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An Illinois Bill Leans Into the Most Contentious Part of the Green New Deal

March 10, 2019


Illinois is weighing a 100 percent renewable energy bill that includes jobs, equity, and social justice.

A recurring criticism of the Green New Deal resolution introduced in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) is that it has too much social justice baggage: Why does a statement of goals to limit climate change and decarbonize the economy devote so much ink to affordable housing, universal health care, and jobs for everyone?

“They are right that the entire energy sector must be reshaped,” the Washington Post editorial board wrote in a sharp appraisal. “But the goal is so fundamental that policymakers should focus above all else on quickly and efficiently decarbonizing. They should not muddle this aspiration with other social policy, such as creating a federal jobs guarantee, no matter how desirable that policy might be.”

Yet the reason the Green New Deal does include social programs is that, as Vox’s David Roberts put it, “It is not merely a way to reduce emissions, but also to ameliorate the other symptoms and dysfunctions of a late capitalist economy: growing inequality and concentration of power at the top.”

And given that decarbonizing the economy would mean jettisoning fossil fuel jobs, the resolution asserts that the transition needs to happen in a just way, mindful of the needs of “vulnerable, frontline, and deindustrialized communities.”

Nonetheless, we haven’t seen much in the way of climate policies that address social justice in this way ever in the United States.

Which is why a new clean energy bill in Illinois may serve as a remarkable test case of one of the Green New Deal’s core principles, at a time when more and more states are adopting ambitious decarbonization targets.

Illinois’s general assembly is weighing a bill that sets an aggressive target of decarbonizing the state’s energy by 2030 and running the state completely on renewable energy by 2050. That includes deploying more than 40 million solar panels and 2,500 wind turbines alongside $20 billion in new infrastructure over the next decade. The bill also calls for cutting emissions from transportation and for vastly expanding the clean energy workforce.

But it also leans into many of the social justice ideas outlined in the Green New Deal resolution.

“In the wake of federal reversals on climate action, the State of Illinois should pursue immediate action on policies that will ensure a just and responsible phase out of fossil fuels from the power sector to reduce harmful emissions from Illinois power plants, support power plant communities and workers, and allow the clean energy economy to continue growing in every corner of Illinois,” according to the text of the Clean Energy Jobs Act (SB 2132/ HB 3624).

Broadly, the bill aligns with the Green New Deal. But the Green New Deal resolution is just that — a resolution — whereas in Illinois, the rubber might actually meet the road.

“This bill is far more comprehensive [than the Green New Deal] and positions Illinois as a leader in the clean energy economy,” said Emily Melbye, chief of staff for State Rep. Ann Williams, a sponsor of the Clean Energy Jobs Act. She noted that legislators were working on this bill for years before the Green New Deal entered the national discourse.

It’s ambitious, but also risky. Clean energy policies have faltered in other states where climate change is ostensibly a major concern among the public. Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee recently launched a campaign for president with climate change as a tentpole. Yet voters in his state last year voted down a carbon tax for a second time.

It’s likely Illinois’ more aggressive proposal, with strong social justice themes, will face even bigger political hurdles. Its fate could also be an omen of whether a national climate policy built off the Green New Deal could get off the ground, so it’s worth paying attention to what’s happening in Springfield.

Justice is a central pillar of the Illinois clean energy bill

Supporters of the Illinois bill are arguing that addressing equity and social justice are required to build a coalition to back tough climate targets. And, they say, injustice is an inherent consequence of climate change: The people who contributed the least to the problem stand to suffer the most. Meanwhile, the people who profited the most from burning fossil fuels are the most insulated from its effects.

An amendment outlining the key provisions of the Clean Energy Jobs Act mentions “environmental justice” at least 30 times.

“We are getting pushback from communities that have coal plants that would be predicted to close under this,” said Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, a group promoting the Clean Energy Jobs Act. “They need to see the financial and environmental benefits from whatever we do.”

Illinois currently gets about 31 percent of its electricity from coal, 6 percent from natural gas, and 54 percent from nuclear. That means the 2050 target of getting to 100 percent renewable electricity would require a turnover in the workforce producing 81 percent of the the state’s electricity. That’s a huge social and economic shift.

Illinois has the largest share of nuclear power in its electricity mix of any state in the country, but it also depends on coal and natural gas. Energy Information Administration

But Walling noted that coal power plants are already closing in Illinois due to competition from other energy sources. And some of the state’s nuclear reactors were on the verge of shutting down in recent years since they were losing money. They were bailed out, but the reactors are still aging and closing in on the ends of their operating lives. So the transition is already happening, but no safety net is in place.

To handle the looming changes, the Clean Energy Jobs Act builds on 2016’s Future Energy Jobs Act, which David Roberts explained here. That law created job training centers and allocated $750 million for low-income communities to help them buy clean energy and make their homes more energy efficient. The new bill would create business incubators for energy contractors, aiming particularly at communities that may lose fossil fuel jobs, as well as communities of color. It capitalizes on the state’s already large and growing clean energy sector.

There are almost 120,000 clean energy sector jobs in Illinois, with the majority in energy efficiency. Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition

“We want to create clean jobs workforce hubs that provide direct and sustained support for minority communities,” said Melbye. The Clean Energy Jobs Act now has 34 cosponsors in the state House and 10 cosponsors in the state Senate.

The question now is whether being proactive about potential job losses and inequities will help the clean energy bill through the legislature. Walling said she is optimistic that it will become law this year since Illinois’ new governor, J. B. Pritzker, has expressed a commitment to fight climate change. “We’re hoping to get it done before May,” she said.

The most ambitious climate change and clean energy policies right now are coming from states

The Illinois bill is part of a wave of clean energy legislation across several states, burnished by the victories of several climate-friendly governors and other legislators in last year’s midterm elections. States like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, New Jersey, Washington State, Massachusetts, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, and Washington, DC, have commitments or are considering legislation that would put them on a path toward 100 percent clean energy.

As of February, several states had governments ready to pass aggressive clean energy legislation. Sierra Club

So keep an eye on state capitols. The bills they do or don’t pass in the coming months could fill in the blanks of the Green New Deal, which is shaping up to be an important campaign issue ahead of the 2020 election.

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