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A Green New Deal could turn cities into clean energy leaders

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The sweeping policy proposal might be the answer for cities seeking infrastructure funding

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In the wake of a series of dispiriting climate reports, the debate on climate change—and climate action—has new urgency. Nowhere is that more evident than in the excited discussions around the Green New Deal, an emerging plan to reorient the economy along sustainability.

Purposefully recalling Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era package of infrastructure investments and legislative changes, the Green New Deal would usher in significant investment around renewable power and new, resilient infrastructure, such as a smart electricity grid.

While details for the nascent proposal are far from being finalized, the general idea is mobilizing the country away from fossil fuels and creating tens of thousands of new jobs. The Green New Deal wouldn’t just decarbonize the economy and end the burning of fossil fuels, according to leading advocates such as freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has released a set of policy goals for the plan, but would create a more fair economy in a matter of decades.

While the chances of passing this plan through a Republican senate, and getting President Trump’s signature, seem slim at best, the excitement over the proposal has quickly resurrected policy debates around rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. Vox’s David Roberts has said it has been surprising to see how quickly the idea has grabbed the public’s attention.

As Democrats begin to hammer out the details of this far-reaching proposal, it has the potential of becoming a policy framework and key progressive message leading into the 2020 election. It could also be an opportunity to deliver on the infrastructure wish lists of cities across the country.

New York youth, leaders representing hundreds of community, social justice, environmental and climate organizations protest in from of Senator Chuck Schumer’s office in December 2018.
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Is it still infrastructure week?

In some ways, the excitement surrounding the Green New Deal recalls some of the frenzy that greeted President Trump’s earliest days in office. The self-styled real estate mogul talked big about rebuilding the country on the campaign trail, even making a few vague promises to create a $1.5 trillion bipartisan plan, before repeated failed attempts at “Infrastructure Week” turned the phrase into a punchline.

Trump’s repeated sales pitches have had such a long shelf due to the dire need for infrastructure investment in the United States. The most recent Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave grades of Ds and Fs to the country’s roads, bridges, rails, pipes, ports, and power plants.

Transportation has been a particularly sore spot for cities. The federal gas tax hasn’t been raised for decades, decreasing the purchasing power of state transportation agencies. Meanwhile, federal spending on transit has declined—especially during the Trump administration. Entering on an anti-transit, pro-car platform, the Trump administration has rebranded the Obama-era TIGER grants, which often supported transit and pedestrian-friendly projects, calling them BUILD grants, and directing the funds towards roads and rural initiatives.

In response, cities have had to take transportation into their own hands; an analysis by the Eno Transportation Center found that voters in 34 states approved over $40 billion for transportation projects.

Green infrastructure solves multiple problems at once

A proposed Green New Deal is exciting for cities because the multifaceted program can answer their multifaceted need. Urban areas create an outsized amount of carbon emissions, but due to density, they can be leaders in energy efficiency and renewable power—if the right investments are made.

Delivering Urban Resilience, a study of three different U.S. cities released last year, made the case that green infrastructure can save U.S. cities billions. An additional analysis by C40, a coalition of international cities dedicated to climate change, suggests a suite of green infrastructure investments can both benefit public health and the economy. These reports are far from theoretical: An earlier C40 analysis showed that 27 cities around the globe have already seen their emission peak, suggesting it is possible to combine growth and emissions reductions.

“There is no longer any trade-off for cities between delivering policies that benefit the environment, drive economic growth, and improve the health of citizens,” C40 executive director Mark Watts said in a statement.

The costs of a Green New Deal, if done anywhere near the scale being suggested by its vocal advocates, would require significant upfront investment. But these could be down payments on a more energy-efficient future and a better transportation system.

A Green New Deal would likely include plans to invest heavily in transportation, including increased public transit as well as creating more electric vehicle infrastructure. Such a sweeping proposal would also likely include investments in a smarter grid—the backbone necessary to increase renewable power use—as well as energy retrofits to buildings, a much-needed initiative to cut down on urban power consumption. Heating, cooling, and illuminating buildings account for 40 percent of annual U.S. carbon emissions.

The Green New Deal could also turn around the nation’s legacy transit systems, which are experiencing declining ridership and maintenance backlogs. Meanwhile, the policy could expand transit to suburbs or add new rail lines to cities without existing systems.

A renewed focus on greener, more resilient infrastructure also means more focus on coastal infrastructure. Cities face significant threats from rising sea levels and the increasing frequency of storms and billion-dollar natural disasters. Investments in new coastal barriers, habitat restoration, and regional engineering projects can strengthen and fortify coasts while providing new jobs.

The Green New Deal, according to proponents, seeks nothing less then reshaping the nation’s economy, a moonshot for the new century. Protecting and fortifying our great cities seems like a great addition to the plan.