Europe's Green Deal is a tepid response to the climate crisis

The EU's new climate plan hardwires an economic model that prizes GDP growth over ecological limits. 

NS

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On Sunday, Ursula von der Leyen and her new Commissioners began their five-year term at the helm of the European Union, promising a bold agenda on the climate — a European “Green Deal” — just as the world’s nations began another round of climate talks under the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

The policy, which would invest billions of Euros in an ecological transition and introduce new regulations to ramp up Europe's decarbonisation and biodiversity targets, has earned the EU pride of place at the UN conference as the first continent to commit to carbon neutrality. 

On closer examination, though, the Green Deal is a tepid response to climate breakdown, and is too modest to meet the challenges ahead. Von der Leyen's policies reaffirm Europe’s commitment to fiscal austerity, a programme of cutting non-growth sectors like education and healthcare, and an economic model that prizes GDP growth over ecological limits. 

While it's theoretically possible to increase economic activity without adding to a nation's carbon footprint (therefore decoupling GDP growth from carbon emissions), there is growing scientific evidence that this is unlikely to happen fast enough to maintain a carbon budget in line with a 1.5°C to 2°C rise in global temperatures. “Green” growth, in other words, is an oxymoron. 

Economic growth requires an increase in energy use. And the more energy society consumes, the more difficult it becomes to transition towards an energy system that functions entirely on renewable sources. Decarbonising Europe's economies will require scaling back aggregate energy use, as well as investing in renewables. A recent study published in the journal Nature shows that successfully reducing emissions has historically required not only investments in renewables, but also reductions in energy demand, which can be explained at least in part by a lesser growth in GDP.

In fact, models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for how we might stabilise the climate while also growing global GDP rely heavily on negative emissions technologies such as carbon capture, which are often unproven or dangerous at scale. Decarbonising Europe's economies will require a cap on aggregate energy demand, coupled with additional policies to equitably distribute energy use across society and reduce energy poverty (by, for example, providing free energy up to a maximum limit, after which the price for additional consumption rises significantly). 

A report from the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25), published this week in conjunction with a coalition of social movements, researchers, trade unionists and think tanks, outlined a plan for this post-growth vision building on proposals for a Green New Deal for Europe. It detailed a comprehensive plan to confront the crises of soaring inequality and ecological breakdown, with some 80 policy recommendations — including financing the energy transition with public resources, empowering local communities, guaranteeing decent jobs and supporting climate justice. One of the paper’s core pillars was to end the dogma of endless growth.

European countries do not need more growth in order to improve people’s lives. We already have enough wealth to go around; the problem lies in the distribution of that wealth. Currently, it is captured at the top. According to one recent study, the top 10 per cent of EU households own roughly 50 per cent of Europe's wealth. Equitably sharing this wealth could improve peoples' lives without plundering the Earth's resources. Fairness could be an antidote to the imperative of growth.

The premise of the report is that public consumption is more environmentally efficient than private consumption. Publicly funded welfare states emit less carbon than their privately funded alternatives. The US single-payer healthcare system, for example, accounts for eight per cent of national emissions; the NHS meanwhile contributes 3 per cent of national emissions in the UK. Ensuring equitable public access to healthcare and education and making these services free at the point of use is a progressive way to take the pressure off the planet. With public services provided for free, citizens wouldn't need to chase ever-higher incomes to support themselves. 

Clearly, people will still need to work and earn an income to provide for life’s other necessities. To ensure that nobody is left out of work in a post-growth economy, we could shorten the working week, and distribute available work more equally. An EU jobs guarantee programme could employ those willing and able to work in activities centred on social and environmental reproduction: maintenance, recycling, repair, and restoration of environmental and infrastructural resources, as well as education, culture and care.

The climate crisis changes everything. As the activist Naomi Klein has said, there are no non-radical options left before us. We need to rethink not only our energy technologies, but also how we organise work, welfare, public services, and the economy. Ursula von der Leyen and her commissioners would be wise to listen.

Riccardo Mastini is a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Giorgos Kallis is the ICREA Professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Autonomous University of Barcelona. Jason Hickel is an Anthropologist, Author and Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts.