The Misguided Idea in the House's Green New Deal

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If you are interested in the resolution calling for a “Green New Deal” that Democrats have introduced in the House, you might want to pay attention to one remarkable phrase in particular. It appears in the resolution no less than three times: “as much as is technologically feasible.”

-- Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions should be removed “from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible.”

-- Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions should be removed “from manufacturing and industry as much as is technologically feasible.”

-- Pollution and greenhouse gas emissions should be removed “from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.”

That’s not the best idea.

Starting this summer, it would be technologically feasible to require all new motor vehicles in the U.S. to have a fuel-economy rating in excess of 50 miles per gallon. For that matter, it would be technologically feasible to require all motor vehicles in the U.S., whether old or new, to have such a fuel-economy rating – or even to require an all-electric fleet next year.

But that wouldn’t make much sense. To know whether we should mandate what is “technologically feasible,” we need to have a sense of what we would get from doing that, and also what we would lose.

To be sure, the House resolution calls for “a 10-year national mobilization,” and need not be read to insist on immediate action. But to the idea of doing “as much as is technologically feasible,” the same objection holds, regardless of whether we are speaking of 2019, 2024 or 2029.

With respect to pollution and greenhouse gases, regulators have a continuum of approaches, with different mixes of benefits and costs. Stopping well short of what is technologically feasible might produce large environmental benefits at a reasonable cost. By comparison, going to the limits of what is technologically feasible might produce modest environmental benefits at an unreasonable cost.

Under President Barack Obama, federal regulators did a great deal to reduce pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions.  In the transportation sector, for example, they mandated substantial increases in fuel economy by 2025. It is worse than unfortunate that the Donald Trump administration is proposing to eviscerate that regulation.

But Obama’s regulators did not insist that the transportation industry must do “as much as is technologically feasible.” If they had, they would have imposed huge costs on countless people – consumers, workers, companies both large and small. Those costs would not have been justified by corresponding benefits.

Because it relies so much on fossil fuels, industry is now responsible for nearly one-quarter of the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions. It would be technologically feasible to reduce those emissions – by a lot, not a little.

In the coming years, large reductions would be a good idea. But once more, it would be a mistake to do “as much as is technologically feasible.”

Here again it is necessary to ask: What, exactly, would we gain from doing that? And how much would we lose? The costs of aggressive regulation are often borne not by some abstraction called “companies” or “billionaires,” but by people who may have a hard time handling those costs, including consumers, employees, small businesses and start-ups.

The plea to do “as much as is technologically feasible” fits with the urgent overall tone of the House resolution on the Green New Deal. To those of us who believe that climate change creates exceptionally serious risks, that tone should be welcomed.

Perhaps we should see the plea as a form of rhetoric, a way of putting a stake in the ground, rather than as a serious proposal for policy or law. If so, it might seem churlish to object to what is essentially a call for action.

The problem is that many people, including many legislators, are drawn to the idea that the private sector should be required to go to the limits of what technology allows. Sometimes that idea has even made its way into law.

In transportation, industry and agriculture, it makes sense for the U.S. to take strong steps to reduce pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions, and to do so sooner rather than later. But life is full of trade-offs. Doing “as much as is technologically feasible” is a way of ignoring them – and a recipe for madness. 

As administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012, I helped oversee some of these initiatives.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “The Cost-Benefit Revolution” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”

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