With temperatures at record highs, Europe urgently needs a Green New Deal

Green investment in heating, electricity and transport would help trigger a transformation of every area of Europe’s economy

Ulrich Gundert Pawel Wargan
11 July 2019, 8.47am
Image: Rennett Stowe, CC by 2.0

For the second year in a row, Europe is reeling from a once-in-a-century heatwave.

Temperatures in the German city of Bernburg, near Leipzig, hit 39.6 degrees Celsius last week—nearly double their average for June. In the town of Gallargues-le-Montueux, France, temperatures soared to 45.9 degrees, breaking historical records.

The last time Europe was this hot, in 2003, as many as 35,000 people died. Such heatwaves are 10 times likelier because of climate change—and, without immediate and radical action, they will soon become the norm.

Around the continent, the calls for action on the climate are growing louder. Millions of people regularly march to demand that our politicians confront the crisis. Millions more voted for such change—the last European elections saw an unprecedented wave of support for Europe’s Green parties.

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But European leaders are proving incapable of meeting the scale of the challenge. Across the continent, nearly a decade of austerity has hollowed out public finances. Public infrastructure is crumbling. Low-carbon activities like education and care are deprioritised in favour of ever-increasing material production. Even as some European countries pride themselves on minor successes—reducing emissions or banning plastics—they continue to fuel climate and environmental breakdown in other parts of the world.

And, just as a changing climate demands community resilience, Europe is failing its most vulnerable. 118 million Europeans are at risk of poverty or social exclusion.

The Green New Deal for Europe provides the answer. The proposal calls on Europe’s public banks to raise at least 5% of GDP by issuing green bonds and investing the proceeds into infrastructure, technology, industry, agriculture, homes and public services through an agency called the Green Public Works.

This would end Europe’s era of austerity, while setting the continent on a path to decarbonisation and the reversal of environmental breakdown, all without raising taxes on ordinary Europeans.

The investments would trigger a transformation of every area of Europe’s economy. Here, we focus on three that are key to ensuring that Europe meets the necessary emissions reduction targets, while reducing poverty and ensuring the resilience of communities: heating, electricity and transport.

In terms of heating, the Green Public Works proposes to make massive investments in the thermal insulation of European homes. As many as 50 million Europeans live in energy poverty. And, during last week’s heatwaves, cities like Paris kept public parks and pools open at night to provide relief from sweltering apartments.

Retrofitting European homes with insulation would not only create millions of jobs and reduce emissions from heating and cooling systems. It would also reduce fuel poverty and strengthen community resilience to extreme weather.

Europe’s energy systems must rapidly transition to renewables, while ensuring that aggregate energy demand decreases. The Green Public Works, then, combines massive investments in renewable energy technologies with a robust package of support for industry, agriculture and other sectors, ensuring that material production decreases in favour of social and environmental reproduction: maintenance and repair, as well as the restoration of environmental and infrastructural resources. This will reduce energy demand, while relieving pressure on Europe’s natural systems.

Finally, the Green Public Works proposes to radically expand access to free or significantly cheaper public transport for all Europeans. As we phase out combustion engines to meet emissions targets, electric vehicles will not provide the answer. The development of lithium ion batteries and other components used in the manufacturing of these vehicles contributes both to emissions and other forms of environmental harm—in Europe and abroad.

Europe needs to revamp its public transport infrastructure, while investing in shared vehicles forming part of integrated transport networks that minimise environmental destruction without sacrificing mobility for those who depend on it.

A decrease in the working week and working-from-home schemes could further reduce the need for infrastructure. The public jobs created by the Green Public Works would set the example for the market to follow.

Private employers who reduce working time without lowering pay or firing staff — all while meeting high standards of worker participation and empowerment — could be given a “Europe Award” backed by additional funding from the Green Public Works. As part of that, companies could be offered a transitional subsidy for reducing working hours. This is something that the think tank Autonomy is currently working on with the government in Valencia, Spain.

We have the tools to begin fixing the climate and environmental crises starting tomorrow. But doing so requires a new politics — one oriented towards a vision of shared prosperity, not private accumulation.

As the Brussels technocracy wedges another cohort of pro-austerity diehards into key posts, it looks like that vision will have to come from the grassroots — not the halls of power.

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