Discourse surrounding the supposed “trade off” between the health of the economy and the health of the public has been nothing short of alarming during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Early talk of “herd immunity” provided little reassurance that this supposed trade off was just a myth, nor did procrastination over the eventual lockdown and the subsequent easing in absence of a properly functioning test, track, and trace system. Rishi Sunak’s new-found love for Keynesian economics might have helped a little, but it did not extend to over three million people excluded from his support plan.
The battle between protecting human life and protecting financial interests isn’t new. In her book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein writes that “our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”
What we need is not an economy that is at odds with human flourishing or environmental sustainability — but one which supports them. And this crisis provides us with an opportunity to build just that.
The Case for a Green New Deal
Ensuring public safety during COVID-19 requires significant support for businesses and individuals from the government — in excess, in fact, of what was already committed. But instead of continued investment through the ongoing pandemic and recession, we’re already hearing rumblings from the Tories about the “tough choices” that are just around the corner.
There is an alternative to their preferred cutbacks or the return to disastrous austerity policies. A publicly led stimulus package could not only pull our economy out of this crisis, but restore the public purse as well. This stimulus package — whether you are a follower of Keynes or Friedman — is frankly morally unavoidable in any event and it begins with a Green New Deal.
Scientists have repeatedly told us, with almost complete unanimity, that we are in a climate crisis. Even optimistic forecasts now predict extreme weather and basic food and water insecurity. In 2018, the Environmental Audit Committee produced a report showing that the UK faces a trebling of heat deaths by 2050 as well as severe flooding if the government fails to act.
Earlier this year, almost all of the world’s countries (the UK included) missed the symbolic February 9 deadline to strengthen plans to fight climate change under the Paris Agreement — a staggering failure. On November 4, the United States formally withdrew from the agreement. COP26, one of our last chances to agree to world action on climate change has been postponed as a result of the pandemic.
Sadly, even if the conference had gone ahead, the UK wasn’t ready for it. Ed Matthew, COP26 director for the Climate Coalition, summed it up: “the UK government was not prepared to achieve the best possible outcome this year. It did not have the policies in place to be on track to net zero, and that would have undermined diplomatic momentum.”
It was hoped that the Green Recovery Plan recently announced by Rishi Sunak would address these concerns, but it proved to be a mere fraction of the amounts other European countries have set aside. To put it in context, Sunak’s plan committed £3 billion while Germany’s equivalent was worth €40 billion.
As Eleanor Salter pointed out in Tribune, even if the government’s green package reduced 0.5 million tonnes of CO2 as the chancellor claimed, that figure accounts for just 0.14 percent of the UK’s carbon emissions. That is nowhere near the scale of ambition necessary to address this crisis.
In fact, the government’s green recovery plans were so insufficient that climate campaigners Plan B have launched a formal legal challenge, claiming they are inadequate and “clearly unlawful” in light of the UK’s obligations to reduce emissions. The Tories’ procrastination in taking the necessary action makes no sense — unless, of course, the aim is to continue protecting the interests of big polluters.
What a Green New Deal Could Look Like
The truth is that the case for a Green New Deal is compelling, regardless of how green your politics are. It is Goldman Sachs, not Greenpeace, who estimates that there is $16 trillion to be made in the next ten years from new investments in renewable energy across the globe.
Labour’s own detailed expert report, issued before the last general election, identified the most feasible pathway to radically decarbonize the energy system by 2030. Assembled by a team of independent energy professionals, it offered thirty recommendations to meet climate goals and make the UK a world pioneer in the energy transition.
These measures included fitting every home in the UK with energy-saving insulation and double glazing, focusing first on damp homes and areas with fuel poverty; installing eight million heat pumps; building seven thousand off-shore wind turbines, two thousand further onshore wind turbines, and solar panels covering an area of twenty-two thousand football pitches, tripling the UK’s current capacity; significant investment in research and development for marine energy and renewable or low-carbon hydrogen for heating and energy storage; investment in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) for some heavy industries; and balancing the grid network to meet our future demands.
With an average required investment of 1.9 percent of GDP each year this ambitious plan would have provided a net benefit of £800 billion by 2030 and 850,000 new jobs across the green energy sector. It was also argued that due to increased economic prosperity, wages could increase by 2 percent across the economy. As we face a historic recession and a worsening climate crisis, there is simply no better policy that a government could enact.
It would be reckless, however, if we did not ensure that government investment on this scale was also a catalyst for broader economic transformation. It is possible that the benefits of renewable energy will flow to major corporations, just as was the case with fossil fuels. We need to fight for a Green New Deal which benefits everyone, not just a select few.
That means breaking with an economic model that increasingly relies on low-paid and insecure work, where the fruits of labor flow to ever smaller sections of society while the majority struggle to get by. And it means a very different kind of transition to the one we saw under Margaret Thatcher when so many communities across the UK were hollowed out and decent employment was lost for generations.
The Green New Deal we’re fighting for must have strategic regional green investment plans that ensure a just transition for workers who would be adversely affected. A guarantee of quality, unionized, green jobs, and public ownership within our water and energy sectors can drive change — not only for our environment but for our economy too.
It is past time that the UK had a detailed industrial strategy which makes sure that the technologies of the future are manufactured, assembled, and installed here, across our regions and nations. The government can use its power to do this now. For example, it could follow Labour’s plans to invest in technologies such as offshore wind — and break with the failures of so many decades of privatization by taking a majority public stake.
It could then use its immense public buying power to support local businesses which manufacture the components we need, re-shoring thousands of jobs to towns and cities in desperate need of investment in the process. And, it could ensure that the revenues from these new partly public companies flow back to the communities they serve to invest in leisure centers, libraries, parks, harbor waterfronts, and much more, all to boost quality of life.
The financial decisions made by government in response to this crisis will shape our economic consensus for decades to come. Don’t buy into the idea that we must “trade off” between the economy and public health, the climate, or well-paying jobs. The question instead is how our economy must be reshaped to protect these things.
We either continue to respond using the politics of austerity, deregulation, privatization, and short-termism, or we respond to this historic moment by leading an economic and industrial revolution that distributes costs and rewards progressively, deepens economic democracy, and rebuilds every part of Britain. That is a future worth fighting for.