What's the deal with the Green New Deal?

Among the encouraging political straws in the wind are the growing momentum in the United States and the United Kingdom, two leading carbon states, for something called the 'Green New Deal'. I have some questions about it, but first of all it's worth acknowledging how far it has climbed up the political agenda.

In the US, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has shown considerable skill in drumming up support for this in the form of H. Res.0109. Among its Senate sponsors are a mix of traditional American liberals like Elizabeth Warren and opportunists like Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker. That shows AOC to be an effective advocate.

In the United Kingdom, there has been a Green New Deal Group for some years, supported by a range of left-wing economists, Greens and others, whose work is now recognised by Labour for a Green New Deal. There is a good chance of getting a version of this onto the next Labour manifesto. Elements of it, particularly the idea of using public investment to promote green industry, have already been adopted. These are just two versions of the Green New Deal idea, and they are not the most radical. Nonetheless, I focus on them because they appear to have some authority and momentum behind them.

There are some significant differences between the plans in the US and in Britain. In both cases, there is a call for major public infrastructure investments to convert the energy grid and generate 'green jobs'. In both cases, there is an emphasis on expanding public transport networks, and on using financial incentives and safety nets to promote 'greening'. However, the major difference is that the British group has called for a range of economic controls, above all capital controls, restrictions on financial mechanisms, the break-up of large banks, and the diminution of the City's role, while the H. Res.0109 doesn't mention any abbreviations of Wall Street's power or any hint of capital controls. 

This is a significant difference. What you make of that difference depends on whether you buy the 'win win' ideology implicit in some Green New Deal literature: that is, the idea that we can have capitalist growth, higher wages, lots of union jobs, and a sparkly new upgraded green economy, all without anyone losing out. If you think that, in fact, restrictive carbon policies would be costly to capital, then your prudent assumption would have to be that capital would resist. Put crudely, if it becomes less profitable to invest, in an economy where there is already tremendous hoarding of capital, there might be an investment strike. Capital might flow out of the country. Any government that didn't have capital controls as a tool would then be in an impossible position. It would be under pressure to reduce sharply whatever price it had put on pollution, extraction and exploitation. That is what happened with the European Union's carbon trading scheme.

However, this difference may not translate into practice. It is currently no part of Labour's macroeconomic agenda to break with the institutions of global liberal capitalism. And from the European Union to the World Trade Organisation, they are all fundamentally opposed to capital controls. That isn't necessarily an irreversible consensus, and a degree of tolerance of capital controls for right-pragmatist objectives could be expected. But left-wing governments would be under more pressure than usual. So, it may be that Labour doesn't feel able to embrace capital controls, or a break-up of the big banks, or indeed anything that frontally challenges the power of the City of London.

At any rate, all advocates of the Green New Deal, however radical or liberal, converge on the idea of using the state to promote green investment funded by taxes on wealth and capital, build up a new energy system, create jobs, and drive up wages. Ecological modernisation, and social justice. This is where I come to my questions. Obviously, they have to be questions, because I am not an earth scientist: so anyone who can answer them is welcome to do so. These questions are: Does the Green New Deal, despite its laudable ambition, depend on magical thinking about technology and capitalism? Are the legislative tools it looks to adequate? Is it internationalist, or can it be? Does it risk further commodifying the natural world? 

Let me begin outlining the rationale behind the first question. If, conservatively, we wanted to abide by the IPCC Fifth Assessment (2013) and keep global temperatures no higher than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, we have a carbon budget of 800 billion tonnes. That is our absolute limit. Even this limit, problematically, assumes a linear model of climate change, which is absolutely incompatible with the empirical evidence in recent yeas, and probably underestimates variables like methane emissions. Moreover, 2 degrees already brings a host of ills. Nonetheless, based on that target, in 2013 it was estimated that we had 270bn tonnes left in the budget. In fact, that may be wrong. We have already have overspent the budget. Current emissions may be sufficient to drive global temperatures well above 2 degrees. Still, accept the figure for the sake of argument. At approximately 10bn tonnes a year, we had just over 25 years: let's say, a hard deadline of 2040. Of course, there is a trend toward dropping 'global carbon intensity' (the amount of carbon emitted per dollar of growth), the rate of carbon emissions tends to accelerate with economic growth. However, as George Monbiot points out, the decoupling of growth from resource use has lately been reversed. Still, even if that weren't the case, absolute carbon emissions would grow. So if we emitted 11bn tonnes last year, then by 2023, with another $10tn of world product, we might (on a back of the envelope calculation) be pumping out about 12.5 billion tonnes a year. Even if emissions remained static at 11bn, which they definitely won't, we'd run out of the entire carbon budget for good by 2038 at the latest.

The Green New Deal recognises the danger inherent in that. In both the AOC and GNDG versions, it proposes zero net emissions as a goal. To achieve this within the framework of a Green New Deal, growth has to be radically decoupled from carbon and methane emissions. Manufacturing, transport and agriculture have to be 'greened'. On the most optimistic prospectus, and setting aside nuclear fantasies, that requires 100 per cent renewables and the development of carbon capture and storage technologies. In the US, about fifteen percent of energy consumed by domestic markets comes from renewable sources. To get to 100 per cent renewables capable of powering a perpetually expanding economy, a number of conditions have to be reached. First, of course, the fossil fuels industry, worth about $4.65tn globally has to be suppressed. That will be an economic shock, as well as a rupture with the political systems built around the industry. Second, short of a remarkable technological breakthrough, the airlines industry would have to crash. There has been an experiment with flying using agrofuels, but the amount of agricultural production that would be needed to keep all flights in the air make it simply untenable. Third, agriculture, which contributed about 9 per cent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions in the US and UK last year (more if you count imports of meat, cereals and palm oil) would have shrink quite severely. There is no other way: even with better farming techniques, dietary habits would have to change dramatically, with far more efficient use of food and far less consumption of meat. Other industries traditionally dependent on fossil fuels and their supply chains would have to adapt extremely quickly, and the price incentives, assuming these worked, would have to be severe. To make the Green New Deal work is going to require a shattering blow to current circulations of value and profit.

Faced with this dilemma, one can turn to ideas of a 'steady state' economy, or 'degrowth'. After all, GDP growth is a very poor measurement of both human development, and of the actual nature of production in a capitalist economy. It should be possible to promote well-being without indexing it to the dollar value added to output every year. The first problem with this is systemic. Capitalism cannot not grow. It isn't a choice of the sort that is amenable to moral persuasion, nudges and incremental reform. To be a capitalist is to invest in order that there is a larger return on the original investment, in competition with others. So what could a non-growing capitalist economy look like, if not a broken system? The second problem is political, and brings us onto the question of whether the tools furnished by the Green New Deal are adequate to the task. It is prudent, as I suggest, to expect capitalist resistance to measures that restrict, let alone destroy, its ability to perpetually expand and extract new value. Even if a national government were to adopt a measure of development other than GDP, it needs some sort of macroeconomic stability to operate in. How would it avoid being overwhelmed by an investment strike or a run on the currency? How much public investment in a 'green industrial revolution' would be needed to cope with the resultant unemployment? How many businesses would the government need to take control of to prevent a general collapse? The GNDG speaks of capital controls but, while that is an essential tool, is it really adequate to the potential scale of the crisis we're talking about?

This relates to another question, which is to do with, not capitalist resistance, but capitalist co-optation. We've seen how carbon trading schemes, while singularly failing to stem the tide of emissions, has led to globally vast and profitable new financial markets. The countries that made most progress under the EU's carbon trading schemes are those whose manufacturing industries went kaput, and they were also the countries that were able to sell rights to pollute to more industrially powerful economies. The Green New Deal looks to use some form of pricing of nature and resources in order to discourage exploitation and extraction while keeping within the framework of markets. Of course, this could be done in any number of ways. But is there a danger that such pricing mechanisms simply further commodify the natural world, and create new speculative markets in the right to pollute, in which the largest polluting and emitting firms would be most able to purchase this right? Might pricing, in other words, not simply price out the smaller producers and empower monopolies?

The next question adverts to a problem of scale of a different type. The Green New Deal accepts the national state as its proper terrain of action. In a way, that is to be expected because that is the level at which democratic intervention in a capitalist economy is currently possible. And it wouldn't be the worst thing if the richer capitalist states led mitigation efforts, since they are the worst polluters and emitters. The problem, of course, is that a global capitalist ecology demands global action. It would be no good stopping capital polluting the water in Detroit, but allowing it to deforest the Amazon. It would be no good 'greening' agriculture in Norfolk only to allow British capital to profit from palm oil in Sumatra. Extractivism is global, and has an imperialist dimension. Beyond that, the collapse of fossil extraction industries entailed by the largest markets disappearing would be, without coordinated adaptation across the planet, a devastating blow to those workers in economies dependent on such production. In the Middle East, that would include a lot of migrant workers whose conditions are already precarious. This is just to advert in a general way to issues of climate justice that transcend the national state. So what would be the concrete offer that a Green New Deal would have for these populations? Would it just be a question of sorting out one's own house, pulling up the drawbridge, and wishing everyone else the best? It's hard to see how that would be congruent with the impetus driving this project.

These are questions from an interested and, to be clear, broadly sympathetic amateur. I'm not raising them in the spirit of 'dissing' the Green New Deal, so much as trying to feel out the limits of its scope. And, if there does happen to be a degree of magical thinking involved, and if it does come with 'national' blinkers, to suggest that we need the Green New Deal plus something else.

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