'Normal was a crisis': Why the Green New Deal is the perfect response for the post-Covid-19 economy
As the economy and society continue to suffer from the impacts of the coronavirus, experts are already exploring how to stimulate a financial recovery. All roads could lead to a Green New Deal, but the green economy will need a clear and concise voice to push policy towards it.
American economist Milton Friedman once famously said: “Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change…That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
And here we sit, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. It has had an adverse effect on the global economy, as it slumps towards levels of the financial crash of 2008/2009. Asia’s economy is down 20% for the first three months of the year, the FTSE 100 has suffered its worst quarterly performance since 1987 and the UN projects that foreign direct investment flows could fall between 5% and 15%.
It is crass to say there are silver linings in a global pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, but humanities restricted scope of influence on the planet in these times has delivered some interesting results. China’s emissions, for example, have shrunk by a quarter compared to this time last year. Much like the virus itself, most believe that the environmental benefits that have been delivered so far will be temporary, with Greenpeace Asia anticipating that production will be ramped up to combat a Covid-induced economic slump, which in turn will lead to a spike in emissions dubbed “retaliatory pollution.”
As such, seeking to return to economic normality poses risks for efforts to combat the climate crisis and reduce wildlife destruction.
“There’s a lot of talk about returning to normal,“ author Naomi Klein said, when questioned by Greta Thunberg during a Fridays for Future online webinar last week.
“Normal was a crisis. Normal was Australia on fire just a couple of months ago, the Amazon of fire just before that; normal was a third mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef…It’s why our bodies aren’t equipped to fight this crisis. It is hospitals being systematically squeezed by the politics of austerity. Normal is a crisis. It doesn’t allow us a safe future.
“We are ready to reimagine what sectors need so that we are not so crisis-prone.”
Through the lens of the climate crisis, normal is progressive, but not at the speed or scale required to limit global heating to 1.5C or to halt Earth's sixth mass extinction. Normal was sustainability rising in prominence amongst businesses, politicians and societies alike, but it could never shake of the notion that “green” wasn’t inclusive for those living near the breadline.
Green Deal's sink or swim moment
Klein, who quoted Friedman during the discussion, is the author of the book On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal and used the webinar to again put forward the case for a Green New Deal and how that can spur economic recovery while delivering a just and inclusive low-carbon transition.
The Green New Deal movement has been around for over a decade, but has recently hit mainstream media following Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s intentions to create a US iteration of the deal. While her first offering was unanimously rejected by senators, the movement has picked up pace, notably in Europe.
These types of deals tend to call for economic and public investment strategies that, in the case of the UK’s proposed strategy, “prioritises decarbonisation, community and employee-led transition from high-carbon to low and zero-carbon industry and the eradication of inequality”.
At a European level, the Green New Deal has recently been enshrined and includes a 50-55% emissions reduction target for 2030; a climate law to reach net-zero emissions by 2050; a transition fund worth €100bn and a series of new sector policies to ensure all industries are able to decarbonise. The transition fund is largely what sets a Green Deal apart from a climate target, as it also aims to drive fair and just societal prosperity.
However, the bloc-wide deal is facing delays. The European Commission is having to re-order its priorities in the face of the coronavirus crisis, with "non-essential" initiatives like the biodiversity strategy and the farm-to-fork strategy likely to be delayed by several weeks.
The US’s Green Deal is also floundering, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) instead rolling back safeguarding initiatives to spur economic development which is putting the environment at risk.
But what some may view as politically impossible could well become the “politically inevitable” due to the continued lobbying and pressure from businesses, NGOs and activists alike.
A grassroots movement is emerging in the US through “The People’s Bailout”, which is calling for public health and economic relief to be framed as the top priority for all decision making. It is here where the Green New Deal may catch its second wind, but only if politicians are forced to look at the mistakes of the past.
Sir Michael Marmot is professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, and chair of the commission of the social determinants of health at the World Health Organisation. He also led the Marmot review of life expectancy, which has recently claimed that life expectancy stalled for the first time in more than 100 years.
According to Marmot, Governments can deliver better environmental and social policies by prioritising health and equality and noted that a decade of austerity delivered by the Conservative Government in the UK was in need of a rethink.
“The Government in 2010 seemed to have one overriding objective, which was austerity,” he told journalists at an online briefing orchestrate by Extinction Rebellion and Plan B. “Life expectancy stopped improving, inequalities in health got bigger and life expectancy for the worst-off declined.
“Health tells us something fundamental about the nature of society. It may not have been the objective, but creating a worse society was the outcome. With Covid-19, suddenly everything gets thrown out the window. It turns out austerity was a policy choice and wasn’t actually necessary. When it’s urgent the government can socialise the economy.”
Marmot claimed that politics couldn’t go “back to the status quo” in the areas of inequality and climate change. While he noted that “shutting down the economy will not solve environmental pollution”, it had exposed people to new ways of thinking.
The Green New Deal notion is one that aims to simultaneously marry societal prosperity and climate action. In fact, there are some studies to suggest it is the ideal response package to the pandemic.
Despite the infancy of the coronavirus outbreak, there is already some limited data in Italy to suggest a correlation between air pollution in cities and the number of admissions from Covid-19. While this trend needs watching more closely, early indications suggest that improving environmental legislation will improve health and resilience to future spreads of disease.
Covid-19 has also left many lower-income workers without job prospect for the foreseeable future. Europe’s Green New Deal mentions a commitment to “boost the construction sector and is an opportunity to support SMEs and local jobs”, while regions in the UK are already setting out “upskilling roadmaps” to retrain workers in the fossil fuel industry to support them during a net-zero transition. Given the sheer transformation required to deliver a net-zero future, the Green New Deal becomes an enticing vessel to deliver stable job growth in emerging markets.
Sir David King, chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2008, was also on the Extinction Rebellion call. He worked for the Government during the foot-and-mouth outbreak and the severe damaged caused by flooding in the early 2000s.
King claimed that austerity led to many measures to boost flood defence funding and projects in the UK being ignored and shelved as the UK Government sought to reduce public spending. That was despite, climate science at the time suggesting that upfront capital spending on mitigation could save money in the long run. As such, more than £12bn of the UK's economy is still at risk from flooding.
According to King, a similar scientific government report that was not made public in 2016 claimed that “our hospitals would not be ready for a pandemic”, but again preventative measures were not put in place to respond to the warnings.
A blank sheet
If returning to normal after the virus is dealt with means returning to the Government’s concept of austerity it is unlikely that health or climate will get the proactive funding they require. Also on the call with Marmot and King was Jason Hickel, lecturer in economic anthropology at Goldsmiths University.
Hickel said that the current response mechanisms to the pandemic needn’t be a setback for ecological policy.
“Any stimulus that gets put forward needs to be channelled through the Green New Deal,” Hickel said. “This crisis is an opportunity to prevent further crises down the road.
“What we need is a planned approach to reducing unnecessary industrial activity that has no connection to human welfare and that disproportionately benefits already wealthy people as opposed to ordinary people.”
As nations move from a response phase to a recovery phase, businesses, climate strikers and lobbying groups alike need to be vocal in calling for policy that doesn’t revert back to normality, but rather reimagines what green social prosperity looks like.
Some, such as Extinction Rebellion's co-founder Gail Bradbrook believe the very basis of the economic system needs to be questioned. Bradbrook is advocating for a "global citizens' assembly and to rewire humanity" under the basis that economic growth often decouples from human development.
But we are still in the response phase, which has been largely shaped by vocal calls from the old collectors of wealth to rollback environmental legislation, delay new policies and enable polluters to keep on polluting for the sake of the economy.
Sir David Attenborough told the Big Issue this week that “there’s no moral to be taken from what happened in the past. We’ve got a completely blank sheet of paper in front of us.” By titling that blank sheet with the words ‘Green New Deal’ nations can recover from an economic slump with climate and health at the heart of every decision.