Green New Deal Policy Brief

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Recent modelling of climate change shows that global warming must be kept below 1.5°C in order to prevent the most severe forms of Earth Systems Breakdown (IPCC 2019; Schleussner et al. 2016) – referred to as ESB hereafter. Although a broad range of environmental issues must be addressed in order to combat the multi-dimensional problem of ESB, policy seeking to address the environmental crisis must commit to dramatic emissions reductions within the next 11 years (IPCC, 2019). The challenge of ESB is occurring simultaneously to issues of pervasive inequality in the UK driven by increased income inequality, housing and job insecurity (GNDG, 2019), which have been further compounded by Covid-19 (Blundell et al., 2020).

The Green New Deal (GND) sees these two urgent justice issues to share the same systemic cause: capitalism. This policy brief will examine this assumption, and then proceed to analyse the potential suitability of the GND along three criteria; its potential to tackle the causes of ESB and pervasive inequality, the significance of barriers preventing its implementation, and its potential to address ecological and distributional justice issues.

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Summarising the Green New Deal

The GND is a parliamentary bill proposed by MP Caroline Lucas and Clive Lewis that aims to tackle the dual-crisis of ESB and pervasive inequality. It proposes a broad range of policy, but only its three most prominent proposals will be discussed in this brief. These proposals are;

  1. To replace ‘financialised capitalism’ (GNDG, 2019:13) with a ‘state economy’ (GNDG, 2019: 13) through the creation of nationalised banks and community owned co-operatives, greater regulation of the financial sector, and the replacement of the GDP as a measure of progress and prosperity (GNDG, 2019: 8)
  2. To terminate environmentally detrimental activities by ending fossil fuel subsidies and fracking within the UK, aviation expansion and restrictions on renewable energy (GNDG, 2019: 19-20).
  3. Create an ‘employment rich and low carbon UK economy’ (GNDG, 2019: 15). This includes ‘investing up to 5% of Britain’s annual GDP over the next 10 years’ (GNDG, 2019: 14) in sustainable farming, housing, transport, carbon neutral technologies and restoring ecosystems which will provide secure, well-paid jobs, and opportunities for re-skilling for UK citizens in the process.

Capitalism as the Systemic Cause

The GND identifies the constant pursuit of economic growth that credit-dependent, financialised capitalism enables as the principle mechanism in causing ESB and pervasive inequality (GNDG, 2019). This is aligned with the assertion that the pursuit of profit inherent to capitalist economics is founded on the commodification and exploitation of environmental goods (Mandel, 1978) and exacerbates inequality (Solimano, 2016). In line with the literature, this policy brief sees the assertion that capitalism is a key causal mechanism of ESB and pervasive inequality as justified.

By disputing the mutual compatibility of perpetual economic growth and environmental sustainability, the GND overcomes problems associated with ‘Green Growth’ (Fiorino, 2018) such as the difficulty of ‘decoupling resource use [… and] carbon emissions from GDP’ (Hickel & Kallis, 2019: 18), the difficulties associated with regulating business to ensure ethical production (Smith, 2011) and the ultimate need for a reduction in consumption in high-income countries (Alier, 2009; Smith, 2011).

In addition, by citing the financialised capitalist system – and implicitly the property rights that accompany it – as a barrier to environmental sustainability, the GND opens up debate for ecological and distributive justice issues such as rights to ecological space (Hayward, 2005), the adoption of which could be used as the theoretical underpinnings for combatting problems of environmental marginalisation.

Tackling Root Causes Rather Than Mitigating Impacts

The GND’s second and third proposals advocate to reduce total emissions through terminating environmentally detrimental activities and reducing the demand for carbon consumption through an ‘employment rich and low carbon UK economy’ (GNDG, 2019: 15). Emissions reduction effectively tackles the global warming responsible for triggering multiple aspects of ESB, which is a superior outcome than mitigating impacts through carbon off-setting (UNEP, 2019). Moreover, emissions reduction ensures that the UK to takes responsibility for its contribution to global emissions reduction rather than shifting this responsibility to LEDCs. This helps to remedy international justice issues of ecological debt (Roberts et al. 2009).

The GND’s third proposal of investing in reskilling and providing secure, well-paid jobs also takes a systemic problem-solving approach to issues of pervasive poverty. If implemented successfully, the GND would greatly reduce in-work poverty which currently acts as a crucial driving factor in maintaining income inequality (IFS, 2019). Furthermore, investment in housing and transport are likely to increase quality of life and prevent barriers to employment, which could amend regional inequalities (IFS, 2020).


Lack of an International Perspective

The national-level approach taken by the GND disregards global actors who significantly contribute to ESB and pervasive inequality on a large scale such as multi-national corporations and high emitting countries. Furthermore, unlike international agreements, the authority of the GND is constrained to short election cycles. These criticisms could indicate that the GND does not tackle the root causes of the dual-crisis or deliver distributional and ecological justice on a global scale. However, these criticisms are effectively countered by the issues with international policy-making such as fragmented responsibility (Zelli, 2011) and limited powers of enforcement (UNEP, 2019) which undermine the benefits of taking an international approach.

Politically Contentious

The GND is an eco-socialist proposal but could be criticised from the left and the right of the political spectrum. It is likely that conservative or liberal voters would harbour concerns about the impact of government intervention in the free market on individual liberties. They are also likely to be sceptical of high government spending and the ceding of classical economic measures of progress. This would have subsequent implications for the feasibility of the proposal when considered in the context of the dramatic Conservative majority in the House of Commons (UK Parliament, 2020).

Equally, some left-wing commentators may also argue that the GND is unfeasible due to its lack of acknowledgement of the role of the ‘social and labour movements’ (Williams, 2010: 166) that are essential to orchestrate the popular support and public pressure needed to bring about eco-socialist outcomes (Schwartzman 2011), such as those that the GND proposes. Although the aftermath of Covid-19 may provoke greater support for radical policy reform (World Economic Forum, n.d) and therefore reduce the weight of these criticisms, at present feasibility is still a highly significant barrier to the GND’s implementation and serves as its main weakness.

Policy Alternative – Carbon Trading

A policy proposal that addresses both these proposed criticisms is carbon trading, specifically the EU Emissions Trading System (EUETS), which are explained in full by the World Economic Forum (Hartmann, 2017) and the European Commission (n.d.) respectively.

Advantages of carbon trading policies include its successful implementation in comparison to other policy proposals and its success in reducing overall emissions (Caney & Hepburn, 2011). However, both carbon trading in principle and the EUETS specifically have critical flaws which undermine its ability to tackle ESB and pervasive inequality. Firstly, through establishing a market price for carbon, carbon trading essentially monetises environmental goods. Money is an inadequate metric for valuing environmental goods for a host of reasons including the volatility of the preconditions that underpin its worth (see Hayward, 2019; Stern, 2006 for more information) and the immeasurable nature of environmental goods (O’Neill & Spash 2000). Secondly, carbon trading makes no progress on rectifying the causes of social inequalities as it disproportionately disadvantages low-income households, which has ‘unwelcome implications for distributive justice’ (Caney & Hepburn, 2011). Finally, the emissions targets set by the EUETS fall short of the required emissions reductions to prevent severe ESB which shows that the policy is inadequate in scope.

Concluding Analysis

This policy brief argues that the approach of the GND is sound. It’s valid identification of capitalism as a causal mechanism of ESB and pervasive inequality, and its commitment to total emission reductions demonstrate the GND’s potential to tackle the causes of the dual-crisis. These strengths also enable the GND to avoid drawbacks commonly associated with liberal economic environmental reforms such as monetising environmental goods.

Furthermore, the GND provides a starting-point for addressing ecological and distributional justice issues such as environmental marginalisation, ecological debt and income inequality. When considered together, these strengths make the GND preferable to the policy alternative of carbon trading.

However, the barriers to implementation are significant and this is not acknowledged by the GNDG. Although a post-Covid environment may increase the support for large-scale economic restructuring and extensive investment, feasibility is still a substantial weakness considering the necessity to implement policy that successfully limits global warming to 1.5°C within an 11-year timeframe. This limits its potential for immediate adoption.  


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