What would the Green New Deal look like in the Valley? We asked economists and activists 

  • This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., addresses The Road to the Green New Deal Tour final event at Howard University in Washington, May 13.   AP FILE PHOTO

  • Steve Kelly, an employee of Corps Logistics, checks and resets bikes in the ValleyBike program in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/19/2019 3:18:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Solar panels on every roof. Electric buses, cars and bikes zipping around town. A new industry of employees working on everything from retrofitting old buildings to installing green technology in homes and businesses.

This is the vision of the Green New Deal, a 14-page resolution submitted to Congress by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, and Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey in late 2018. The proposal plans to leverage training and funds for a 10-year national mobilization effort focused on accomplishing its goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Since the resolution was first submitted, the country has debated its core tenets. The resolution references President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, which lifted the country’s floundering economy out of the Great Depression and laid the foundation for the nation’s middle class.

Today, according to the Pew Research Center, “the widening income gap between upper-income households and middle- and lower-income households this century is the continuation of a decades-long trend.”

Meanwhile, global temperatures continue to climb. The Green New Deal attempts to tackle both issues at once — with a stated goal to create a more equitable and economically prosperous green society by investing in environmentally sustainable infrastructure.

“It is really about transforming our energy infrastructure,” said Robert Pollin, professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “That’s the primary focus of it — transforming from a fossil fuel-dominant infrastructure to one that is focused on clean energy sources.”

But some experts say the proposal, in its current state, is simply a list of goals and guidelines without much detailed policy underneath. Though the goals are important, potential impacts of the Green New Deal are hard to pinpoint with certainty, said Susan Stratton Sayre, an associate professor of economics at Smith College.

The legislation is abstract for a reason, she said, since a complete redirection of the country’s economic activity would take years of policy debate and drastic institutional change.

“It all depends on how you get the 14 pages of ideals to concrete policies,” Sayre said.

Jobs

If enacted, the Green New Deal could create a considerable amount of new jobs in the U.S., including in the Valley. A large portion of these jobs might be in construction, Pollin said, as many of the buildings in the region are older and could benefit from sustainable retrofitting.

“It’s actually the cheapest way to reduce emissions,” Pollin said. As possible examples of retrofitting, he mentioned improving insulation and changing lighting infrastructure to more energy-efficient LED bulbs.

Pollin said initiatives by public universities, such as UMass, to create net-zero buildings have influenced other efforts around the state. The town of Amherst already has committed to a zero-energy bylaw that requires new municipal buildings to produce energy equal to what they use.

“That should spill easily into other public buildings and then the private sector,” Pollin said.

Incentives under the Green New Deal would give people a reason to put solar panels on their homes and businesses, he added, and jobs would be created in installation, distribution and office work in the industry.

“With more people doing energy, they’re spending more money, which in turn creates more jobs,” Pollin said.

Deb Pasternak is the chapter director for the Massachusetts Sierra Club, a nonprofit political advocacy group focused on the environment and climate change, and she said the Green New Deal would have a significant impact not only on the solar industry but also on the battery industry.

“Electrification of our economy is going to create a lot of local jobs,” she said.

Currently, energy for the New England power grid is largely sourced from gas power plants, which generate about half of the grid’s total electricity. With more investment in battery technology, a consumer could save excess energy created by their panels for later use or even sell unused energy back to the grid for profit.

“The way the grid is set up is that there is a lot of waste and extra generation,” Pasternak said. “The idea is that more energy will be immediately created and immediately received.”

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, pointed to existing workforce training in these budding sustainable industries, such as Greenfield Community College’s workforce development programs.

“We have the infrastructure to train our workforce and create new pathways forward here in western Massachusetts,” Comerford said.

Transportation

The building sector is one of the largest polluters in the U.S. due to non-sustainable energy sources, but the transportation industry has also added greenhouse gases to the atmophere. Comerford has been a proponent in the Legislature for high-speed rail, specifically the upcoming Route 2 corridor rail study.

“The opportunity is for a transformative shift to bringing technology, which equals green jobs, across all of these sectors,” she said.

In addition to increased electrification of rail like the new Valley Flyer service, Pasternak said there is much to be done in order to make cities and towns more walkable and bike-friendly.

She added that bus systems could be improved and expanded upon through federal investment, as there are many areas around the region that suffer from infrequent or nonexistent bus service from the PVTA.

“It’s bringing fair and equitable transportation to western Massachusetts,” Pasternak said.

Sustainable farming

A future under the Green New Deal may herald changes to agriculture — potentially making an impact in the Valley’s farming industry.

Farmers in the area already are becoming more environmentally cautious regarding their agricultural practices, Pollin said. Many have begun using techniques such as silvopasture, a form of regenerative farming that sequesters carbon in the atmosphere for plant growth.

“We need to operate farming systems across the country without a heavy dependence on fossil fuels,” Pollin said.

Comerford has authored legislation on Beacon Hill that would encourage and expand training for farmers looking to use the method, and that training could only improve under the Green New Deal, she said.

“That would give farmers the tools and opportunities to grow food in ways that both increase their yield and (are) better for the climate,” Comerford said.

Environmental justice

The effects of climate change impact every human on the planet. But some historically marginalized communities around the world will feel the brunt of a changing Earth more than others, Pollin said: “We should have a climate program that addresses inequality as part of the climate solution.”

A 2019 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America showed that global economic inequality between poorer, hotter countries and wealthier, cooler ones had increased by 25 percent due to the effects of global warming on annual economic growth.

For Hampshire County alone, the American Lung Association, in its 2019 “State of the Air” report, calculated 14,206 people living in poverty who are designated “at-risk” for poor air quality, which can cause lung damage and asthma.

The Green New Deal would increase opportunities for people in many marginalized communities to get jobs in new sustainable industries and pull themselves out of poverty, Pasternak said.

“The architects of the Green New Deal see that historically marginalized communities are the ones that benefit first from this transition​,” she said.

And since many of these initiatives will see public funding, certain labor standards could be set that expand opportunities for those who were previously disenfranchised, Pollin said.

“We want to be able to create those opportunities so other people can get in,” he said.

Erin Baker is the associate dean of the college of engineering at UMass, said the Green New Deal would likely impact public research universities with more funding for sustainable energy technology.

But not everyone can own solar storage batteries if they’re too expensive, or invest in solar panels if they don’t own a home, she said.

“It’s about looking at the energy transition as an opportunity to move toward a more just and equitable world,” Baker said.

James Boyce, a professor of economics at UMass, said that for the U.S. to meet lower carbon emission goals by 2050, there needs to be a hard limit on the amount of fossil fuel emissions companies can produce.

Boyce explained the concept of greenhouse gas carbon pricing, when a price is affixed to fossil fuel emissions and companies pay for the right to emit them — essentially a permit. The problem with this method, he said, is that the company often passes on the increase in cost to the consumer — at the gas pump, for example.

Boyce said a “carbon dividend” would instead take that money from the permits and redistribute it quarterly among the population. The amount of money a person receives would be dependent on their carbon footprint, he said. The lighter a person’s carbon footprint, the more money they would make.

“For the majority of households, and the vast majority of low-income households, a carbon dividend system would keep them whole,” Boyce said. “Their net incomes would go up as a result of this policy. They’d be winners.”

“I see carbon dividends as something completely compatible with the Green New Deal,” he continued. “It’s a way to achieve the climate objective and to address the inequality in our country between those with outsized carbon footprints and everybody else.”

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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