Is the debate moving us forward or distracting us from key issues?
Whether on the progressive Left or in mainstream discussions, the “Green New Deal” is a recurring theme. Is it just another empty phrase for greenwashing mainstream politics, or finally a paradigm that can genuinely advance socio-ecological transformation? We discussed this with staff members from Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung offices around the world.
What the Green New Deal promises is a massive cross-sector investment programme for a climate-friendly economy and society and a comprehensive programme for greater social justice. The term has been at the centre of conversations both on the Left and in the mainstream, especially in the US and Europe. “The Green New Deal, as discussed in ‘mainstream’ circles, is about undertaking big and bold transformations of the economy to tackle the twin crises of inequality and climate change”, sums up Tetet Lauron from the Philippines, an advisor to the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. “This has caught the imagination of those who hope to legislate solutions to the structural problems that beset the world.”
The necessary transformation of the automotive industry, the reduction of climate-damaging individual modes of mobility (cars), and the extension of public transport can only be tackled by a concept such as the Green New Deal. We need to link the discussion about a transformation of the automotive industry to the bigger question of how to create alternative jobs, for example in the production for rail vehicles and vehicles for public transport. The labour movement and the climate movement have to join forces—and this can happen under the political narrative of a Green New Deal.Manueal Kropp, RLS Brussels
Meanwhile, the next mega-crisis, in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, is sweeping across all continents. The pandemic is exposing the structural problems at the core of our societies as well as exacerbating them: glaring social inequality, eroded social protection systems, and a growth-dependent economy that is on the brink of collapse the moment the engine stops. Meanwhile, a recession that is likely to be greater than the one in the 1930s is looming. Closely connected to the GND debate, therefore, is the question of what does a “just recovery” look like? But instead of imagining new ways forward, familiar “solutions” are being preferred everywhere (as seen in the bailout of airlines and cruise ship companies).
“You cannot build back to a system that causes such breakdowns.” Aaron Eisenberg, who works as Project Manager in the RLS New York Office, is convinced of this. “The Green New Deal is the only possible economic and social recovery programme focused on justice.” The concept provides a promising conceptual frame for generating new and politically viable answers to the same old crises. But is there any hope for systemic change? “Yes, I think this concept could support steps toward system change”, says Manuela Kropp, a Project Manager in the RLS Brussels Office.
What exactly is being discussed under the heading of the “Green New Deal”? And can the GND really help bring about the systemic change the world so urgently needs? First off, not all Green New Deals are alike. The term refers to various transformational visions with varying degrees of ambition. What many of them have in common is that, on the whole, they are still not sensitive enough to questions pertaining to international climate justice. “But this is precisely the question we need to be asking ourselves as leftists”, emphasises Nadja Charaby, Head of the International Politics and North America department at the RLS and a climate policy expert. “Do we believe that the current version of the GND has the potential to achieve global justice? Should we move the debate forward, or better not?”
The Green New Deal Must Be Decolonial!
Current conceptualizations of the GND have many weaknesses. For example, there is often too little consideration of resource extractivism, as evidenced by the European Green Deal. This is the master plan that the EU Commission first presented to the public at the 25th UN Climate Change Conference COP25 in Madrid as a major sustainability blueprint for the EU’s future. For some, especially conservative forces, the plan goes too far. Jan Majicek, Project Manager at the RLS Prague Office, explains that in the eyes of the Czech Republic the GND is an attempt to undermine national sovereignty. Meanwhile, mainstream liberals are more open to accepting the need for green transformation but perceive it as a mainly technological question steered by key words, like smart cities, smart industry, and industry 4.0.
The concept of GND is still vague in Vietnam, it has not yet been brought into mass discussion. However, we have a similar term, ‹Green Growth› (GG), which embraces many similar goals as the GND. GG also aims at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, however, it focuses solely on accelerating the process of economic restructuring by employing new technologies. There is still a lack of ‹social integration› in the implementation of GG. Thus, raising the discussion of GND in Vietnam is necessary in order to ensure that GG implementation will also focus on social justice and ecological justice at the same time.Nguyen Van Huan, Hanoi
“The risk with the Green New Deal concept is that its promise for comprehensive transformation could be co-opted to bolster the position of destructive financial and economic interests”, stresses Nessim Achouche, RLS Project Manager in the Brussels Office. Once again, he argues, the main motivation behind the EU Green Deal is to secure financial means to operate some greening of part of the economy instead of a much-needed redefinition of our social and economic structure in Europe. The focus of the programme is mainly on technological innovation and does not really address the inequalities of power and wealth in our societies. “What we are seeing with the European Green Deal is that, if it continues in its current direction, it will perpetuate neo-colonial practices, the exploitation of Global South communities and minorities as well as natural resources.”
The Green New Deal discussions and concept can deliver a political horizon that helps people grasp the interrelations between many sectors and issues—transport and mobility, energy, housing, and agriculture. It pictures well the necessity to radically transform these at a time when the urgency of fighting climate breakdown together with economic and social crisis is more striking than ever.Nessim Achouche, Brüssel
RLS Project Manager for South Africa in the Johannesburg Office, Roland Nkwain Ngam, explains that the lack of a discussion about the impact of planned Green New Deals on the Global South is another blind spot in the debate. “To reach zero emissions in the Global North and produce electric cars en masse, cobalt resources in the Congo are being exploited and the country is being destroyed. Congo’s example is not isolated—many African countries are being plundered for commodities to feed green revolutions in the Global North.” Examples like these have played only a marginal role in European debates so far. “The impact of extractivist, neo-colonial trade relations is mentioned only by a few voices on the Left”, says Nessim from Brussels. “This is exactly what needs to change. We have to break this narrative of a supposedly ‘clean’ EU Green Deal.”
Like Roland, activists from the Global South have been criticising the Green New Deal as a Eurocentric concept or a concept from the Global North. Green jobs are simply not enough to constitute a real socio-ecological transformation as long as they continue to be based on exploitation. What is missing from the concept is summed up by Elis Soldatelli, Latin American Coordinator of the Climate Program from São Paulo, and Carla Vázquez, Project Manager in Mexico City: “From an anticolonial perspective, we propose to stop the extractive dependence required by the capitalist energy transition, the cancellation of foreign debt, and the recovery of food sovereignty over and above free trade, among others.”
The Green New Deal Must Be Democratic!
Elsewhere, too, such as in Asia, the debates have been taking a risky turn as Tetet notes. “Discussions around a Green New Deal in Asia are unfortunately centred on the ‘infrastructure and investment fixes’ government and private sector could jointly undertake domestically to accomplish a shift to renewable energy. This approach is both myopic and dangerous in thinking that a 100-percent shift to renewables—without democratizing energy access and without fundamentally altering relations in production, distribution, and consumption globally—will bring about meaningful and lasting solutions.”
People’s movements in the region call for structural and systemic solutions under different labels: ‹feminist, fossil fuel-free future›, ‹decolonial, feminist Green New Deal›, and others.Tetet Lauron, Philippinen
One example is the devastating impact of Indonesian nickel exports. Among other things, nickel is used for the production of electric car batteries. Currently, one quarter of the nickel produced worldwide comes from Indonesia, and battery production sites are also being set up in the country. However, working conditions are poor and environmental standards are low. What promotes the transfer to seemingly sustainable e-mobility in one place, exploits workers, advances ecological destruction, and endangers human health in another place. Adequate safeguarding, assessment, and transparency should be minimum requirements, argues Laura Geiger, former Programme Manager for climate justice at the RLS. However, a genuine Green New Deal would have to go beyond this to make an impact. “We need a much more fundamental transformation than that, namely, different and much lower consumption patterns in the Global North”, says Laura.
The Green New Deal Must Be Feminist!
The feminist perspective also risks being side-lined in the debate around the Green New Deal. “The concept of a GND must include the feminist perspective because the care sector must play an important role in transforming our societies”, says Manuela from the Brussels office. “We need many more jobs in the care sector (health, education, etc.), and these jobs must be well-paid, of course. It is not acceptable that jobs in this sector are often paid only a minimum wage. This aspect of the GND must be taken into account.”
In short, we need to keep a close eye on how the debate unfolds. If the Green New Deal is to be a meaningful concept for systemic change, it must not only be green and fair, but also feminist, democratic, and decolonial.
The Rooseveltian framing of the Green New Deal concept has not really been appropriated outside of CSOs and think tanks in Southern Africa.Roland Nkwain Ngam, Johannesburg
Green New Deal? Global Green New Deal!
Another aspect is that true justice requires global justice, and only that which does not (covertly) destroy the environment on the other side of the planet can be truly green. To realize this and eliminate neo-colonial structures, equal collaboration with actors from the Global South is needed. “The GND is only one under the framework of global justice”, is how Aaron from New York summarized it. Nessim from Brussels adds: “It has the potential to tie together many struggles and to place the issue of climate change at the core of demands for economic and social change.”
Activists from the Global South point out, however, that these debates do not necessarily have to take place under the umbrella of the Green New Deal. “Parallel to the GND, in Latin America there are some initiatives that call for the urgency of building social dynamics capable of responding to and counteracting the dynamics of capitalist readjustment, the concentration of wealth, and the destruction of ecosystems at a time of confrontation with the COVID-19 crisis”, says Elis from São Paulo. For example, the Pacto Ecosocial del Sur seeks to shape, together with those who wish to join, a collective horizon of transformation for Our America that guarantees a dignified future”, adds Carla from Mexico City.
Roland from Johannesburg raises a similar point: “The Rooseveltian framing of the Green New Deal concept has not really been appropriated outside of CSOs and think tanks in Southern Africa. The main thrust of the GND is moving away from fossils, reconstructing infrastructure, etc., whereas 70 percent of Africa still hasn’t got those. The term is therefore regarded as Eurocentric and is really only gaining traction in South Africa where there are big debates about phasing out the country’s coal fleet as well as post-COVID recovery.” He continues: “From a Southern perspective, the biggest opportunities for mass mobilization are around water issues (most Southern African countries are facing drought conditions) as well as building resilience for South-West Indian Ocean islands, given the increase in frequency and intensity of cyclones and other climate change-induced events (again drought in Madagascar, corral bleaching in Mauritius, protection of turtle habitats in Seychelles, etc.).”
Green New Deal: A Left Concept?
When considering concrete political programmes in the US, Great Britain, and the EU, it is striking how national they are in scope. “This is a central reason why it is so important to occupy the concept from the left and to keep occupying it”, says Katja Voigt, Project Manager for Climate Policy and North America at RLS in Berlin. “It is not a good strategy to think only within the confines of national borders here. This won’t get us anywhere. We need to put the global demands of a decolonial, feminist, global GND on the table and the adapt it to the respective regional contexts.”
Even if the concept is not ambitious enough yet—especially in terms of systemic change—it is still a good instrument for making important demands. Aaron from New York adds: “We have to get involved, otherwise we cede the terrain to others.” Another argument comes from Nessim in Brussels. Billions are being mobilized within the framework of these concepts, especially the European Green Deal. “As a movement, we have to put pressure on the European Parliament and the European Commission to avert fatal mistakes.” Especially in the context of elections, this could be an instrument to push the debate further. “The GND will be what we make out of it.”
The GND has been a catalyst for bringing climate from a backburner issue to the forefront of political consciousness in the US. But the details continue to be contentious. Thus it is imperative for the Left to ensure that a GND is a truly just, internationalist vision that cannot be watered down.Aaron Eisenberg, New York
But there is also scepticism inside the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. For example, Steffen Kühne, Deputy Director of the Academy for Political Education at the RLS and a consultant on socio-ecological restructuring, argues: “I see that the term Green New Deal is gathering momentum and can mobilize people to rally behind its demand for restructuring.” The problem is that everyone can project whatever they want onto it precisely because the term is so vague and can be interpreted in so many different ways.
“I’m unsure whether this buzzword bring us any further. The difficult questions regarding the redistribution of political and economic power, the unequal distribution of wealth, which is still largely based on the exploitation of nature and people, and all the related questions about the need to transform consumption patterns are not clarified under this concept. Is it helpful that the GND gathers all of these contentious issues under one roof? Or does it rather help obscure the fault lines?”
Parallel to the GND, in Latin America there are some initiatives working on developing social dynamics capable of opposing the capitalist engine.Elis Soldatelli, Sao Paulo & Carla Vázquez, Mexico City
Jonas Bradl, who supported the work of the RLS as an intern for some time, is even more sceptical. “The very terminology of a New Deal refers to a capitalist investment policy that produced massive revenues for the class that caused the crisis.” The New Deal also predominantly benefited white people and did hardly anything to reverse the structural discrimination experienced by people of colour. “Why does the anti-capitalist Left make use of a concept with such baggage, one that does not even aim for systemic change? The US movement pushing for a GND does not even have the intention of ushering in a new mode of production and consumption, but only seek to improve the national standard of living through incremental reforms.” If the Left now tried to reframe the concept, it would have to compete with all others involved in the discussion. “This will then lead to compromises, and we will have to ask ourselves what are our priorities and which of them can we accomplish. Can the GND really become feminist or anti-colonial in this way?”
Are the debates surrounding the Green New Deal distracting us from the actual demands and solutions needed to move towards social-ecological transformation? Or is the concept moving the issue forward? What remains clear is that the progressive Left is involved in the debate, but the spectrum of positions on the issue is quite broad. It is also clear that a genuine Green New Deal has to be global, decolonial, feminist, democratic, and transformative!
The article was first published on rosalux.de.