Last month, the first legislative building block of the Green New Deal (GND) was introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Dubbed the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, the bill aims to retrofit and decarbonize 1.2 million public housing units within the next 10 years. While buildings in the U.S. contribute about 30 percent of total GHG emissions for the country–and are thus important for decarbonization–the GND for Public Housing Act would have almost no effect on U.S. emissions and demonstrates the strategic risks of taking a Green New Deal approach to climate change.

The bill would create new grant programs to modernize the public housing stock. These would: electrify buildings, make them more energy-efficient and insulated via installation of modern appliances, roofs and windows, and build community renewable energy projects. It would also support a variety of other improvements to public housing in pursuit of community resilience. The bill’s sponsors estimate that it would lead to between $119 and 172 billion in spending over 10 years. 

All of this may seem laudable on the surface. Yet in reality, it would have almost no impact on greenhouse gas emissions. The think tank Data for Progress estimates that decarbonizing over 1 million public housing units would reduce annual carbon emissions by 5.6 million metric tons– or about 0.1 percent of the U.S. total. That is an order of magnitude smaller than year-to-year changes in total emissions for the country. 

Assuming that the GND for public housing could actually reduce emissions in line with expectations, so that by 2030 retrofits are saving 5.6 million metric tons of emissions annually, then emissions savings through 2050 would total something like 143,000,000 million metric tons. That implies a program cost between $833 and $1,204 per metric ton of CO2 avoided, somewhere around 20 times the per ton rate used for in the tax credit for carbon capture and storage technology. It might even be cheaper to simply remove CO2 from the atmosphere using industrial technology. The recent study from the National Academies on Carbon Removal found that direct air capture at industrial scale, meaning more than 1 million tons per year, would cost in a range from 156 to 506 dollars per ton for technologies that would capture CO2 in liquid solvents and deposit it underground.

The simple fact is that most of what the GND for public housing wants to spend, isn’t going to climate. Using the Obama administration’s estimates of the social cost of carbon, total climate benefits of such a program would amount to roughly $10.2 billion by 2050. This would mean that at the upper cost estimates, the amount of spending is 17 times the estimated climate benefits.  

Meanwhile, the spending required would be an increase in discretionary spending of about 1 percent–an amount that could very well be invested in emissions reductions in other sectors to much greater effect. For instance, as my colleague Jerry Taylor has noted, U.S. Department of Energy estimated that doubling spending on clean energy R&D could accelerate emissions reductions to 40 percent below the 2005 total by 2040–a huge improvement over their estimated baseline of a 10 percent reduction. The spending involved would be in line with the mission innovation goal of doubling clean energy spending from $6.4 to 12.8 billion per year. This is less than half the increase imagined in the GND for Public Housing Act.

Instead of maximizing emissions reductions per dollar, the GND for Public Housing Act tries to resolve issues with the quality of public housing. For example, while the bill provides grants for energy efficiency retrofits, it will also provide funding for the construction of childcare centers, senior centers, community gardens, and installation of publicly owned high speed internet. Also tacked on to the bill is the repeal of the Faircloth Amendment, which would allow the Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund the construction of additional public housing units–a questionable move in and of itself that has almost nothing to do with greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change is a pressing issue that demands an ambitious response in order to achieve decarbonization. In tying social policy to climate change, the GND for Public Housing Act is trying to do too much at once, while advocating for unnecessarily expensive solutions to only one small part of the climate problem. 

This post was updated on December 8, 2019, to include estimates of the cost per ton for emissions abatement in the GND for public housing. The original version is archived here.

Photo: Becker1999 from Grove City, OH [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]