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AOC’s Green New Deal Is Just the Start. Next Let’s Make It Global.

The U.S. needs to play a chief role in spurring a global Green New Deal alongside a domestic one.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez speaks about the Green New Deal at a town hall organized by the Sunrise Movement, May 13, 2019.

The resolution for a Green New Deal (GND) made a splash in Washington earlier this year. It was an ecological moonshot—calling for a wholesale decarbonization of the economy by 2030 and total transformation of the U.S. energy grid. But the resolution also attests to a greater ambition: bringing the U.S. back to the frontlines of a global struggle against climate crisis. And now it is becoming the opening salvo in an international campaign for climate justice.

A decade before the GND resolution was proposed by Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) in Congress, the United Nations Environmental Programme issued a plan for a Global Green New Deal based on similar principles—ending dependency on fossil fuels, creating a green workforce and reducing poverty. Like the U.S. GND, the global version did not detail how it would be financed. U.S. lawmakers are reviving the GND concept in Washington, with a hugely ambitious goal of zeroing out emissions by 2030 nationwide. It’s increasingly clear from the size, scope and urgency of the climate threat worldwide that the U.S. needs to play a chief role in spurring a global GND alongside a domestic one.

The People’s Policy Project (PPP) has mapped out a financial plan for a global Green New Deal, which centers the U.S. as a primary financial supporter of the energy transition and decarbonization process in poorer countries. The premise is that the U.S. carries a huge global ethical and economic responsibility to the current worldwide carbon crisis — not just because the U.S. is one of the largest emitters, but also because the poorest countries are extremely geographically and economically vulnerable to the extreme weather and mass displacement that climate change is rapidly intensifying.

Nonetheless, since the national GND resolution — which is focused almost completely on domestic goals for decarbonization and job creation — faces fierce criticism within the U.S., is it realistic to latch it onto a much wider agenda to deal with climate crisis around the world? In a follow-up exchange with Truthout, Jacob Fawcett, co-author of the PPP report, argued that the political challenge of financing a GND on a global scale “mostly comes down to whether we’re willing to take climate change seriously or not.”

For the global Green New Deal to work, the U.S. would have to work on two parallel tracks: dramatically cutting emissions domestically while fostering similar efforts in poorer countries.

The Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst recommends generally that all countries, particularly large and affluent ones like the U.S., “should invest about 1.5 percent of GDP per year in energy efficiency and clean renewable investments.” However, for poorer nations, according to the institute’s co-director Robert Pollin, “It’s the obligation of the rich countries to finance the poor countries.” This could ultimately be accomplished through forms of debt monetization, Pollin told Truthout, such as a “green bond” issued by the U.S. or European Union, or investing in an international institution such as the African Development Bank.

PPP’s analysis focuses on the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund (GCF), an international financial organ created in 2010 through the U.N. climate talks. Researchers estimate that supporting a Green New Deal program in developing nations should involve an annual funding commitment of about $680 billion. That figure is based on a global estimate by the U.K.-based Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy for the cost of keeping the global economy within the carbon threshold of 450 parts per million (ppm), which would maintain the global temperature increase within 1.5 degrees Celsius. With a total projected cost of $2 trillion, the U.S. “share” would be about 34 percent, proportionate to its share of global GDP. To finance the fund, the U.S. could sell treasury bonds, providing a steady stream of yearly funding, or alternately, establish a mandatory federal funding stream through annual congressional spending.

The commitment to the GCF does not preempt other forms of investment—for example, direct foreign aid donations or private-sector commercial trade. However, as an international body focused on development and climate, the GCF distributes funds through an independent decision-making body that is relatively democratic and transparent, governed by a board with representatives from different regions, with equal weight given to richer and poorer countries. According to Fawcett, “A big advantage that the GCF has is that it gives everyone in the world a seat at the table—rather than just letting private interests or the United States dictate how it will be spent.”

Still, the GCF is hardly a perfect instrument: It remains utterly dependent on wealthy donor countries, which don’t always cooperate (the Trump administration has reportedly actively obstructed its work), and it has been slow to roll out its funding allocations. Still, Fawcett stressed, “This is not our money to dictate spending terms on—it’s money that we owe the international community, to fix a problem that we largely created through our own historical CO2 emissions.”

For both the U.S. and the poor and middle-income economies that would be the beneficiaries of this investment, a green industrial policy would prioritize research and development of new green technologies; subsidizing the expansion of wind, solar and other sources; and boosting energy efficiency. And it would build on years of progress in government-led stimulus of green energy development. One common strategy is for national governments to directly promote the large-scale deployment of renewables as an industrial consumer: using solar and wind generation for government buildings and mass transit, for example. Regional energy agencies could also steer consumer markets through “feed-in tariffs,” which establish long-term contracts with utilities for purchasing renewable energy from local solar or wind farms. The Political Economy Research Institute also points out that a GND focused on healing the most vulnerable communities could promote alternative ownership models, such as electricity cooperatives based on decentralized energy generation, which will enable communities to thwart fossil fuel monopolies and “leapfrog over grid-based systems entirely.” And by skipping over to the most advanced technology for, say, a rural off-grid solar farm, poorer, less industrialized communities not only get more value for their money, but they also avoid the carbon emissions and pollution that larger economies churned out in the past.

In many ways, some poorer economies are already especially well-positioned to harness the GND as a long-term development agenda. Renewable investment is rising steadily in developing and emerging economies. China is still generating the lion’s share of green energy investment—nearly a third of the global total of $332 billion in 2018—while other fledgling photo-voltaic markets in India, Malaysia, South Africa and Kenya are mushrooming across the global south.

But beyond subsidizing the development and consumption of renewables, the hard part is actively discouraging the use of dirty energy sources, which will require some form of comprehensive carbon taxation. Likewise, governments would need to aggressively phase out the fossil fuel subsidies that keep gas cheap around the world. These measures could free up a huge stash of revenue to invest in decarbonization; the funds could go toward expanding solar and wind generation capacity, research and development of clean energy technology, or supporting displaced workers with training and income subsidies. In the U.S. alone, economic professor Edward B. Barbier points out in a recent analysis that government subsidies for fossil fuel consumption and coal production suck about $9 billion a year from public coffers. At the same time, pricing carbon at $40 a ton—in the upper range of the typical rate that is charged in countries where carbon taxes exist—could raise about $76 billion per year while reducing carbon emissions by 17.5 billion metric tons by 2030.

But cutting subsidies would doubtless trigger political resistance — both from consumers who want cheap fuel, and from the fossil-fuel lobby that has long enjoyed inflated profits. This makes it even more vital for the U.S. to buffer against such disruption by funding the transition in less resilient economies and protecting workers from the impacts of job loss or price spikes.

A parallel challenge for a global Green New Deal will be ensuring not only that the funding for projects is directed to poorer countries, but also that those projects respect the ecological sovereignty and self-determination of the most impacted communities. Pursuing a human-rights-based global GND raises the question of “climate colonialism.”

According to Georgetown philosophy professor Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, the rush for “green development| could spawn a new kind of “resource curse” if Western governments and multinationals flock to the global South to, for instance, launch massive corporate solar farms or grab land for carbon-offset projects designed to “compensate” for pollution generated elsewhere. “Green New Deal policies,” he argued in an op-ed, could empower communities on both sides of U.S. borders. Or they could promote climate colonialism through “the deepening or expansion of foreign domination through climate initiatives.”

Climate justice advocates say “green growth” must involve democratizing the global green economy, community control of climate mitigation projects, and technology transfers that respect the land rights and social needs of frontline communities.

Whatever the initial price tag, champions of the global GND say three things are certain: that it can be financed through making the tax code fairer; that the U.S. must support a parallel green transition in poorer countries; and that, in sheer cost-benefit terms, the benefits of avoiding total climate catastrophe go far beyond protecting the environment—they could form the germ of a more equitable social system. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that expanding renewables to about two-thirds of total energy supply would have a net positive impact on employment in 2050 in every region, compared to the business-as-usual case, along with significant improvements in social welfare measures, driven by improvements in public health.

Despite the clear rewards of green investment, a massive economic transition program like the GND could unravel without strong international cooperation. Affluent countries have over the years launched ambitious “green growth” plans or carbon tax schemes, but their efforts have fallen short of their targets because they lacked sufficient funding or failed to implement structural reforms to overhaul their energy systems.

Launching a global GND that pursues social equity and decarbonization in tandem hinges on the central concept of climate justice: Social protection and environmental protection are intertwined. Those two priorities are fused in one notable long-term outcome of a green transition: It pays for itself. Noting that energy costs decline as markets expand to a critical mass, Pollin says, “The financing should be constructed in a way that recognizes the long-term cost savings, which means over time, it doesn’t cost anything.” The benefits are even clearer when compared to rising cost of fossil fuels, because we getting to the point at which it’s “more expensive to extract,” he added. In the long-term, it will cost much less to transform the energy system than to do nothing.

But a global Green New Deal will require a big upfront investment before it starts paying for itself. The U.S. now has a responsibility to deal with the global carbon burden by supporting the communities most at risk from the harms of fossil fuels. And it can start by making a Green New Deal with the rest of the world.

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