The Green New Deal’s 10-year timeframe is unrealistic even if a lot can happen in a few decades

The Green New Deal Democratic lawmakers recently proposed would confront climate change by eliminating America’s net carbon emissions within a decade. If enacted, it would transform America’s energy industries and slash pollution, improving public health.

This proposal is a non-binding resolution, not an actual bill, and many of the proposed measures are long shots as long as the Republican Party holds a majority in the Senate and the Trump administration remains committed to its fossil fuel-supporting energy dominance policies.

Having studied the electric power sector and energy policy for more than 20 years, I think that some of the changes in the Green New Deal could actually happen within a decade – as long as all three branches of the federal government were on board.

But even if the most progressive Democrats were calling all the shots, the idea that the U.S. could accomplish this ambitious overarching goal within a decade strikes me as a stretch. California, which is committed to making all of its electricity carbon-free, aims to get that done by 2045, rather than 2030.

Even if completely revamping the nation’s power grid within a decade proved feasible, the Green New Deal also targets emissions from sectors such as transportation and agriculture. And reducing their carbon footprints has proven much harder around the world.

Change can be fast

Politically, the Green New Deal certainly seems like a non-starter even if the environmental and economic benefits would likely outweigh many of the costs. But are the ideas in the Green New Deal – especially those that would require radical changes, such as reinventing how the U.S. generates and consumes energy within a decade – truly outlandish?

Nuclear power plants are all over France. World Nuclear Association, CC BY-SA
While no nation has ever achieved anything quite as dramatic in so short a time, countries can rapidly change how they get their energy, without destroying their economies or compromising energy security. There are several good examples, especially in Europe.

Perhaps France’s swift adoption of nuclear power is the best one. Nuclear reactors generated only 10 percent of France’s electricity in the mid-1970s, a share that rose to 70 percent within 10 years and has remained at about that level ever since.

More recently, countries such as Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Portugal have made strides toward shrinking their carbon footprints within a decade by ramping up the power they get from renewable energy, primarily onshore wind energy.

Denmark now gets 42 percent of its electricity from wind, while Portugal and Ireland both derive around 20 percent of their power from that renewable energy source.

Likewise, Brazil managed to boost the share of ethanol produced from sugarcane in the fuel it used to run cars and trucks from virtually nothing to about 50 percent within a decade following the adoption of targeted policies in 1975.

Change can also be slow

A common thread running through many of these success stories is a limited number of players. France’s nuclear embrace largely involved its big state-run utility company, Électricité de France. Having a single big state-run oil and gas company, Petróleo Brasileiro, or Petrobras, made it easier for Brazil’s government to bring about such a quick shift with ethanol.

When there are multitudes of companies and decision-makers, as is the case in the United States, these transitions tend to be harder and take longer.