered producer behavior. The supplier-based strategy was effective and as Spicer and Hyatt noted, consumers didn’t “even realize they’re helping make the world a better place”.

Walmart’s push for sustainability began as a vision of its CEO but found advocates throughout the organization, as well as with suppliers and customers. As complicated as the transition to an environmentally sustainable economy will be (a major theme of Spicer’s and Hyatt’s work), public support for the vision of sustainability is wide and deep. Sometimes we can’t afford the price of sustainable products, and sometimes we don’t know how to reduce the environmental impact of our production and consumption, but nearly everyone wants to.

And that is a theme worth exploring today. Most people know that the planet is under environmental stress, and most people support efforts to reduce human-induced environmental damage. I have been working on environmental policy since 1975 and while support for protecting the environment has always been strong, it is deeper today than ever. What is always most gratifying is the near unanimity of support among young people. When I look at projections about the year 2050, I figure that will not be a problem I’ll live to see, but for someone 25 years old, that is a future they will experience first-hand. For my not yet two-year-old granddaughter, 2050 is only a few years after she’ll be old enough to run for the U.S. Senate (although I suppose she could run for Governor first on her way to the White House). The zero carbon goals set by California are only a few decades from today. The goal of the newly-proposed Green New Deal is decarbonization by 2030.

The vision of a sustainable environment is widely shared. What we don’t share is a common view of how to get from here to there. For some it seems to mean sacrificing comforts, favorite foods, mobility and many elements of our modern lifestyle. My vision of a sustainable future is very different. It is not a future of grim sacrifice, but of changes in production and consumption that allow us to lead more exciting and interesting lives than we live today. It is also a future that sees the benefits of development, as set in the Sustainable Development Goals, enjoyed throughout the world.

Technology coupled with government regulation will enable us to base our economic life on renewable resources and recycled goods that with careful management and advanced pollution control technologies will enable consumption that does not poison our air, water and land. Patterns of consumption will change. More material goods will be shared. Our food waste will be recovered as fuel and fertilizer. The current trends of more communication and more information at lower prices will facilitate both distant and in-person contact and relationships. We will spend more time interacting with people, culture, entertainment and ideas, and less time making, buying, using and discarding stuff.

The seeds of this more sustainable economy are now being planted, and while many will not survive, many will. We will own what we want to own, but will be relying on sharing services for many forms of consumption that now require ownership. Auto manufacturers are already designing business models that are built on sharing rather than ownership. We are already seeing more and more of the material economy replaced by a software and application-based economy. You will continue to buy and use smartphones, but in between longer hardware replacements we will see many more software upgrades.

While I believe the transition to a renewable resource-based economy has begun, the pace of change could be accelerated by determined government action. Newly-elected and soon-to-be Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has proposed a Green New Deal with the goal of putting Americans to work modernizing our electric grid, enhancing energy efficiency, and transitioning off of fossil fuels by 2030. She is proposing that the House of Representatives establish a new select committee to develop the plan’s details and has proposed that the Green New Deal set the following goals:

  1. “100% of national power generation from renewable sources;
  2. building a national, energy-efficient, “smart” grid;
  3. upgrading every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety;
  4. decarbonizing the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries;
  5. decarbonizing, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure;
  6. funding massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases;
  7. making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries transition to completely carbon neutral economies and bringing about a global Green New Deal.”

It is true that the current Congress will never enact a Green New Deal and even if they did, the current president would never sign it. The proposal and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez will soon feel the full force of the right wing attack machine. She is already feeling those broadsides but has proven to be quite good at resisting them. The proposal will be attacked as expensive and infeasible, but the key point is that the Green New Deal is now on the institutional agenda. Congress will need to address these ideas. Moreover, the level of public support for a Green New Deal will be high. Young people who feel economically insecure and are worried about the fate of the planet will gravitate toward these ideas.  Greg Carlock and his colleagues at Data for Progress provide some evidence of support for a Green New Deal in their September 2018 report on the proposal.  I am certain that there will be additional evidence of support as the issue receives more attention. What is key is the framing of the issue and the ability of Ocasio-Cortez and her allies to influence public perception of the proposal.

A nation long starved for infrastructure investment and without any national mission other than generating individual wealth may well come to support the “moon-shot” style goal of a green economy. Walmart’s determined effort to promote sustainability shows both the promise and the peril of relying exclusively on the private sector to accomplish the green transition. The only way a green economy will be developed quickly is with public-private partnerships. We will be hearing a lot more about the Green New Deal in the next several years. It might even be an issue in the 2020 Presidential election. The base of support for the plan is out there, as is the base of support to oppose and delegitimize it. My granddaughter’s future depends on some version of a Green New Deal. The alternative is the grim and gray same old deal that will literally put us underwater.

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