The 21st century has more potential than perhaps any other in our brief evolutionary history. We stand on the cusp of computing, genetic and energy generation breakthroughs that were only recently in the realm of science-fiction. A golden age of humanity is tantalisingly within our grasp. But this amazing potential balances precariously on a knife edge.
In striving to get here we have destroyed, drilled and polluted our way to the very brink of ecological disaster. Our delicate biosphere is reaching the limits of its capacity to support a global civilisation. With billions hooked on fossil fuels, endless consumption and unsustainable agriculture, we’re now in the red for three of the nine so-called “planetary boundaries”. An excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the best known of these. But biodiversity as well as phosphorus and nitrogen levels in crops and ecosystems are also now in the red.
So, while the world’s long overdue focus on the climate crisis is to be welcomed, it must be understood in the context that it is still entirely possible to lick one problem and yet destroy ourselves in numerous other ways. That’s a daunting realisation. Because if the science is correct, and we have every reason to believe it is, then simply replacing a fossil fuel-based, consumer-driven economy with one powered by renewables won’t cut it.
Enter the “Green New Deal”. Here in the UK, the Labour Party has coined the term “Green Industrial Revolution” to reflect our own political and industrial history. The key words in each are “new” and “revolution” – shorthand for radical, systemic change. It is a bold decree that the art of the politically possible must now make way for that of the scientifically necessary. That means we have a decade to enact at least a 50 per cent cut in our net greenhouse gas emissions at the same time as restoring natural habitats on a vast, unprecedented scale.
But this all takes place against the backdrop of a global economy still limping from the 2008 financial crash. A decade of austerity has followed 30 years of neoliberal economic dogma and small-state, low-tax, deregulatory mantras. But given the scale and nature of the challenge before us you could hardly dream up a more inappropriate, short-termist model of economic organisation. In the three decades since scientist James Hansen gave his groundbreaking climate change warning testimony to Congress in 1988, our neoliberal economies have been responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions in the past 25 years than the rest of human history combined.
It’s why the climate crisis and dawning public understanding of its implications is giving right-wing politicians such cause for concern. They’re adamant that markets alone, sufficiently regulated, will solve the problem. Perhaps when Nicholas Stern produced his groundbreaking report on the economics of climate change back in 2006, an incremental, market-based approach could have worked. But that ship sailed long ago. Conservatism and centrist politics are about maintaining current political and economic equilibrium when what is now required is radical, disruptive systemic change.
The creation of millions of secure, well-paid jobs must be at the forefront of any Green Industrial Revolution. Since 2015, Labour has been developing its policy programme and launched its “Green Transformation” pamphlet last year. Rapid decarbonisation of the economy, building new sustainable infrastructure, renewable power generation, retrofitting homes, offices and factories are central to the plan. It’s also key to a just transition away from our fossil fuel reliance. After 40 years of being kicked by successive governments, trade unions, working people and their communities need to know that the often secure and well-paid jobs associated with high-emission sectors will be replaced and even enhanced. Labour committed last year to an equivalent to the GI Bill for energy workers, guaranteeing retraining, new jobs on equivalent conditions, and support through transition.
In the US, a radical, eco-socialist agenda is now being championed by the Sunrise Movement, the Justice Democrats, congresswoman AOC and Senator Markey. Central to both transformative programmes is the notion that social and economic justice cannot be separated from environmental justice. Something France’s centrist president Emmanuel Macron, who ignored this fundamental principle, ran into when he introduced his recent multi-billion-euro carbon taxes. The gilets jaunes protests and civil unrest followed.
Therefore, it is only by prioritising investment in targeted communities, ensuring everything from scrappage schemes for cars and vans, to carbon and pollution taxes are geared to disproportionately benefit low and middle-income earners. We know that globally the wealthiest ten per cent are responsible for more than half of all greenhouse gas emissions. The poorest 50 per cent are responsible for around just 10 per cent. If the “polluter pays” principle is our guide, the poorest cannot give up what they don’t consume. The burden, then, must fall on the wealthiest – both here in the UK and globally.
Fairness aside, this approach makes complete sense. In a liberal democracy rapid, radical and fundamental economic change must benefit the many not the few, if it is to gain popular, long-term political support. The decades of failure under neoliberalism where economic inequality dramatically increased has come at a price – namely political instability, the rise of the authoritarian right and here in the UK, Brexit. Even if we avert the worst of the climate crisis, we will still be affected by unavoidable temperature rises, food supply fluctuations and more. Therefore, building resilience into our democracies must be a priority.
But to avoid broader ecological breakdown and achieve a net-zero carbon economy, it will be necessary to dematerialise our economy at the same time as decarbonising it. In other words, massively reducing our use material resources, ramping up efficiency and recycling. This means a rapid transition towards what is known as the circular economy.
The fewer natural resources and materials we use – everything from timber to fish and from minerals to metals – the less energy is needed along the sourcing, production, consumption and disposal supply chains. It also makes it easier to conserve and replenish critical ecosystems and vanishing habitats, as well as protecting vital natural carbon sinks, such as forests and soils.
To ensure this succeeds we need to be able to accurately measure and account for these precious resources. The Labour Party is looking at the use of sector-wide carbon and natural resource budgets, allocated throughout government departments. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility to envisage such budgets one day becoming as important as financial ones.
Which leads us to paying for the Green Industrial Revolution. We know decarbonising the global economy could cost as much as $6-8 trillion dollars a year, perhaps even more when the sheer scale and magnitude of the industrial and economic shifts required are considered. Certainly, higher taxes on millionaires themselves have a part to play.
But it’s likely that borrowing will be required as well. The whole point of these transformative programmes is that measures to save our planet should be judged on how effective they will be at achieving their goal. Enter the Labour Party’s fiscal credibility rule.
This mechanism already makes a distinction between current spending that does need to be covered by taxes in the medium term and investment spending that does not, because future generations benefit from said investment. Given the existential threat of the climate crisis to future generations, the choice between inheriting debt and civilisation’s destruction, seems to be a no-brainer. That becomes even starker when you read about the potential financial consequences of ignoring the problem: that’s why John McDonnell has said we will task the Office for Budget Responsibility with factoring in climate change and environmental damage to their assessments and forecasts.
It’s obvious the Green Industrial Revolution will challenge orthodox political and economic thinking. That requires bravery from both politicians and electorates. Radical change worries voters with good reason. Why create upheaval and fix something, if it is not broken? The problem is our best science tells us our planet is broken, and that to fix it requires rapid and radical change to almost every aspect of our lives.