ourEconomy: Opinion

A Green New Deal for whom?

The European Green Deal falls far short of the demands being put forward by feminist, Indigenous and Global South movements. Here’s how to bridge the gap

Alfons Pérez
23 April 2021, 12.01am
The European Green Deal has been met with criticism from environmental groups
Valentin Sama-Rojo/Alamy Live News

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world are turning to ‘Green New Deals’ as a win-win solution to both economic crisis and climate catastrophe. Nowhere is this more apparent than the all-encompassing European Green Deal (EGD), launched by the European Commission to bring the continent’s carbon emissions down to net zero by 2050.

One might assume that the environmental movement would be happy with this policy initiative, but since the EGD’s launch it has been met with fierce criticism. The ecosocialist Daniel Tanuro has argued that US President Roosevelt’s original New Deal, upon which Green Deals are conceptually modelled, was ultimately aimed at maintaining social order during the Great Depression and thereby upholding the capitalist status quo. In the same way, many are challenging the new wave of Green New Deals for not questioning the fundamental structures of our existing economic model.

How green is ‘green’?

The psychologist Abraham Maslow once said that “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. The European Green Deal embodies this maxim. The hammer is the market and the nails include growth, debt and financialisation.

Criticisms of the European Green Deal generally fall into three categories. The first is that the European Deal clings to the idea that absolute decoupling of economic growth and environmental impact is possible. In other words: the plan assumes that we can achieve ‘green’ economic growth at the same time as dramatically reducing CO2 emissions. Absolute decoupling can be made to work on a regional level by outsourcing polluting activities, but there is no evidence that this can happen on a global scale. For example, the European Commission claims that between 1990 and 2017 emissions decreased by 22% while the economy grew by 58%. What it fails to mention is that over the past two decades, imports from China have quadrupled from €90bn in 2002 to €420bn in 2019.

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The second criticism is the plan’s blind faith in technology. Renewables are without a doubt a huge improvement on fossil fuels, but they lock us into multiple dependencies on scarce raw materials. This could lead to a shortage of lithium, cobalt, nickel and other rare earth metals by 2050 – elements that are mainly concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia and China. This would cause severe impacts for those communities suffering under extractivism.

The European Green Deal isn’t terribly new or terribly green, and the ‘deal’ is between a select few actors at the top

The final criticism is that the financial frameworks promoted by the European Green Deal subordinate the public interest to private gain. The availability of public funds, including the EU’s €750bn post-pandemic recovery instrument – NextGenerationEU – has prompted the large European energy companies like BP, Shell, Total and Repsol, to speed up their greenwashing apparatus to present themselves as essential actors in the recovery and transition. The structure of the funds themselves effectively squeezes out other actors such as small and medium-sized enterprises: the timelines are too fast, the funding volumes too large, and the process too bureaucratic. In countries such as Spain, large consultants such as Deloitte have been contracted to assess projects presented for funding.

What kind of Green Deal do we need?

To summarise, the problem with the European Green Deal is that it isn’t terribly new or terribly green, and the ‘deal’ is between a select few actors at the top.

More and more people are realising that we need to emerge from the pandemic with healthy public services, properly valued care and domestic work and a sustainable and just economy. But it’s clear that the European Green Deal will not deliver this. However, proposals offered by social movements – which are often the result of years of painstaking work by civil society groups – offer a different path.

The Southern Ecosocial Deal, developed from a Latin American perspective, prioritises solidarity-based tax reform; cancellation of external debt; national and local care systems that place the reproduction of life at the centre of society; a universal basic income; food sovereignty; and a move away from extractive industries to renewable energy systems that are decentralized, decommodified and democratic.

The global feminist movement, linking up with the climate justice movement, has put forward a Feminist Green Deal. Their demands focus on investing in the care economy, including child and social care; parental leave and care leave; increasing representation in green jobs, including the recognition of care work as a green job; and dismantling patriarchal power structures to enable alternative forms of leadership, gender justice and human rights in policy making and the public discourse.

We must improve the existing European Green Deal while also proposing a more radical restructuring of our economy

Lastly, the Green New Deal for Europe, promoted by European activists and researchers, proposes putting the care economy, public services and participatory democracy centre-stage, instead of the current obsession with economic growth and the financial economy. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the group has called for the creation of a European healthcare standard, a minimum income for carers and a four-day working week.

That leaves many who care about the environmental emergency in a bind – should we support the Green Deals being offered by existing governments as the only realistic route to change, or should we reject them for being co-opted from the start and therefore doomed to failure?

A two-track strategy

If we want to tackle the climate crisis and achieve a just transition that addresses global, gender and racial inequalities, we need to recognise the strength of both approaches. In a technical sense, the civil society versions are far superior. But what the European Green Deal has, which the others don't, is short-term achievability. It already exists, and its ability to reach a wide and diverse audience in the short-term cannot be underestimated given the timeline we have to put the brakes on climate catastrophe.

Instead of stubbornly picking sides, the best course is to adopt a two-track strategy. We should advocate to improve the existing European Green Deal while simultaneously supporting those proposing a more radical restructuring of our economy. After all, the ambition of the original New Deal was spurred by protests from the working class in the US, just as the various Green New Deals appeared at a time of historic climate mobilisation. Then as now, there is no institutional ambition without popular mobilisation. We don’t have any time to waste.

This article is based on the book ‘Green deals in a time of pandemics. The future will be contested now'

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