What *kind* of Green new deal are we talking about?

Two University of Melbourne academics have delivered a gloomy outlook for economic and social transformation under the banner of a “green new deal” in Australia.  Speaking at a seminar titled “The Green New Deal – Opportunities and Obstacles: Comparing Proposals in Europe, the US and AustraliaPeter Christoff and Robyn Eckersley argued that undue political influence by vested interests has made it impossible for different policy ideas to come forward. 

They argued that for all the warm words about a just or rapid transition, a great deal of state intervention would be required. Meanwhile, in Australia “green” means “Green Party,” with the major parties both scapegoating it. Additionally, there are few conservative champions of rapid action (with the partial exception of former Liberal leader John Hewson). Simultaneously, there are few corporate champions of action. There are a small concentrated number of potential losers, and diverse beneficiaries. The former are organised, determined and adept at “push back.” The latter have none of these characteristics.

For Eckersley Tuesday’s Australian budget was a monumental disappointment and missed opportunity. Tax cuts for high earners, supporting gas, repurposing renewable institutions such as ARENA and CEFC to support enormously expensive and unproven Carbon Capture and Storage meant it was a squandered opportunity for real transformation.

Christoff noted that there are deeply entrenched interests which would need to be overcome to have a real GND. In Australia, there is still not a discussion of what would be required, reaching beyond deeply party-political divides. Would need broad whole-of-society discussion, which seems unlikely given the strife over even such a mild policy measure as carbon pricing.

Moderator Boris Frankel contrasted the concurrent vice-presidential debate, with at least reference to a GND, with Australia’s ongoing silence, before inviting each of the academics to speak briefly.

Peter Christoff began by mentioning that talk of a “Green New Deal”, drawing on Roosevelt-ian language, goes back to 2007, (pre-Copenhagen/GFC) and has two goals a) social, around entrenched and growing inequality b) environmental goals too (including dealing with the consequences of industrialisation).  While there are different priorities and principles for US, UK and European versions, the same questions remain – is a GND a sheep in wolf’s clothing, wolf in wolf’s clothing, or a sheep in sheep’s clothing: that is, is it reformist or revolutionary/transformative?

He pointed to five problems around implementation – 

  1. Scope, scale, timeframe- (national? localising production?)

2 How will they be funded? How will they be regulated? What might sustainable levels of debt be?

3. Implementation. What role for the state, what for markets? Lots of flux… Problem of overloaded capacity following the hollowing out by neoliberalism. 

4. Political legitimacy – who has it?

5. The problem of global development. Nativist, anti-globalist agenda, focussed on rich regions. What about China, Africa?

Christoff spoke about the EU, finding the language used “transforming the economic model” interesting.  The EU work is a notably top-down plan, with “well-developed and accepted integrative mechanisms used,” such as EUETS, energy efficiency/renewable directives, as well as EU Climate Law, and perhaps a border tax. 

Christoff pointed out that funding and finance would be difficult at the best of times, and are more so thanks to Covid… With regard to the political legitimacy of the EU plans there are of course significant tensions between member states and variable support among the 27 countries. 

For Christoff what is outstanding about European Green New Deal is how mainstream it has become. It is a central part of discussions about reconfiguring the economy. This is because of the deep embeddedness of institutions – 20/30 years of work. 

Whether the EU can achieve its climate target of 60% below 1990 by 2030 is still to be seen…

Robyn Eckersley spoke about the situation in the US, which has “always got the worst and best of everything.” She noted that the US GND sits at radical end of proposals, based as it is on an analysis that we can’t tackle climate unless we tackle inequality. She pointed to the Sunrise Movement, emerging in 2015 with charitable status achieved in 2017. It has begun backing politicians who favour renewables, opposing those with fossil fuel backing. Sunrise sees a Green New Deal as the “last best hope” for a habitable planet.

Video – https://youtu.be/rJiiMz0CC5U

Eckersley noted Sunrise’s “backcasting” video of woman looking back “we can be what we have the courage to see” and a book (Winning the Green New Deal) launched in August with commentary from economist Joseph Stiglitz, Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben as well as many of the youth who occupied Democrat speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in November 2018.

She pointed to a GND resolution passed by 111 US legislators in November 2019- declares duty to pass a GND. Backing this is a 14-page document, which starts by quoting 1.5 degrees report of IPCC. It contains an extraordinary range of proposals, with a strong environmental justice focus.

The only fully-costed GND proposal is from Bernie Sanders. At 16.3 trillion over ten years this “doesn’t come cheap,” but the argument is it pays for itself in ten years. 

Eckersley noted that the key question is how you can do this without causing massive inflation. She argued that modern monetary theory says nothing wrong with a deficit (i.e. the analogy of a household budget doesn’t fit a national economy) but nonetheless the high tax bill means it would only work if US willing to have mid-20th century levels of taxation (40% higher than today). 

She noted that in the Trump/Biden debate, Biden tried to distance self from GND, and instead support the “Biden Plan“, but that the fingerprints of Sunrise could be seen on this.

In the Q and A someone raised the prospect of a Biden win, and China’s 2060 zero carbon target: could these developments mean Australia will be dragged screaming into some form of GND in next couple of years? 

Christoff and Eckersley both agreed with the premise, noting that the Biden Plan calls for border taxes for carbon [and this is something Malcolm Turnbull mentioned at the Smart Energy Summit ten days ago]. In any case, neither expected Australia to act proactively, but only through necessity.

In response to a question about long term targets, Christoff made the important point that anything aiming at 2050 carbon neutral misses the point – the next 10 years has to be the period of heavy lifting (especially around transport and energy production). Long-term targets are not very helpful – we need radical and intense decarbonisation now.

In response to a question about Rebecca Huntley’s studies on Australian lack of awareness of GND proposals is a new name required? Christoff references talk of a “Green Accord” but argued that the way it will be articulated/promoted is the bigger problem. Substantial champions are needed across the board, in multiple sectors. Given the bruising fight over carbon pricing (and this is bigger) the auguries are not good.

There were two more questions of note. One was about conservative Anatole Lieven’s new book “Climate Change and the Nation State” which argues the US military should support a GND (as should other countries’ miltiaries) to stave off chaos. Robyn Eckersley noted that the Pentagon has been arguing this for a long time, recognising threats to their bases and ability to supply troops. So much so that Republicans in Congress have baulked at Pentagon’s requests for funding. For Eckersley though, this is a dead end – if you don’t deal with structural inequality, democracy suffers…

Finally, on degrowth:  de-growthers are arguing that even if GND successful in next few years, not only carbon but more general material footprints not being dealt with. Christoff said he understood the comment, and that it was an important criticism. He pointed to GND elements (circular economy, farm-to-fork) that are trying to radically decouple, while also critiquing consumption (he noted much of the EU “reduction” of greenhouse gases was down to off-shoring/outsourcing of production).

Eckersley was more robust, saying that while the post-growth argument was “sound”, “we have to rebuild the ship while at sea.”

She argued it is “politically impossible to bring all good things together at once… we have to take the early steps of restructuring”. For Eckersley “pursuing a de-growth strategy would be a lead balloon.” “Can’t be done overnight, certainly can’t be done in 10-year window.”

Ultimately, this was an informative discussion of what is happening in other countries, but did not (and was not designed to/billed as) a solution to the question of who is going to bell the cat in Australia, of how the cross-society coalitions that can challenge the fossil-fuel incumbency can grow and defend themselves to change not just the policy settings, but also the underlying assumptions of a “good life.” This would, of course, take more than an hour to discuss…

The webinar, organised by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute of the University of Melbourne, was recorded and will be posted online soon.

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