Realising the vision for a UK Green New Deal

11 years after the concept first emerged, with Greens at the heart of its conception in the UK, what is the Green New Deal and how can we make it a reality? A panel at the Green Party’s Spring Conference explored the issues – Aditi Bhonagiri reports.

Wind turbines against a sunset
Wind turbines against a sunset
Aditi Bhonagiri

Every day, the Green New Deal (GND) is finding more purchase in the mainstream political agenda in the US and the UK.

The term is purposefully reminiscent of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ of the 1930s, which oversaw substantial investment in jobs and public infrastructure and created social and economic reforms to pull the US out of the Great Depression. Here in the UK, the idea had its origins in the 2008 financial crisis. The Greens were at the heart of its conception and today, even more so, need to be a major driving force, in our collective efforts to co-construct the movement around it and push for a radical vision of equality and fairness.

In early 2007 the Green New Deal Group of nine finance, energy and environment experts, including MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas, was set up to brainstorm solutions to the ‘triple crunch’ or interrelated crisis of credit-fuelled finance, volatile energy prices underpinned by encroaching peak oil and accelerating climate change. The group’s report in July 2008 was based on three main elements:

  1. An environmental transformation of the economy, with massive investments in the renewable energy sector and green infrastructure that will oversee the creation of thousands of green-collar jobs;

  2. Reigning in the reckless activity of the finance sector while creating access to low-cost capital to finance UK’s green economic shift; and

  3. Building a new alliance between environmentalists, industry, agriculture and unions to put the interest of the green economy first, instead of one that is dictated by footloose finance.

The concept of the GND found wider support in 2009, when the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) proposed a Global Green New Deal, calling on OECD and G20 countries in particular to allocate stimulus funding to green sectors and reduce their carbon dependency.

11 years on, the idea has been re-energised by the unstoppable US Democrat Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who backed the Sunrise Movement’s call for a GND in the US, and has found momentum through civil disobedience movements like Extinction Rebellion and global Youth Climate Strikes.

Ian Mecklenburgh of Alian Energy installing a rooftop solar thermal system
Ian Mecklenburgh of Alian Energy installing a rooftop solar thermal system

Image: Morecambe Bay Community Renewables (MORE Renewables)

Investment in renewable energy industries will provide much needed 'green-collar' jobs

A Green vision for a GND

A panel at the Green Party Conference in Scarborough this month reflected on the lost decade, but mostly looked ahead at how we can seize the opportunity to revolutionise a Green economy.

The panel was chaired by Caroline Lucas and included three speakers representing diverse viewpoints: Andrew Pendleton (Director of Policy and Advocacy at the New Economic Foundation), Fatima Ibrahim (climate activist, campaigner and commissioner at the Institute of Public Policy Research Environmental Justice Commission) and Anna Vickerstaff, senior UK campaigner at 350.org.

Lucas outlined the existing basic tenants of the Green vision for a GND:

  1. Restoration of the natural environment needs to be at the core of its efforts to address the devastation to wildlife and habitat since World War II;

  2. Efforts need to be international but also intersectional and intergenerational, because it’s the poorest people in the UK and the Global South that will bear the brunt of the climate breakdown, and it’s the younger generations who will pay the price for the current generation's throwaway economy; and

  3. We need to end our obsession with economic growth and create an ecologically literate economic paradigm not dictated by output indicators like GDP.

Tackling the new ‘triple crunch’ crisis: An acid test for the GND

Pendleton updated the ‘triple crunch’ concept from the 2008 report to include the economic crisis intensified by austerity, the growing climate and ecological crisis, and the political crisis that has developed as a response to the financial crisis of a decade ago.

According to calculations by the New Economics Foundation, the austerity programme cost £100 billion last year alone, so considering its cumulative cost, the investment required to fund the Green economy is not far off the mark from what the UK economy has lost in the past decade because of austerity.

The GND is not just an abstract concept: it has the potential to provide practical solutions to the myriad of problems affecting people’s lives, in the here and now. For example, the ailing manufacturing sector is about to witness yet another round of decimation not only as a result of Brexit but also because of the economic model we’re tied into.

“The economies of whole towns are at stake,” warned Pendleton. The GND can help invest in places and communities suffering from the process of deindustrialisation, political short-sightedness and injustice. Look at the predicted collapse of the Scunthorpe British Steel plant, for instance. According to Pendleton, under the GND, the plant can be salvaged and the steel manufacturing process made much cleaner, if half of the furnaces – currently fired by fossil fuels – are made electric and powered by renewable energy.

Similarly, on the issue of the ongoing housing affordability crisis, Shelter’s Social Housing Commission reports that 3.1 million new social homes need to be created between now and 2030. “These homes have to be zero carbon and include on-site renewables for their energy supplies”, urged Pendleton.    

Galvanising a GND from the grassroots: Essential ingredients

What was missing from the early efforts to implement a GND, 11 years ago, was grassroots support, especially from young people, to push for change. Vickerstaff, one of the organisers of the 'Trump baby' blimp that has been flown at multiple protests, said: “We can’t sit back and allow government and global organisations to deliver the massive change that we need. It’s up to us as people and as a movement to shift the balance of power and force action on every level.”

Extinction Rebellion protests have heightened calls for systematic change to avert climate chaos

 

Along with Ibrahim, Vickerstaff offered some of the essential elements of movement-building and local organising for a GND:           

1.     A visionary narrative harnessing the power of storytelling

Big ideas mobilise people, this is why we need to focus on a clear vision with bold measures for a future based on abundance rather than a scarcity perspective.

Historically, in the UK, local community organising about environmental issues has been about saying ‘no’, whether it is about fracking, coal-mining, airport expansion and more. According to Vickerstaff, this kind of campaigning means that all of these causes exist in isolation because we are pushing back against very specific policies or infrastructures.

In contrast, the GND is an opportunity to say ‘yes’ to something and  to work together to create a vision of how the needs of all people can be met, at local, national and global levels. It needs to be more than a campaign, it needs to be a social movement.

Realising a GND in the UK will require the power of the people to push decision-makers into action

2.     Intersectionality and justice

Ibrahim has been at the forefront of global climate activism for the last 10 years, since she was 15 years old. When she participated in her first youth climate strike, she noted the young protesters came from diverse social, ethnic and religious backgrounds. What struck her most was that they were talking about interconnectedness both to the planet and with each other – they were also talking about the historical responsibility of developed economies towards countries in the Global South. Never before have such solid attempts been made to harmonise climate action with climate justice.   

As a local grassroots organiser, Vickerstaff noted that national-level climate solutions are crippling local communities, whether it’s the UK government overturning local democracy in Lancashire to approve fracking as a false climate solution, or the fuel-tax as a climate solution proposed by President Macron in France, which will disproportionately affect rural populations and those living on the margins.

Without intersectionality, the GND will fail, because it will silence and marginalise working class and ethnic minority communities from climate spaces and their struggles will be considered secondary to the climate, when actually they are all interconnected. Focusing on solidarity, shared roots and ownership and the courage to have difficult conversations ensures that we don’t perpetuate the injustices that we don’t see and the solutions that don’t work.  

It’s the poorest people in the UK and the Global South that will bear the brunt of the climate breakdown

3.     Learning from existing movements

The GND intersects with a number of existing movements so there’s a great opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other. Vickerstaff spoke about lessons to be learnt from the Sunrise Movement that has been campaigning for a GND in the US. This youth-led political movement was born out of a fossil fuel divestment campaign led by a small group of students, organising around climate action at a local level – by making tangible and achievable demands to stop universities investing in global fossil fuel projects.

One of the reasons the GND struck a chord in the US was because it directly spoke to the demands of the American people who ranked the economy and jobs above climate and the environment – the GND is not about offering a choice between them.

The way forward: Getting involved

What is quite clear is that realising a GND in the UK will require the power of the people to push decision-makers into action; the government declaring a ‘climate emergency’ is a pertinent example of that. We won’t have all the answers to policy recommendations, but we shouldn’t feel powerless in the face of an existential crisis – we just need confidence in the collective power of communities and the belief that those communities deserve better.

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