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Democrats publish Green New Deal, setting up policy clash

Wildly ambitious plan spotlights the growing intensity of support for renewables across much of the American electorate

Freshman US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal was published on Thursday, calling for a “massive mobilization of all our resources into renewable energies” – while teeing up bruising political battles over energy and climate change in the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, including within the Democratic party.

The hotly anticipated Green New Deal is a non-binding resolution, meaning that it would not create any new programmes even if it were passed. And its passage seems a political non-starter anyway, given the divided government.

Yet it will nevertheless light a fire under the US energy debate, giving climate and renewable-energy hawks an opening to explain the economic benefits of a rapid shift towards renewables, while shining what could be an uncomfortable light on foot-dragging politicians in either party.

Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic and sworn into office just last month as the youngest congresswoman in US history, has become a political sensation on the progressive left, and her support for ideas in the Green New Deal has given them political momentum and mountains of press coverage.

The resolution was co-sponsored in the Senate by Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts and a long-time supporter of renewables and climate action.

Among its other elements, the Green New Deal calls for a complete decarbonisation of the American economy by 2030, including the power sector. Fossil fuels account for nearly two-thirds of electricity today, with renewables including hydropower still below 20% of the mix.

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While some sectors like aviation might still be emitting carbon beyond 2030, they would be offset by negative emissions elsewhere. (See the full plan here, courtesy of NPR.)

The plan also calls for massive transformations across agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, and the country’s existing building stock.

Ocasio-Cortez has been frank about the moonshot-like ambition of the Green New Deal, comparing it to the country’s economic and cultural mobilization for World War 2.

While the 14-page plan remains sketchy on many critical details, its unbridled support for – and belief in – renewable energy will have hearts racing across the wind and solar industries.

The Green New Deal already has the backing of a number of Democratic candidates for president in 2020 – including Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand.

The final version attempts to walk a line between pleasing environmental activists who would like to pull the plug immediately on fossil-fuels and nuclear energy, and protecting moderate Democrats who are leery of such positions, however sincere their support aggressive climate action.

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In an apparent concession to moderates, the plan does not call for an outright ban on new fossil-fuel infrastructure, nor for a carbon cap-and-trade system, but rather suggests that the build-out of renewables will make the oil & gas industry “obsolete”.

The plan acknowledges that some nuclear plants may still be in operation beyond 2030, but it shuts the door on any new plants being built.

In an explanatory blog post sure to raise eyebrows in some quarters, Ocasio-Cortez says the Green New Deal will mean that communities currently reliant on the fossil-fuel industries for their livelihood will have “a better alternative for high-wage work” as the country shifts to renewables.

The plan does not specifically address how it would be paid for, although it acknowledges that federal spending would be required – likely enormous amounts of it.

“The question isn’t how we pay for it, but what is the cost of inaction, and what will we do with our new shared prosperity created by the investments in the Green New Deal,” the blog post says.

In a sign of the scepticism the Green New Deal will face even in friendly quarters, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi this week called Ocasio-Cortez’s “green dream”... “one of several or maybe many suggestions” the party will look at as it shapes its approach to climate change.

With federal subsidies for wind and solar set to phase down and expire over the next few years, many in the renewables industry see a potential infrastructure bill as the biggest opportunity for a big policy win before the next presidential election.

There’s been little substantive bipartisan movement on an infrastructure package thus far, however, with deep partisan divides over how to structure and pay for it.

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