It seems an inauspicious moment at first glance to consider the elements of building a new green republic. Pollution, ecological degradation, war and rumors of war seem to be in the saddle and riding humankind. But, in fact, beneath the surface there are strong counter currents that reflect an emerging imperative for ecological transformation, to make economic growth mean ecological improvement in the context of ecological and social justice.
Sober realities are that business and pollution as usual is the unsustainable path toward self-destruction. At the same time, renewables with zero fuel costs and rapidly declining capital costs, as well as huge positive ecological consequences, are rapidly becoming more economic in almost all markets globally than fossil fuels and nuclear power.
An ecological future, outlined in my book The New Green Republic, is more than just a fanciful wish list. It’s arising from the estimated $50 trillion dollars to be invested in a global renewable energy transformation. Using the McKinsey energy model, for example, a $3 trillion dollar investment is projected for Long Duration Energy Storage (LDES) far beyond 8 hours, responding to seasonal variation and long term outages. This is a crucial part of a reliable 100 percent renewable global grid that addresses issues like seasonal climate variations and last year’s Texas power freeze disaster.
I am in a zoom meeting with six CEOs of world leading LDES companies charting the road ahead. The question is not if, but how fast the transformation will happen. A chemist working with a world leading industrial firm describes transforming steel production from ultra-pollution to renewable energy generated electricity. There’s more than just business questions as ecological disaster looms. Renewable energy technologies continue their rapid improvement. For each doubling of installed capacity, the price is also cut in half. This is not just because of technological breakthroughs, but the learning curve improving all elements of renewables. Costs drop, efficiency improves. Looking backwards, a study by Mark Bollinger of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory finds an increase of more than 40 percent in the median generating capacity per acre of solar panels between 2011 and 2019.
As a solar developer, in early 2021 I was using 340 watt conventional fixed racking solar panels. By the end of 2021, the standard was higher efficiency and higher wattage 450 to 540 watt dual sided translucent panels, and, when appropriate, using single axis tracker systems to follow the sun. Dual facing panels capture sunlight reflected off the ground onto the back side of the panels. To increase the amount of ground reflection from 20% to 60% or more (the albedo) we use either white sea shells or crushed white rock on the ground. What’s striking is that the higher efficiency, higher output systems did not increase costs. In fact, cost per watt continues to decline.
What does it mean as a global market rapidly becomes powered by renewables with enormous ecological benefits, serving as a paradigmatic example of economic growth and ecological improvement?
Ford’s flagship vehicle is now the F-150 Lightning and the days of new internal combustion engine cars, by law in many nations, will vanish. Trucks will be powered by batteries, by hydrogen or biofuels or fuel cells. Green hydrogen and ammonia will power combustion turbines, and combined with storage technologies using flow batteries, capacitors and flywheels and increasingly rely on non-toxic, low cost elements like iron and salt water that will be crucial elements of a renewable future.
Fossil fuels still provide 79% of global energy and at the same time 87% of global carbon dioxide emissions. But fossil fuels in the ground and the fossil fuel infrastructure are rapidly becoming stranded assets that cannot be built or continue to operate without subsidies. This does not mean that an ecological future is at hand. But the technological, economic, and ecological realities point in that direction.
What is the nature of a sustainable ecological economic growth system? A future green republic must be rooted not only in new technologies reducing pollution, depletion and ecological damage, but in ecological and social justice as inescapable global concomitants to ecological change. This means not simply redistribution, but by a new understanding of ecological economic growth, sustainability, and a global convergence in sustainable norms for all. No justice, no peace.
Ecological economic growth and social justice
The increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich, accelerated by the global covid pandemic, is also a paradigmatic example of market failure with business and pollution as usual as an exercise in self-destruction. To accept ever worsening inequalities, the creation of a billionaire class that shapes the world to its needs and greed, is similarly an exercise in self-destruction.
The remedies are many and varied, from a living wage, to basic income, negative income tax, wealth tax, fair tax, ecological taxes on sources and sinks of pollution, an ecological value-added tax, and many more. A constellation of ecological market rules, law and regulations will enable an accelerating counter-transformation toward a prosperous and sustainable future.
Sustainable goods and services will become less expensive, gain market share, and become more profitable. This is a consequence not simply of a variety of market rules and ecological taxation, but, crucially, the creation of a new asset class based on the ecological value created by ecological conduct and monetized.
The durability of a fair and just sustainable future must also mean the broad increase in equity, of fair shares of ownership by all. For example, the renewable energy transformation must mean that ultimately energy users also become significant energy owners of the trillions of dollars of the renewable energy infrastructure. The distributed nature, scale, and cost of renewables inherently provides opportunities for relationships between energy developers and energy consumers.
In Massachusetts, the maximum PV system size is 5 megawatts with a cost of around $7.5 million dollars, producing 6 million kilowatt hours a year that could supply energy to a small town of 1,250 people. This is compared to a billion dollars for a 1,000 megawatt natural gas plant, not including natural gas pipeline and fracking costs. A 1,000 megawatt nuclear plant cost $6 billion dollars, without the costs of the nuclear fuel cycle from mining to enrichment, fuel fabrication, temporary and permanent waste storage, security, and more.
There are a wide range of mechanisms to facilitate energy ownership by individuals, cooperatives, associations, and local government. Following is a list of some of these tools.
- Contracts between energy developers and energy users. For example, a group of 100,000 energy users in a small city organized into cooperatives, or associations, or by City government contracting with energy developers to supply renewable power at a defined long-term price. The contract includes the ability of the energy users to purchase the energy system when tax equity and MACRS depreciation is exhausted in year six in the U.S. The cost of the purchase financed by low-interest city or state revenue bonds. The cost of financing represents a fraction of the ongoing income stream. The 100,000 residents now have reasonably priced sustainable power, a small but real stream of annual income, and an ownership share of the asset that can be sold, traded, or serve as collateral.
- Renewable energy hedges between energy users and energy developers. The parties agree on a strike price for the renewable energy. If the price for energy sold into the market exceeds the strike price, the developer sends the difference to the energy user. If the market price is below the strike price, the energy users send the difference to the developer. The contract can include the option to purchase the system as discussed above.
- Ownership by energy users of the value of the ecological improvement. For example, the use of Sustainability Credits (SCs) based on the value of displacement of one metric ton of carbon dioxide by renewables. This has been valued at $100 dollars per metric ton by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. SCs can be monetized on the books of banks as paid in capital and as cash. The cash is to be loaned by banks for further renewable development. The ordinary magic of banks means ten dollars can be loaned for each dollar of the bank’s capital.
Sustainability Credits represent real balance sheet wealth and provide a strong incentive for the pursuit of ecological conduct, and are unlike existing measures like renewable energy credits (RECs) which raise energy prices. Instead, SCs add value to energy owners. SCs can benefit each person who owns a solar panel or has a share of a community solar system. Cooperatives, associations, and small governments can organize groups of energy owners to share in the benefits of SCs.
Globally, the 37 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions represent the potential to create trillions of dollars in ecological value and investment capital to help finance an ecological transformation. The creation of this sustainable capital is from productive investment, employed for further productive investment, and is therefore non-inflationary and regulated through normal capital controls by the Federal Reserve or other central banks.
A sustainable future cannot be built on the basis of great wealth and comfort for a tiny minority of the super rich and a small, well paid consuming class who design, operate and entertain. Pollution and degradation can be exported by the rich to the poor based on lack of ecological controls, living wages, unions, and democracy.
It was not an accident that China seized the opportunity to become the world’s global factory, largest current greenhouse gas emitter and world’s second largest economy. China is also a global leader in solar, wind, reforestation, and whose official state policy is to build an ecological civilization. India is now rapidly on the path to become the third largest economy as global industrialism shifts East with China, India, Japan and South Korea becoming major economic forces.
Will the East also assume ecological as well as economic leadership? Will the East find new paths to value sustainable ecological conduct and market rules that make profitable business mean business that’s ecological sustainable and just? It’s interesting that China’s 2021—2025 five year plan makes clear, “We will adhere to the concept that green development is the path to prosperity… build an ecological civilization system, promote a comprehensive green transformation of economic and social development, and build a beautiful China.”
The commons and new green republic
The commons become another domain of ecological use and benefit granted local, national, and global protection from abuse (by both corporations and government) of property that is neither exactly public nor private. A right to use and maintain the commons cannot be sold or seized but is the province of commoners, those who use, maintain and protect the commons and its movement for long-term sustainable ecological conduct. The strengthening of the commons both locally and globally by custom and by law is a hallmark of a New Green Republic. By gaining protected status, the commons becomes a realm shielded from abuse based on the right to use the commons on land, sea and in the air, balanced by the responsibility to maintain and protect. There is a rich tradition of successful commons that have endured for centuries and still exist in traditions such as “beating the bounds”4 — inspecting the boundaries of commons land.
The same principles governing SCs apply to both individuals and commoners in monetizing sustainable conduct as real expressions of ecological improvement through actions such as greenhouse gas sequestration, habitat restoration on land and sea, for example, mangrove restoration for shore line natural storm protection and mitigation in times of rising sea levels and super storms, as well as species protection. Commons protection can be available for neighborhood urban farmers growing in containers or on roofs or vertical farming buildings many stories high.
We seem paralyzed by a crisis of imagination. It’s clear that a New Green Republic must arise and be built as a 21st century practice. Beyond the right to use and maintain a commons includes the monetization of ecological improvements by commoners. For example, carbon sequestration on land or at sea by farmers through building soil, and at sea farming algae for carbon sequestration, as well as food and sustainable energy.
Redefining fiduciary responsibility
A redefinition of fiduciary responsibility by law, regulation, and tradition is a crucial manifestation of building a green republic based on ecological and social justice as a formal legal matter, and as a practical guide for all. This includes businesses, institutions, governments, and commons.
Fiduciary responsibility must now mean that all economic activities must be undertaken in a manner that results in ecological improvement, the regeneration of the living world and of so-called natural capital, guided by the practice of social and ecological justice. Thus all corporations now must act as B or betterment corporations whose mission is far beyond maximizing profit through any legal means, but rather to meet ecological, social, business and justice norms. Redefining fiduciary responsibility means tweaking extant B Corporation rules and law as bedrock principles, by law and by practice, for sustainable conduct.
The strength of for-profits, non-profits, governments and commoners following strengthened B corporation law and principles is a straight forward path to assist a rapid movement toward the ecological and away from the age of pollution and pillage.
Global convergence on sustainable norms
Ecological economic growth means global convergence on sustainable norms for all. This is a consequence of global investment and technology transfer in renewable energy, green agriculture, forestry, aquaculture and industrial ecology.
This means, for example, a global convergence on carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per person of about 2.5 tons of carbon per person for a global total of around 21 gigatons. This is the amount sequestered through natural means to keep carbon dioxide levels flat. And this cumulative cap on carbon dioxide emissions must be combined with carbon dioxide reductions per person of equal amounts in order to return the atmosphere below 300 ppm of carbon dioxide, to pre industrial levels.
The United States averages now over 16 metric tons of C02 equivalent emissions per person a year. In contrast, Uganda is 0.12 metric tons, 133 times less per person than the United States. As the advanced industrial world reduces carbon emissions, developing nations must have the capital and technology to follow sustainable paths and not replicate the high pollution, high waste path.
An ecological future means that both the United States and Uganda will have carbon emission equivalents no more than 2.2 tons per person per year. This does not mean the U.S. economy and wealth will likely not still be enormously larger, but that a more developed Uganda will be assisted to follow a sustainable and just path.
Global investment must provide sufficient resources to finance these developments in a matter that encourages social and ecological justice and broad based ownership. When the Soviet Union collapsed, for example, proposals were made in the nascent Russian Federation with state ownership of industry to transfer ownership shares equally to individual Russians. This, of course, did not happen and ownership ended up in the pockets of a small number of generally well-connected insiders becoming enormously rich and paying tribute to a kleptocratic Russian regime. International investment in ecological transformation must be structured so that it does not end up in the pockets of politicians and elites, but builds broad based ownership and equity in communities.
The pathway for the growth of new green republics is sustainable economic growth increasing sustainable national product by many multiples and, at the same time, reducing pollution, depletion and ecological damage dramatically and helping to regenerate ecosystems. Wealth is produced in part by the valuing and monetization of sustainable ecological value through, for example, carbon dioxide disbandment or natural sequestration of carbon.
The green republic is the polar opposite to the high-polluting fossil fuel world that offers a depletion allowance, a tax credit, to be paid to fossil fuel producers whose fossil fuel reserves are diminished and then burned, releasing huge amounts of toxic and polluting substances. Enormous sustainable economic growth is the carrot that can move millions to support new green republics that are richer, healthier, sustainable, fairer and peaceful.
The new green republic
The new green republic is thus built by structures of law, rules andcustoms that redirect and reward activities that make economic growth mean ecological improvement and radically diminish pollution, depletion and ecological damage.
Building a new green republic is based on the pursuit of massive ecological economic growth and countervailing massive reductions in ecological pillage. A new green republic is in pursuit of sustainability and social and ecological justice. In practice, this means working toward a zero pollution/zero waste world where all outputs become inputs to other non-polluting processes.
The new green republic reflects both the pursuit of sustainability and a dynamic balance of freedom and community as necessary for an ecological future. Without freedom, community leads to sham democracy and tyranny; without community, freedom leads to license, injustice and the rise of a billionaire class.
The power of chemical, mechanical, industrial and civil engineering supported by appropriate market rules and an ecological definition of fiduciary responsibility and ecological tax policy sending unambiguous economic signals can support and direct the rapid progress toward sustainable global economic growth.
The new green republic will always be a work in progress, responding to issues, problems and concerns of the moment that will certainly include emergent tensions and threats and competing interests. This requires the strengthening of local democratic norms and an increase in direct democracy and subsidiarity, where those most directly affected have the most to say in the matter. By law, for example, a green republic may declare the need to reduce carbon emissions to 2.5 tons per person per year over twenty years. But the ultimate how rests under local control, entrepreneurship and empowerment.
It’s the job of the new green republic to help provide the resources and mechanisms to make this possible. Building a new green republic is an exercise of democracy, enterprise and justice. It does not require a revolution, or a new flag, or an end to markets. It does require a commitment to the pursuit of sustainability, ecological economic growth and justice with decisions made on issues large and small by those affected. Perhaps, it will require many millions in the streets to overcome the vested interests of polluters and their politicians in thrall to industrial business, pollution and injustice as usual.
The realities of an on-rushing ecological catastrophe and the rapidly developing renewable energy and non-polluting technologies can assist in an ecological transformation. Ultimately, it’s up to all of us individually and collectively to make common cause for a sustainable and just future. This does not fit into any usual political definition of right or left. It embraces enterprise, asset building, localism, freedom and community, balancing duties and responsibility.
Not being on a conventional right or left continuum may serve to broaden the appeal to those who can enthusiastically embrace some of the elements of a new green republic, but not others. Uniformity is not required. Each new green republic will be crafted and built by its members to follow and balance their mutual interests.
The growth of new green republics is the start of a departure from the familiar and tired understanding of the prerogatives of nations and the nature and behavior of markets. What happens is essentially up to each of us acting in our own communities to pursue a better sustainable future for our families for now and for the coming generations.
1 Global primary energy: how has the mix changed over centuries?
2 Mark Bollinger and Greta Bollinger. Land Requirements for Utility-Scale PV: An Empirical Update on Power and Energy Density.
3 China's 14th Five-Year Plan. 2021-2025. Chinese parliament, the National People's Congress. March 2021.
4 “Beating the bounds” or “perambulating the bounds” is an ancient custom still observed in parts of England, Wales, and the New England region of the United States, which traditionally involved swatting local landmarks with branches to maintain a shared mental map of parish boundaries, usually every seven years.
5 Annual CO2 emissions worldwide from 1940 to 2020 (in billion metric tons).