On Saturday I took part in the Corbynomics conference, organised by Lewes Labour Party and featuring many of the ideas I write about (see their graphic below). Grace Blakeley spoke on how to raise the money for a Green New Deal, and then I spoke about how to spend it. Not being a Labour supporter myself, I was invited to bring a bit of a challenge, and I presented three levels of ambition for a Green New Deal. It’s a lot longer than a normal post, but if you’re interested, here’s my talk in full:
Thank you to Grace for raising us a shedload of money, and now I get the fun bit of talking about how to spend it – though the Green New Deal can’t just be a matter of throwing money at a problem. If we’re going to mobilise around a grand vision like this, it has to be strategic. It should press the reset button on the economy, make ordinary people feel part of it, and change what the economy can do for each of us and for our children after us.
We’re using the language of the New Deal, which was a historic intervention in the United States economy. Another example would be the post-war Labour government that created the welfare state – not because of the specific policies, but the way that it rewrote the social contract. I think the Green New Deal should be a similar inflexion point in the economy. From here out, things are going to be different.
So I’m going to talk about what we spend the money on, and I want to offer three levels of ambition. Let’s start with the first word of our Green New Deal.
An environmental transformation
A Green New Deal needs to set Britain on a completely different environmental course. We can begin by completing the full transition to renewable electricity, which is well underway. Last month we went two weeks with no coal power, for the first time since the beginning of the industrial revolution. But there is more to do, including sweeping away the current block on wind power, and as Labour recently pledged, putting solar on millions of homes.
The government recently removed the feed-in-tariff, and solar installations have dropped by 94%, I read this week. That beggars belief, frankly. So let’s support solar power properly – not by subsidising generation, which tends to benefit those who can afford solar panels, but with a grant for installations. That way you support fitters and small businesses, and you get more panels on roofs. We should also fund grants for domestic storage batteries, and they would all help to balance the grid and incorporate more renewable energy.
At the household level, we use more fossil fuels for heat than for electricity, and renewable heating is a bigger challenge. We’re going to need solar heat, biogas, heat pumps, and most important of all, use less heat in the first place. That’s something I’m working on with my own house, and I have external wall insulation going up this summer.
This should be standard on new homes, and the only reason it isn’t is because the Conservatives tore up the Zero Carbon Homes standard a couple of years ago. The Zero Carbon Hub estimated that building a semi-detached house to zero carbon standard would add less than £5,000 to the asking price. It would pay for itself in no time at all, but we’re not doing it because housing is already so expensive. That’s spectacularly short-sighted. So let’s use the money we’ve raised and let the government pay for zero carbon standard, and then get the money back in energy savings.
Of course, buildings last a long time. The majority of the 2050 housing stock has already been built, and we need a massive retrofitting project to make them fit for the 21st century.
The average British home gets a D on its Energy Performance Certificate. That’s woeful. Current government policy calls for an unspecific ‘as many homes as possible’ to get a C by 2035, which is laughably unambitious. This is worth stretching for, because efficient homes would solve energy poverty too. They’d be better for the climate, better for energy security. We could leave more fossil fuels in the ground, including abandoning any plans for fracking. And we’d all be more cosy. So let’s aim for a zero carbon housing stock by 2030.
The reason I haven’t gone for 2025 is that the industry doesn’t have the skills base for this at the moment. We’re going to have to fund some major training initiatives, perhaps regional centres of excellence in green building. This would create thousands of jobs across the country in the process.
When you look at Britain’s emissions by sector, transport really stands out because there has been no progress at all in the last ten years. Last year transport overtook energy as the biggest source of our emissions. The main reason we’re making no progress is that politicians are terrified of taking on car culture. The last government minister to really talk about car culture was John Prescott in the late 90s, and his efforts were quashed by Gordon Brown at the Treasury – cars are good for economic growth.
Electric cars are one part of the answer. We should invest in charging infrastructure and accelerate the phase out of internal combustion engines. Norway is aiming for 100% electric vehicles by 2025, which is kind of the gold standard so far. They’ve got a headstart, but we could say 2030.
However, it’s really important that roads and cars don’t take precedence over public transport. The most sustainable form of motorised transport is buses, which have been neglected and underfunded for decades. But they don’t have to be considered second class to the car. We should learn from Latin America here and build high quality bus rapid transit systems, which will be faster and cleaner and cheaper than driving a car. We can’t change car culture without having a better alternative. Remember that apocryphal Thatcher line about how people over the age of 25 who find themselves on a bus should consider themselves a failure? Give it a few years. Then we can say if you find yourself sitting in traffic, as the sole occupant of a petrol driven car, you’re the one who should consider yourself a failure.
There’s so much more I could say here. I’d like to talk about incentives for a circular economy, investment in walkable cities, urban regeneration and world class cycling infrastructure, or a national programme for sustainable farming. Or waste, recycling and repair – the iFixit campaign estimates that every thousand tonnes of waste electronics creates less than one job if it is sent to landfill, 15 jobs if it is recycled, and 200 jobs if repaired.
I’d also like to talk about a regenerative economy, because it’s not going to be enough to stop damaging the environment. We need to repair the damage we’ve already done. Did you know the average tree cover in Europe is 35%, and in Britain it is 13%? We have some tree planting to do, and wetland restoration, and rewilding. But I’m not going to have time to get into all of those in detail because it’s important to talk about how we do any of this.
An inclusive Green New Deal
If you squint hard enough, a lot of what I’ve just described could potentially be implemented by a Conservative government, if they were to take environmental issues more seriously. But how you do it really matters, and where the current government talks about the environment, it is usually framed as market solutions that deliver green growth. A key thing about a Labour Green New Deal is that you could double up your environmental gains with a social agenda. That’s how we get something truly transformative.
A guiding principle for how we spend this money should be to cast the benefits as widely as possible. We don’t want to use our Green New Deal fund to pay the big six energy companies to build more wind turbines. Most of it will just end up in the pockets of shareholders. Let’s create community energy and local energy co-ops instead. This is an opportunity to reduce carbon emissions, but also to rebalance power structures and create energy democracy. We can prise control of our energy from corporations and share it more widely.
This isn’t nationalisation, you’ll notice, though the National Grid and core infrastructure might be held nationally. It’s a relocalisation plan.
Same goes for those bus rapid transit systems. Imagine standing at the bus stop waiting for your bus, and knowing that it is literally your bus, because it’s operated by a community owned company. Trains could be owned by their passengers and run for their benefit.
Again, we’re talking about relocalisation, not nationalisation. It’s creating a stakeholder economy, a new economic democracy. We can apply this ethic through social housing too, or community supported agriculture. By redirecting profits from private shareholders to customers and co-owners, we could reduce inequality and create a much more inclusive economy, one that really works for everyone and one that people can take pride in, and feel a sense of value and belonging.
The last time the government created a big fund of cash and pumped it into the economy, it was in the form of quantitative easing and it all went to the top 1%. The Green New Deal has to benefit the most disadvantaged first, or it isn’t worth doing.
A just transition
Another way of thinking about this is public affluence. Our current consumer economy is geared towards private consumption, and once most people have enough, that just leads to waste – cluttered homes, disposability, and mountains of consumer trash. What if we were able to nurture a culture of public affluence instead? We’d be spending generously on the things that we share, from libraries to parks, schools and hospitals, clean pavements and urban trees. These are things that everyone can enjoy, regardless of their personal income.
One way of making sure our New Deal reaches everyone would be through Universal Basic Services, which I’ve been reading about recently. This would take those core principles of guaranteed services such as healthcare or education, and expand them to provide other services, such as communications or transport. There are pros and cons to this, but if we connect it with environmental priorities, it could be a powerful tool. For example, Estonia is planning to offer free public transport to every citizen. What if we did that, with the highest quality electric buses, free at the point of use? You’d be crazy not to use it, and public affluence would blow car culture away.
On the subject of doing things fairly, we ought to talk about a just transition. This is an important element of the Green New Deal being proposed in the United States, which comes with retraining opportunities and a jobs guarantee, so that fossil fuel employees aren’t victims of the green economy. There are sections of Britain that are still suffering from the decline of coal mining. We should learn from that, and ensure that we don’t leave anyone behind this time.
Retraining is a big part of that. There’s a great project in Canada called Iron & Earth that retrains tar sands workers as renewable energy fitters. We’re going to need something similar in certain places.
For example, I talked earlier about regional centres of excellence for green buildings. Let’s put those in places like Aberdeen or Merthyr Tydfil, where fossil fuels are still a big employer. Put those communities at the front of the queue for jobs in the green economy.
A lasting transformation
I can imagine the Labour party getting behind a vision like this. But there’s an urgency to the climate crisis that means we have to go further. To be with you today, I’m missing the launch of the Extinction Rebellion Luton, which some friends and I have helped to set up. And as XR and others have highlighted, we’re in an emergency situation. That means we need an emergency response.
I know the ink is not yet dry on Labour’s declaration of a climate emergency. There may be more radical measures to come, but the 2017 manifesto certainly didn’t go far enough.
For example, it says that “our industrial strategy is one for growth across all sectors”. Really? Growth across all sectors? I want to see growth in renewable energy, but a closing down of the fossil fuels sector. I want growth in public transport, but no growth in aviation. Lots of growth in repair and reuse, but a decline in incineration and landfill. It’s nonsense to be for or against growth – we have to be more specific.
Growth of what? And for whom? And at what cost?
And we have to be honest – there are some forms of growth we have to say no to. Aviation is one of them. I know how hard this is, coming from an airport town. Luton airport is a big source of jobs and growth, but we can’t expand aviation and still meet climate targets.
I argued at the beginning that a Green New Deal should be a transformative project, and to do that we need to change the way we measure success – because GDP growth is inadequate. We should be creating a wellbeing economy, one that is in service to life, not profit. Growth cannot be the overwhelming priority. If we put profit first, we will fail.
That’s why the Green New Deal cannot be defined by Green Growth. That makes abstract material increase the most important thing, without ever bothering to specify who wins and who loses. And it’s never satisfied either. We never get to enjoy the wealth we’ve created, because we’re too busy grasping for more. We’re always running, and never getting any closer to our destination. We can do better than that, and that’s what my book The Economics of Arrival is about.
This change would be political and cultural, changing the stories we tell about ourselves and what we consider success. It would put growth in its ecological context.
In summary, I see three levels of ambition for a Green New Deal. We could spend the money to create a green economy that runs on renewable energy, zero waste and circular economy principles. That would be totally worthwhile.
It would be even better if we aim for level two, and create a new economy that is both green and fair, where all citizens have a stake in the services that matter to them, and that leverages green technologies to create economic democracy. That would be transformative both environmentally and socially, and this is well within existing Labour party thinking.
But you could go further still. If you wanted to be truly radical, and truly sustainable in the long term, you could spend the money on a Green New Deal that would make the whole idea of the growth economy obsolete.
I’ll leave that with you.