Photograph by Qilai Shen, Bloomberg/Getty Images
Read Caption

Shenzen, China, transformed its entire fleet of buses to electric over just five years, resulting in a significant improvement in air quality.

Photograph by Qilai Shen, Bloomberg/Getty Images

What can a Green New Deal learn from other countries?

From net-zero carbon emissions to transportation fixes, some ideas in the Green New Deal have been tested abroad.

On Thursday, two Democratic members of Congress introduced a resolution outlining the broad strokes of a “Green New Deal,” an ambitious proposal to transition the U.S. toward a more sustainable, net-zero carbon emissions future—and to get it on track fast, within just ten years.

The need for change, the framers say, is pressing. Climate change is already strengthening the floods that course through U.S. cities, worsening heat waves, and sapping winters of their cold. And the changes are hitting the most vulnerable the hardest.

To put the country on track toward a more sustainable, equitable future, the resolution proposes a sweeping range of tactics to cut carbon emissions while also jumpstarting the economy—from transitioning to 100 percent zero-emission energy to upgrading key infrastructure with an eye toward an ever-warming future to “overhauling” the transportation network from coast to coast.

At this point, the Green New Deal resolution, introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Edward Markey (D-MA), contains the outline of a comprehensive plan rather than detailed policy proposals. And it is currently not very likely that the divided Congress would pass any version of the plan that came across its desks, or receive a signature from President Donald Trump. But the proposal has thrust the search for solutions to climate change into the national spotlight.

Crucially, says Leah Stokes, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, nothing in the 13 tracks the resolution lays out is a brand-new idea: they’re all concepts that have been tested and implemented in communities, cities, states, and other countries in different parts of the world (and in some cases, within the U.S.). Sometimes, the schemes were introduced explicitly as climate adaptation measures. But in many cases, they were put in place because they simply made sense politically, economically, or socially.

No country has wrapped so many ideas into one cohesive plan like this one, though.

“There's carbon everywhere, and we have to get rid of it,” says Stokes. “But we have all the technology we need. This isn’t impossible.”

Here, National Geographic takes a look at how countries, cities, or regions in other parts of the world have tackled some major parts of the proposal.

The race to net-zero emissions

In order to reduce the U.S.’s. carbon emissions in the future—and eventually, to reach the goal of hitting net-zero emissions—the country will have to drastically change the way it gets and uses energy, the proposal states. Three states—California, Hawaii, and New Jersey—and dozens of cities have already committed to transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2045 to 2050, but the rest of the country will have to follow suit in order to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.

Some 54 countries around the world have committed to similar goals, from Afghanistan to Madagascar. Six of them have gotten all or nearly all the way to 100 percent renewable electricity: Albania, Costa Rica, Iceland, Norway, Paraguay, and Tajikistan.

Some of those success stories have come from leaning on natural resources that are more scarce in the U.S. Iceland, for instance, sits on an active volcanic complex: the country taps over 60 percent of its energy from geothermal sources. And Norway and Costa Rica both rely heavily on hydropower, which could supply only about four percent of the U.S.’s total electrical needs in a fully renewable system, says Mark Jacobson, an energy expert at Stanford.

Germany is also in the midst of minimizing its reliance on coal power, recently declaring it would wean itself off coal by 2038. Crucially, the plan was designed in a way that drew support from a coal mining union as well as environmental groups.

A common concern is that the kind of major energy transition the resolution sets out couldn’t happen as fast as it proposes—in ten years or less. But other countries have made swift, drastic changes to their energy mixes, says Kathleen Araújo, an energy policy expert at Boise State University in Idaho. France, for instance, shifted from only 10 percent low-carbon to 65 percent in just one decade, between 1975 and 1985, by turning on many nuclear power plants, which many experts say may be a critical part of the clean energy transition. And Denmark made a similar dramatic turn toward wind power since the 1980s, which now supplies more than 40 percent of their energy—in a move driven in part by scientists, industry associations and local communities, rather than the government.

“There's no actual reason you can't do 100 percent renewable power and it can't be cheap,” says Jacobsen. “Just because it hasn't been done yet doesn't mean it can’t be done.” The political will, he says, is what drives the transitions forward—often far beyond what had previously been considered the upper limit of feasibility.

Beef up the grid

In tandem, the resolution proposes, the electricity grid systems across the U.S. should be upgraded and improved, becoming more fluid, flexible, and responsive to a shifting suite of sources.

For an example of a successful transition, designers can look to Germany. There, an increasing renewables load phased in slowly, a few percent more at a time, so that the system felt no serious disruptions. But the system was successful in part because the grid was big enough to absorb energy when it was being produced in one part of the country and shift it away—sometimes out of the country’s boundaries—when it was needed elsewhere. A bigger, more interconnected system can capitalize when wind blows in one valley and sun shines in another.

Resilience—in communities and the built world

Responding to climate change is a technical problem, but also a social one. Another major goal of the resolution is to increase both the resilience of communities and their underlying infrastructure to the stresses of a heating planet. Communities, says the resolution, should be able to change along with the climate—so solutions have to be flexible, fair, and fully attuned to what people want and need.

The Netherlands bundled these concepts together in their adaptation-focused Delta Programme. After a fast-rising flood in 1953 killed more than 1,800 people, the low-lying country realized it needed to rethink the way it interacted with the water, which was never far from their doorstep. And as the realities of climate change took hold, the flooding potential grew. So they developed a plan that moved communities out of harm’s way, leaving the vulnerable, easily-flooded lowlands open for agriculture but not human habitation. And when floods wipe out farmers’ crops, the state supports their income.

At the same time, Dutch authorities built out infrastructure to protect valuable cities and ports, like Rotterdam—making sure to design in a way that could adapt to an ever-changing climate. Every five years, the commission re-evaluates the state of the predictions for how sea-level rise and other climate-related factors may change, and adjusts accordingly.

“Often, we get into this very dark cycle where we update systems only after a disaster happens,” says Stèphane Hallegatte, an economist and climate expert at the World Bank. “Or, like the Netherlands, we can make preventative actions. That first can be infinitely costly, or we can have it like the latter, costly but manageable, based on whether we have made those preventative measures.”

Other countries, like Fiji, have been battered by climate-intensified storms—and have built back thoughtfully and stronger, implementing education programs, outreach, and support for communities that are working together to reconstruct the physical infrastructure that was lost.

Build better

One of the single best ways to reduce energy use is to make the buildings we live in more efficient. According to the IPCC, heating and cooling buildings takes up about a third of all energy use worldwide and accounts for a total of nearly 20 percent of all energy- related greenhouse gas emissions.

Many countries have strengthened their building efficiency codes to try to cut down on those energy costs, but the overall numbers worldwide have remained stubbornly stable.

France has set some of the most stringent requirements for new building energy efficiency. And Japan has some of the strongest efficiency rules for things that live inside the buildings, like appliances, says Noah Kaufman, an energy policy expert at Columbia. But without a massive retrofitting of existing buildings around the world, the energy-reduction goals for buildings will be hard to achieve.

Get that gas guzzler off the road

And it’s essentially impossible to go to net-zero emissions without revamping the ways people get from place to place. So, the plan proposes, the transportation sector could use an upgrade—via a quick shift to more electric vehicles in tandem with fixing up local-scale public transport as well as building out the kinds of uber-efficient rail networks that have proliferated in other parts of the world.

Today, over 50 percent of the cars sold in Norway are plug-in hybrids or 100 percent electric vehicles and that number has skyrocketed in a remarkably short time, says Costa Samaras, a civil engineer at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. That’s partly due to “carrots,” like big tax breaks and free parking for electric vehicles, and partly due to “sticks,” like big taxes on gas- and diesel-powered cars.

And in Shenzen, China, a push to expand the public transit system and clean up polluted air put over 16,000 electric buses on the road in just five years. Now that the fully renewable fleet glides through the city, the air quality has improved for its residents, coupling social and environmental advantages.

That kind of expansion would be difficult, but not impossible, to achieve in the U.S., says Samaras.

“In the U.S., in the timeline outlined in the resolution, we’re going to have to have sustained—large is not the right word, it's bigger than large, we’re talking World-War II era mobilization—to get to the kind of energy transition we need,” he says. And in the process, it’s even more important than ever to make sure that those upon whom this transition could fall most heavily—the people who need cars to get to jobs, who live outside urban areas, and who can’t afford to replace an old car with an electric one—are included and prioritized in any changes.

“Even though it's really hard and ambitious, that doesn't mean we shouldn't set goals and try,” he says. “But competing priorities of economics, equity, policy, and rapid decarbonization have to be weighed carefully.”

A Green New Deal is far from a sure thing. Political challenges are already growing tendrils around the proposal, and it’s not clear how its roughly-outlined plans will coalesce into specific policies. But surveys show that American voters are more concerned about climate change than ever before—and that a majority of voters on both sides of the aisle support the idea of a comprehensive plan to address it.