Tinkering at the margins of an economic model driving environmental breakdown is guaranteed to deepen the climate emergency. To thrive, only a systemic response to a systems crisis will do. We need a UK Green New Deal to rapidly and justly decarbonise our society. This is a plan to restructure the economy toward sustainability, better steward and repair natural systems, hardwire democracy and justice into economic and social life, reimagine and expand prosperity, build resilience, and decolonise the global economy and its everyday operations. The goal is simple but transformative: a deep and purposeful reorganisation of our economy so that it is democratic, sustainable, and equal by design. Driven by a step change in public policy and investment, a UK Green New Deal can rescue our collective futures from climate catastrophe and create the conditions for universal human flourishing.
A UK Green New Deal will depend on an unprecedented mobilisation of finance, anchored by an ambitious expansion in public investment, and directed through a green industrial strategy to restructure the economy – both supply and demand – toward a post-carbon future. Given the annual cost of reaching net-zero by 2050 is estimated to be 1-2% of GDP to 20501, it is reasonable to assume achieving comprehensive decarbonisation at an earlier date will require increasing annual investment in decarbonising industries, technologies and infrastructures – perhaps up to a value of 3-5% of GDP per year in the next decade – creating millions of good jobs and building low-carbon wealth.
A UK Green New Deal, however will need to be more than a series of discrete policies to decarbonise. It must be a common project to transform society, extending freedom to all, and supporting new ways of living and working. The purpose is not just to decarbonise today’s economy but to build the democratic economy of tomorrow, one based on new and purposeful goals that centres what Tithi Bhattacharya describes as “life-making over profit-making”.2
Over the summer, Common Wealth is publishing a comprehensive road map for a Green New Deal for the UK. With contributions from leading climate activists, practitioners, policy experts, and academics, it will set out detailed plans for justly and rapidly decarbonising almost two dozen sectors or institutions in six main areas.
Our road map for a Green New Deal is based on the following principles:
A UK Green New Deal will ultimately require rewiring an economy based on extraction where nature is commodified and unsustainably consumed, where the commons – natural, social, technological – is enclosed and its wealth privatised; and where value is extracted from labour, both waged and unwaged. Extraction drives the unequal accumulation of wealth and concentrates power.
An alternative must be anchored in models of ownership and control that are sustainable, democratic and purposeful by design to better steward our common resources. This will require a reimagining and expansion of common ownership to ensure we share in the wealth we create in common, new forms of stewardship to re-embed the economy in nature and end the false separation of the economic from the environmental, and a rewiring of control so we all have a stake and a say in decision-making that shapes our workplaces, communities, and society. And it will require a new purpose for the economy, focused on more social, creative and sustainable ways of creating, measuring and distributing value in the economy. A UK Green New Deal can build that future for all of us.
Over the coming weeks, Common Wealth will publish a set of detailed policy interventions that taken together can deliver on these principles and scale a democratic and sustainable economic architecture if powered by social movement, communities and politics organising for climate justice. A UK Green New Deal must be central to that transformation.
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The climate crisis is fundamentally a crisis of politics. We can therefore address it democratically and justly. We have the capability, ingenuity, and resources to radically and equitably decarbonise our economy and repair the natural systems we are currently ravaging. The challenge is in mobilising the democratic power and transformative programme to match the scale of emergency confronting us. If we fail, natural systems breakdown will accelerate further, with those least responsible for change bearing the brunt of its repercussions.
Climate breakdown is already here, it is just not evenly distributed. From extreme weather events to rising seas, from collapsing biodiversity and soil erosion, the effects are already devastating many communities, livelihoods, and ecosystems, particularly those in the Global South.3 Yet unless global carbon emissions are reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero globally by 2050, temperature rises of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels are highly likely within decades.4 This will mean large-scale planetary disaster and an end to the old assumptions – of climatic stability and benign nature – of political life.
Increases of 1.5 degrees or more would trigger accelerating and interconnected forms of natural systems breakdown that would all but guarantee immense and unnecessary suffering and disruption for many. Decarbonising rapidly enough to keep temperature rises to 1.5 degrees or less is therefore a question of life or death for many people and species and will require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented transitions in economic and social systems to achieve.5 Yet on current trends, temperatures are forecast to increase by 3 to 5 degrees above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.6 Temperature rises on that scale will threaten the sustainability of human civilization as we know it and have devastating effects on health and mortality rates; it will condemn with certainty many of the habitats and species that coexist with and enrich us.7
Climate crisis and the distribution of its effects are laced through and driven by wider inequalities in the global economy, flowing from histories of colonial extraction. The poorest half of the world’s population are responsible for just 10% of carbon dioxide emissions compared to 50% for the richest tenth, yet developing countries will bear an estimated 75% of the costs of climate crisis.8 Similarly, driven by high levels of resource consumption by wealthier nations and individuals, we are dangerously outstripping the capacity of the Earth to regenerate itself, using materials and producing carbon faster than they can be regenerated or absorbed.9 Without change, we risk fatally eroding the biophysical conditions that sustain and renew life.
The uneven distribution of cause and effect of climate breakdown suggests we may have entered the Anthropocene geologically, our new era where human activity is the dominant and devastating influence on the climate and environment. Yet politically we live in the “capitalocene”: capitalism organises the relations between humans and the rest of nature in ways that are hierarchical, unequal, and extractive, appropriating and transforming nature and labour for private gain with little regard for the common wealth.10
The choice then is clear: we must rapidly and equitably transform the institutions, infrastructure, and ways of life of the carbon age in little more than a decade or face deepening climate apartheid.11 Transformation will require a daunting but ultimately deeply hopeful project of collective creation.
Out of crisis, we can build a better society that supports richer forms of human flourishing for all. But tinkering won’t suffice. Only a shared effort of reimagining, of new world making, can radically and justly decarbonise our society in ways that deepen and universalise individual and collective freedom.
Inaction or timidity guarantees escalating breakdown, and becomes more costly the longer we wait. A technocratic politics of anti-democratic managerialism – a climate Leviathan – risks securing decarbonisation at the expense of justice, amplifying the failures of an economic system that is driving climate breakdown.12 Or, worse, an ethno-nationalist vision of climate eschatology could triumph: a dangerous mix of a reckless defence of the commanding heights of the carbon economy rather than a justly managed transition, an aggressive acceleration of the inequalities of global capitalism, and the increasingly violent policing of people displaced by environmental crisis. Given this, a politics of incrementalism is not simply complacent, it is actively dangerous.
A “hothouse earth” of deep inequality, disruption and hollowed-out democracy does not have to be our future.13 We are not passive bystanders. But we are the last generation that can avert potentially runaway climate breakdown and build the forms of resilience we need to cope equitably with the inevitable change to come. The window to act is narrowing and action must be matched with scale and ambition. Only a Green New Deal can deliver this, rescuing our collective futures from its current trajectory. In the face of climate crisis, there really is no alternative.
A Green New Deal is a public-led, society-wide mission, shaped by workers, unions and communities, to rapidly and justly decarbonise the economy as fast as feasibly and fairly possible, bring our environmental footprint within fair and sustainable limits, and expand the social and material conditions for universal human flourishing. It aims to rapidly and justly restructure the economy toward environmental sustainability, decoupling economic activity from non-renewable resource consumption and carbon emissions while expanding the sectors and activities that can build and share sustainable wealth. The means are a transformative step change in the forms and direction of investment, ownership, planning, and control in society, based on a deep institutional turn in the ordering of our economy toward democracy, sustainability and shared forms of sovereignty.
The scale and pace of change required will not happen if left to market-based “solutions”.14 Markets on their own are an inappropriate mechanism to drive society-wide reorganisation of production and consumption within a short timeframe, risk amplifying inequalities, and fail to account for environmental externalities that threaten our collective futures. Progressively designed carbon price policies that lower demand for carbon-intensive goods and services, incentivise transition to a zero carbon future, and punish polluters inside and outside of the UK have a role to play, but “are no substitute for the large-scale investment in sustainable industries, new technologies, and the transition toward zero-emissions infrastructure.”15 A Green New Deal will instead depend on public action – at multiple levels of the state – playing a fundamental role in re-defining the direction of development and coordinating economic activity, repurposing institutions, and reshaping supply and demand in the economy to meet social and environmental needs.16
A Green New Deal must have justice and democracy at its heart. Economic restructuring must involve a double-movement, delivering comprehensive decarbonisation while transforming how the economy operates and for whom. In other words, the point is not just to decarbonise, but in the process build a new one of expanded possibility and social wealth, a deep reconfiguration of the economy based on new ways of living, working, and thinking.
Today, our economic model is failing to generate sustainable, fairly shared prosperity, a failure rooted in long-standing flaws in our economy.17 The British state is too centralised, hoarding power in Whitehall and giving too little to the nations, regions, cities and towns of the UK. Too many are denied security and dignity by a decade of austerity and insecure work. And globally the UK contributes to climate crisis as a key nodal point and beneficiary of an extractive and unequal international economy.
A radical Green New Deal must address these failings, democratising and decentralising the state, giving new resources and powers to communities, rewiring the institutional arrangements and ownership structures of our economy, creating new forms of purpose, measurement and value to guide economic activity, and building new forms of security. It must support a new internationalism, multilateral in orientation, decarbonising and decolonising in action, working for and shaped by the Global South and undoing the colonial legacies that the UK continues to benefit from. A Green New Deal should be a collective and democratic project to reimagine public affluence, the commons, the household economy and the market for sustainable prosperity, focused on meeting the needs of human and non-human life, and centring the voices and interests of ordinary people and communities.
The need for a transformational shared project to drive a step change in emissions and sustainability is clear. There have been remarkable and unforeseen successes over the past few decades. The UK’s electricity system has recently gone a fortnight with no coal generation, part of a remarkable transformation in energy generation. Carbon emissions have declined by around 38% from 1990 levels, decarbonising faster than any other major industrialised economy, due primarily to de-coaling energy generation and expanding renewables alongside shifts in industry18 (although importantly this figure fails to account for the emissions from imported goods based on consumption which substantially reduces the scale of emissions reduction18). Critically, public policy played a vital role in driving these shifts; emissions would have been twice as large today compared to 1990 in a “business as usual” scenario.19
Yet despite these successes, we are straining at the limits of what the current policy environment can achieve and are still failing to keep pace with our decarbonisation commitments. As the Committee on Climate Change noted in February 2019, the government is falling short in 15 out of 18 areas needed to meet its legally-binding climate targets. This is often due to unsupportive policy decisions.21 From the selling off of the Green Investment Bank to a company that supports open coal mines and fracking to backing for carbon-intensive infrastructures to inadequate support for home retrofitting and the renewables sector, many opportunities have been missed. As a result, the UK is on course to miss its carbon budgets in the 2020s and beyond by growing margins. Indeed, despite legislating for net-zero by mid-century, the UK is currently set to miss its target of an 80% reduction on 1990 levels of emissions by 2050.
A Green New Deal must consequently deliver a step change in outcomes, reducing carbon emissions across the whole of society at once, including where decarbonisation has been slowest and most difficult. This means that alongside driving forward areas where more rapid progress has already been achieved, such as in scaling low-carbon energy generation, credible strategies for just decarbonisation of sectors that have lagged behind must be at the centre a Green New Deal. This includes areas such as transport, land use, building stock, industry, heating, aviation, and shipping. A Green New Deal must drive the accelerated deployment of low-carbon technologies and infrastructure at scale and the managed and just phasing out of carbon-heavy activities.
Transforming and decarbonising supply will not be enough though; a Green New Deal will need to reshape demand too. The UK cannot decarbonise rapidly without reshaping consumption, including scaling down meat and dairy consumption, carbon-intensive activities particularly associated with the wealthiest, and fairly managing and constraining demand for air travel. It will also require new approaches to complex consumer and industrial supply chains to limit the global environmental footprint of the UK. A Green New Deal must then grasp the nettle of shifting society’s choice architecture or it will not deliver the scale of reductions required. It will also require the collective provision of goods and services currently privatised, transforming the means consumption. Changing the choice architecture will generate benefits but will require political and social leadership.
Far-reaching changes are needed to deliver decarbonisation. A Green New Deal must drive comprehensive and simultaneous change across many sectors.
The UK’s legislating for a net-zero emissions target by 205023 is a reflection of a growing recognition of the scale of climate emergency – and also our capacity to act to limit further breakdown and build just resilience for unavoidable environmental shifts. The Committee on Climate Change recently estimated a total resource cost for a transition to net-zero of between 1-2% of GDP by 2050. They also made clear the foundations to deliver major parts of a net-zero economy are already active or in development, only requiring a ramping up of policy support to deliver. In other words, net-zero is achievable based on existing technologies and practices on a low-cost pathway in little more than a generation if there is a step change in public policy.24
Three powerful reasons should compel the UK to seek adopt a significantly earlier target for comprehensive decarbonisation: justice, capability, and the opportunity to build a better, healthier society.
Given this, our ambition should be simple but transformative: as the nation that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution and fossil-fuel capitalism, the UK should be the first industrialised country to comprehensively decarbonise while hardwiring justice and prosperity into economic and social life. We should be a model showing decarbonisation can be done rapidly and justly while building a healthier and more prosperous society. All Green New Deal interventions must drive an increase in the rate of change of carbon reduction in the here and now - embedding a radical exponentialism in our capacity to decarbonise.25 A radical Green New Deal must mobilise the resources and ambition to put us on a technically feasible pathway to that goal.
Critically, the existing parameters of debate around timings for net-zero are based on a model of “acceptable cost” defined by the lowest cost of transition not the highest ambition. Yet together we can actively choose the values that determine what is costly and what is acceptable; that is the purpose and content of politics. A radical approach should choose what we deem acceptable both for ours and future generations. This requires more than a lowest cost trajectory; both people and planet deserve the highest ambition investment pathway possible that would bring forward the process of decarbonisation and increase exponentially society’s capacity to decarbonise. The exact timing – and who will bear the cost of transition – is ultimately a political decision and one we should collectively define as a mission of the highest ambition.
Alongside a date-based target, the size and type of net-zero the UK pursues is important when considering the type and pace of decarbonisation to pursue. We need to be clear that net-zero is only a radical and just notion under particular terms, is contested, and contains many possible loopholes and injustices. If it is a substantial net then the UK would have to pursue large-scale offsetting abroad. In that case, the use of bio-energy with carbon capture and storage will have highly negative impacts on land use in the Global South and global climate inequalities. This does not accord with the principles of justice that are at the heart of a Green New Deal.
Radical decarbonisation incorporating a net-zero target should be achieved through offsetting in the UK primarily via the scaling of natural sinks, such as restoring peatlands and reforestation. Given we will need to offset and remove carbon from the atmosphere to stabilise the climate just forms of negative emissions and netting are vital but the UK’s contribution should centre on restoring its natural carbon sinks and nature. Similarly, a reliance on speculative, unproven negative emissions technologies for mitigation or offsetting abroad should not form part of a net-zero target under a Green New Deal. We should therefore mobilise for a globally fair net-zero as fast as feasible and just.
One step to support political debate over the pace and nature of decarbonisation would be to require the Committee on Climate Change to set out technically feasible pathways to a just net-zero based on higher-ambition, higher-investment pathways, including 2030, 2035, 2040, and 2045. This would give greater clarity on the potential ways forward and the various co-benefits and costs of different pathways that would better inform political debate over the UK’s approach to decarbonisation.
Financial institutions shape the future through their allocation of resources in the present. Control of investment therefore gives command over our collective futures. Today, taken as a whole, the financial system is doing too little to decarbonise our economy, too much to generate and sustain our deeply unequal economy, and privatising decision-making power over the future. For example, since the Paris climate agreement globally banks have financed $1.9 trillion26 of fossil fuel projects with financing on the rise each year; Barclays alone has channelled $85bn toward the fossil fuel industry in that time.27 Without deep reform, private finance will accelerate climate breakdown. At the same time, public investment is currently too low to drive the scale of change needed.
At the heart of any radical Green New Deal must therefore be a transformation of our financial system so it can mobilise and direct the resources and investment needed to drive decarbonisation. Rapid and just transition requires the largest peacetime mobilisation of resources in our history. To deliver this, four changes are required: the reorientation of private financial institutions to serve social needs through new macroprudential rules and binding green fiduciary duties for institutional investors; the repurposing of central banking to guide our economies toward rapid transition including the use of new macroprudential tools and credit guidance; the creation of a new architecture of international finance that can fund a global just transition; and finally, an expansion in the scale and ambition of public finance and fiscal policy including increased public investment and mission-oriented public banking. Taken together, this will require the creation and expansion of institutions that can shape investments through new forms of public, democratic control.
A step change in public investment must underpin, drive and direct a Green New Deal. Given the costs of financing decarbonisation are partly endogenous and highly uncertain given the time periods involved, it is impossible to give a precise rate or total amount of investment required. However, given the annual cost of reaching net-zero by 2050 is estimated to be 1-2% of GDP to 2050 according to the Committee on Climate Change, it is reasonable to assume achieving comprehensive decarbonisation at an earlier date will require even higher levels of investment. Government policy must therefore be ready to direct and steer public and private funds into decarbonising industries, technologies and infrastructures - perhaps upto a value of 3-5% of GDP per year over the coming decades.
Critically a radical step change in investment, driven by increased public investment, is affordable, beneficial and fair:
The question then is not whether we can afford a Green New Deal. We can. The more pressing issue is ensuring that the costs are distributed fairly and progressively, in ways that protect low income households in particular. The bigger question – in the face of mounting climate crisis – is whether we can afford not to pursue a Green New Deal. Given the injustices, costs, and missed opportunities that would involve, the answer is no. If in the wake of the financial crisis, states and central banks in advanced capitalist economies mobilised public power and planning to protect private wealth, today the expansive, directional power of public finance and central banking should be mobilised to steer our economy toward comprehensive decarbonisation and economic justice.
The purpose of a Green New Deal is not just to decarbonise today’s economy but to build the democratic economy of tomorrow. Green Keynesianism isn’t enough. The long-term goal of a transformative Green New Deal – beyond driving rapid and just decarbonisation and the exponential scaling of the capacity to reduce carbon emissions – should be the steady, irreversible replacement of today’s economy with a democratic one centred around life and vitality, with institutions that share the wealth we create in common, and where deep freedom, solidarity, and capability are a collective inheritance. A Green New Deal should be a conscious effort to design democracy into the fabric of everyday life.
Such an economy would centre new kinds of work and value, rooted in solidarity, care and creative expression. As Alyssa Battistoni writes, it would be “oriented toward sustaining and improving human life as well as the lives of other species who share our world.”32 It would be based on a decolonising economics that would tackle existing and longstanding disadvantages experienced by marginalised groups, challenging the multiple and reinforcing forms of oppression that lace through our society.33A Green New Deal would build new forms of stewardship to re-embed the economy in nature, ending the false separation of the economic from the environmental, scaling new institutions of communal flourishing, and rewiring control so we all have a stake and a say in decision-making that shapes our workplaces, communities, and society. An expansive social commons and the building of public, green infrastructures that support new forms of solidarity, creativity and commoning would underpin a Green New Deal.
A transformative Green New Deal will require a decisive break with neoliberalism. The core of neoliberalism is a multi-pronged, often contradictory strategy to insulate capitalism from democracy, to transform the economy into an object beyond the realm of politics, to privilege private power over common wealth. The Green New Deal must be its opposite: a de-naturalisation of the economy to re-embed it within natural systems by conscious design, a recognition of the plasticity of institutions and their political ordering, and a belief that deepening democracy and the capacity for democratic intervention in all spheres of society is a precondition for a better collective future.
A Green New Deal will consequently depend on the confident use of tools neoliberalism has long sought to neuter: collective action, ambitious public investment, strengthened labour power, democratic planning and democratised workplaces, the deliberate scaling of a pluralistic landscape of shared ownership, the commoning of resources, and the extension of the public realm and shared ownership in place of private consumption. Underpinning all of this must be a democratisation of ownership and control in the economy, at multiple scales from local to the national and beyond, breaking from a system dominated by private ownership focused on profit and accumulation and instead extending democratic governance and power into economic life, repurposing enterprise to serve social and environmental needs over private accumulation.
A Green New Deal will require new ways of creating and measuring value in the economy with public policy targeting a more needs-focused, distributionally-sensitive and sustainable range of metrics than GDP growth, including the expansion of leisure time as a key goal of the economy. Ambitious industrial strategies capable of restructuring production and consumption, supporting just social and ecological reproduction, and driving the mass deployment and adoption of zero-carbon technologies and infrastructures will be vital. The institutions that dominate our economy – from the company to institutional investors to central banking – must be rewired through new forms of ownership and governance so that they are sustainable, democratic, and inclusive by design.
How we radically decarbonise must be decided together and powered by the energy and vision of social movements and communities on the frontline of change. It cannot be a narrow project. Common Wealth will be publishing a detailed road map for a radical Green New Deal as a contribution to the debate, with transformative ideas drawn from activists, practitioners, and policy experts from both sides of the Atlantic. With reports setting out detailed proposals for how to rapidly decarbonise critical sectors or institutions in the economy, it traces out the contours of a UK Green New Deal that can deliver just and rapid transition.
We would like to thank all the contributors to Common Wealth’s UK Green New Deal collection, whose contributions were invaluable to this report, and whose forthcoming chapters chart a course to radically and justly decarbonise our economy. We would also like to thank David Adler, Fran Boait, Miriam Brett, Sahil Dutta, Fatima-Zahra Ibrahim, Emily Kenway, Laurie Laybourn-Langton, Michael Jacobs, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, Laurie Macfarlane, Ieva Padagaite, David Powell, Hannah Martin, Leo Murray, Carys Roberts, Alfie Stirling, Nick Taylor, and Pawel Wargan, among others, for their advice and support on this report. Finally, we’d like to thank the social movements and activists that have made the case for systems change in response to climate crisis, opening up the possibility of transformation, from the original Green New Deal charted by NEF ten years ago, to the UKSCN and many more today. We hope this is a useful contribution to that movement.
Common Wealth is grateful for the support of the European Climate Foundation for this project.