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Since the 1990s, the major industrial nations have made a number of attempts to coordinate global responses to the challenges of climate change. Most recently, the proposed US Green New Deal of February 2019 and the EU’s European Green New Deal of December 2019 have converged on a route map that not only promises a viable strategy for combatting climate change but also offers new political opportunities for the left in Britain to mobilise support.
Here, we argue that there is a considerable potential is for a new green Labour model. However, to realise it progressive politicians from socialist, environmental and liberal traditions need to deepen and modernise the existing green deal narrative. There are four areas in particular where a shift in thinking is needed.
First, the new model should reject the metaphor of the green industrial revolution. Nostalgia‐laden labels of Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine have been promoted by Conservative governments and happily shared by Labour. These labels speak to a technocratic, top‐down model of traditional Keynesianism, which conjures images from the past while constricting the imagination of the present and future. The potential of a mix of social innovation and digital revolution to transform ‘soft’ infrastructure needs to be at the heart of green deal proposals. Currently they play second fiddle to ‘hard’ infrastructure investment. Yet, new tech opens new vistas. Cities from Manchester to Milan are responding to the Covid‐19 pandemic by reconfiguring their urban systems. Digital platforms and applications offer simplified ticketing, real‐time travel information, integrated transport options and cycle and vehicle sharing. A focus limited to public financing of electric car ownership completely misses this. There is a vacancy for a twenty‐first century city mayor whose epitaph of platform socialism would be the modern equivalent of nineteenth century Joseph Chamberlain’s municipal socialism.
Second, the Green New Deal rightly stresses the centrality of jobs and material sufficiency for all as the necessary co‐benefits of environmental actions. However, this too readily slips into an implicitly economistic view of people’s aspirations. The potential widespread attractiveness of changes in lifestyle through sustainability transitions—both for individuals and institutions—does not get a look‐in. The fear of being accused of preachiness leaves an unsustainable consumption landscape uncontested. Telling people what to do does not work, but lifestyle changes are an essential part of a sustainability transition. The transformation of our consumption/production systems can enable lifestyle changes that are popular. The unexpected side‐effects of the Covid crisis have included clean air, less commuting and hearing birds sing. In the medium term, the mobility transition offers convenience, the food transition offers health, the buildings transition offers comfort and lower fuel bills. The absence of positive lifestyle policies is a serious political shortcoming which a new green Labour combination needs to pursue.
Third, Green New Deal politics seeks to restore a significant role for working people and local communities in the sustainability transition. Yet, this can sometimes manifest itself as a return to an old fashioned and unrealistic type of class politics. The choice is neither a simplistic model of business‐led green transformation, nor the suggestion that the labour movement is the primary social force to lead change. Pluralism has to be at the heart of any successful green deal movement. Successful sustainability transitions rely on a wide alliance of social actors with a shared vision. The key challenge is to show positive opportunities for new broad coalitions for system transitions which combine environmental and employment benefits. For example, in the buildings transition, large refurbishment and retrofit programmes should develop a coalition of actors representing building workers, city authorities, community and tenants’ organisations, banks and supply companies.
Fourth, the twenty‐first century world is interdependent. We live in a world where the local and regional overlap and are intertwined with the national, continental and global. The interconnections are all the stronger when it comes to tackling a great societal challenge like climate change, which is why centralised, top‐down methods are not the answer. Rather than reheat an old, mission‐driven approach, sustainability transitions need a challenge‐led approach where national government specifies the broad direction, but acknowledges that experimentation around a diversity of solutions must be nurtured with groups of stakeholders at local and city level. The classic big national projects find this very difficult: they favour national ‘rollout’ with budgets held in Whitehall and local authorities administering central government decisions. The debacle of the UK’s Covid test and trace programme has served to highlight the limitations of this model of politics. Central to the green deal should be transition programmes which set clear sustainability targets, but where budgets are devolved to enable localities to design initiatives appropriate to their needs in partnership with local stakeholders.