Do We Really Need a Green New Deal?

In my role as director of energy access and equity for Fresh Energy—a St. Paul, Minnesota, energy policy nonprofit working to speed the transition to a clean energy economy—the question I’ve been hearing a lot lately is: Do we really need a Green New Deal?

The specifics, of course, are still in the works, but in general the Green New Deal aims for a 100-percent clean-energy standard; affordable, quality healthcare; clean air and water; housing; jobs; and so on. The Sierra Club describes it as a big, bold transformation of the economy to tackle the twin crises of inequality and climate change. The Sunrise Movement describes it as a 100-percent clean-energy standard by the year 2030, investment in communities on the frontlines of poverty and pollution, and the guarantee of a quality job.

Since the Green New Deal was introduced at the federal level, through resolutions by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) on March 25, 2019, we’ve seen multiple state-based iterations, including right here in Minnesota. But going back to that question I’ve been hearing, does Minnesota really need a Green New Deal to make the ambitious changes we need right now? I’m actually going to say no.

Those of you who support the idea of a Green New Deal might be thinking, wow, this guy doesn’t like a policy that would invest in clean energy, marginalized communities, and well-paying American jobs. What does he possibly know? Maybe the better question is: What do we know?

Looking at data from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we know that all five of the hottest years on record have occurred within the last five years, and the ten warmest years on record globally have occurred within the last two decades or so. We know that human activities are already contributing to climate change (confirmed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report issued last year) and that climate change is already hurting our most vulnerable communities and populations. Those climate-related risks impact health, food security, drinkable water supply, and economic growth.

The executive director of the International Energy Agency has said that energy production and use are the most important source of air pollution coming from human activity. A separate federal report last year found that climate change is already hurting US communities, as wildfires, flooding, and the magnitude of hurricanes have all increased.

So, we know that human activity, perhaps most importantly energy production and use, is causing climate change and that negative health impacts are being felt most among under-resourced communities and communities of color.

Data from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency shows that communities of color and under-resourced communities in Minnesota face increased risk of exposure to air pollution compared to more affluent communities and white households. We know that these discrepancies are also seen statewide, from the Twin Cities metro area to the sovereign First Nations lands in Minnesota. As the MPCA notes, areas of concern for environmental justice are found all across the state; this isn’t an urban issue or a rural issue.

We know that under-resourced households spend a greater proportion of their household income toward energy costs compared to the average household. In my line of work we often use the phrase “energy burden” to describe the energy cost as a proportion of household income. Taking Minneapolis as an example, under-resourced households spend up to three times more of their income toward energy compared to the average household.

We also know that energy burden tends to be higher for renters compared to homeowners. A study by the Energy Efficiency for All project and the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy compared the energy burden between homeowners and renters and showed that, on average, in the forty-eight metro areas studied, homeowners had an average energy burden of about 3.3 percent compared to an energy burden for renters of 4 percent. Now, that discrepancy might not seem significant. But homeowners have the ability to make energy efficiency investments in their homes and are able to make decisions about their energy usage more directly, so the potential to reduce energy burden is much greater. Renters aren’t able to invest in energy efficiency as easily.

We also know that solar energy is booming but that under-resourced households around the country disproportionately face barriers to go solar, including lack of upfront capital to pay for the cost of solar, or lack of access to financing. In the case of rooftop solar projects, an insufficient roof or lack of homeownership can be a barrier.

We also know that in Minnesota, clean energy and the clean energy economy is increasingly a major employer, with over 61,000 jobs in the clean energy sector in our state as of last year. But these jobs often require specialized training or education, which is often more difficult for under-resourced households and communities of color to access.

We can and must make sure that all voices are at the table; that solutions are created and driven by (or at a minimum in partnership with) the communities who will be most affected by climate change.

In a nutshell, we know a lot. And everything I’ve been citing is what the Green New Deal intends to address: clean energy, inequities, jobs, etc. You might have guessed by now that I actually think it’s crystal clear: we do need a Green New Deal to respond to the scale and urgency of the problems that face us. From climate change, to growing income inequality, to racial and social justice issues, young people in our state and across the country are calling for government policy because their future is on the line—a future we hope will continue for generations to come. But until such a policy exists, and I would argue even once it passes, I believe it’s incumbent on all of us to at least reflect its values.

We can and we must create ambitious and equitable energy and climate policy at all levels—from city policies, to regional planning, to state law. Here’s what’s great: we absolutely can start today to make sure that everyone benefits.

In Minnesota there is a powerful movement toward inclusive equitable energy policy that benefits all. It’s called the 100 Percent Minnesota Campaign. In fact, just recently I read an article at the climate site Grist reporting that one in five people in the US now live in a place that’s committed to 100-percent clean energy. That’s incredible. That movement is already happening before the Green New Deal is a reality.

What are the steps to take to reach 100-percent clean energy? For one, we can push toward a public transportation system that doesn’t worsen air pollution in our communities. Fresh Energy is proud to be part of a coalition that includes environmental justice advocates and community groups that successfully advocated for Metro Transit to develop a plan to electrify its bus fleet. In fact, the C-Line is starting up in Minneapolis and will feature Metro Transit’s first-ever electric buses with more to be phased in across the fleet over the next couple of years. It’s also important to make sure that everyone has access to purchase an electric vehicle, not just those who can afford to be early adapters. Part of this effort involves exploring public-private partnerships such as the upcoming agreement between Xcel Energy, Hour Car, and the City of Saint Paul, which would include an electric vehicle ridesharing program and public vehicle charging stations around the city.

We can also work to make sure that utility energy efficiency programs are reaching people in rental housing and that they adequately and sufficiently serve under-resourced communities and communities of color. Earlier this year the City of Minneapolis passed two energy disclosure policies that apply to potential home buyers and renters requiring that those folks have more access to energy usage information about the home or unit for which they are about to sign a mortgage or lease. This is significant for both potential homebuyers and renters, but is especially important for renters who historically haven’t had that level of decision-making power. Now Minneapolis renters are able to better understand the true cost of renting a unit before they agree to do so.

The intent behind this policy is to drive more investment in energy efficiency and ensure that houses and rental units throughout Minneapolis are energy efficient and therefore more affordable. On a more global scale, energy efficiency means less demand on the grid, which means lower air pollution from sources like coal-fired power plants.

It’s important to note that energy efficiency investments aren’t completely free in most cases. It’s important to ensure going forward that, especially in the case of rental units, any costs associated with energy efficiency improvements aren’t somehow passed on to renters or to under-resourced households that are most sensitive to those costs.

We can work to make sure that solar energy is accessible for everyone, not just the few individuals and larger businesses that can afford the significant upfront cost or have the ability to leverage incentives like rebates and tax credits. We at Fresh Energy were proud to help secure Xcel Energy’s first-ever income-eligible solar incentives within its Solar*Rewards rooftop solar incentive program. That helps bring down the upfront cost of solar for those customers and provides bill credits on an ongoing basis.

Last but certainly not least—and I can’t emphasize this point enough—we can and must make sure that all voices are at the table; that solutions are created and driven by (or at a minimum in partnership with) the communities who will be most affected by climate change. We also have to be mindful that there are so many individuals and organizations that have been working on environmental justice and related issues for years, for decades, and that they need resources in order to continue that work.

This year Fresh Energy formalized its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, adding this section to its mission:

We cannot and should not do this work alone. We are committed to developing climate and energy solutions by collaborating with impacted communities and populations, supporting civic leadership, engaging authentically, and importantly building partnerships rather than pursuing transactional or extractive interactions.

It took a lot of intentional effort for our organization to finalize this statement, but it’s important—and it’s fundamental to how we carry out our work going forward.

Too often throughout history, during times of massive and transformational change, marginalized communities have been left out and left behind. Shared power, collective input, economic development and job creation, aggressive climate change mitigation strategies, and equitable and inclusive benefits are the pillars of a Green New Deal. Such a Green New Deal is a much needed policy vehicle that we unquestionably should be striving toward, but I would argue that all of these things are also critical metrics for us to judge the success of our current policies. Developing ambitious climate and energy policy that’s inclusive and equitable is absolutely something we can do today.

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