World / Politics

Land is key ingredient missing from U.S. Green New Deal, experts say

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Amid the rollout of a high-profile climate proposal in Congress, some are warning that a major gap exists around urban land policy.

The wide-ranging Green New Deal, released Thursday, includes a focus on electrifying vehicle fleets but doesn’t talk about how to get Americans to drive less.

Transportation is the largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“At some point we need to acknowledge we need to drive less, and the only way to do that is to make things closer together so people can accomplish more of their daily needs without getting into a car,” said Jenny Schuetz, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution think tank.

“So that means taxing driving but also changing land-use plans to put things closer together — that’s really essential if we want to make a dent” in emissions.

Yet the new resolution “doesn’t have anything about land use,” she said.

The framework is a nonbinding resolution that has received widespread public attention — and the co-sponsorship of five Democrats seeking the presidency in 2020, among dozens of others.

It is a formal attempt by lawmakers to define potential legislation to create government-led investments in clean energy and infrastructure to transition the U.S. economy away from fossil fuels within a decade.

But land use is not part of the deal.

“It is absolutely a gap within the Green New Deal,” said Greg Carlock, Green New Deal research director for Data for Progress, who produced a report in September that has influenced the framework unveiled Thursday.

He said the federal government has a key role to play in both guiding and pushing stronger climate action, especially from local governments — which, noted Schuetz, control the vast majority of zoning decisions.

“The federal government had a role in incentivizing sprawl and car-oriented transportation, and now we need to look at how we can change those incentive structures,” Carlock said.

The U.S. government released a major assessment in November of the climate effects already being seen in the United States, sounding a particular warning over the impact of the transport sector.

Among other issues, it singled out “low fuel prices, which lead to more driving.”

That tracks with scientific findings at the international level, which make clear that dramatic actions are needed in cities, including how we get around them, said Ian Klaus, a former U.S. diplomat and an expert on cities and climate change. “The science says that now is the time that the decision must be taken to move around, and between, our cities in a way that keeps them vibrant and dynamic without contributing to the virtual destruction of the planet as we know it,” he said.