A Green New Deal: can it fly?

Posted on August 3, 2019

Readers with long memories will recall the Green New Deal group that produced series of proposals more than a decade ago including a booklet entitled ‘Green New deal’ (1). Convened by the New Economics Foundation, it set out an ambitious set of proposals for a just climate transition in the dying days of the last Labour Government. But that was then, a lot has changed in the intervening decade but the idea hasn’t died.

The election of Donald Trump, ironically has led to a revival of the idea in the USA where a new generation of younger radical Democrat legislators, most notably Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey have promoted an American version that has galvanised political opinion. Mainstream reaction has tended to dismiss the proposals which have a strong slice of social justice including universal healthcare, policies to reduce in infant mortality and the like as central planks, as either not practical, partisan, or both. Nancy Pelosi Democrat House leader dismissed the ideas as a ‘Green dream’. But they are on the agenda, and are attracting attention from a wider audience than just the liberal left in the US.

What about the UK?  The ideas around a circular economy, a just transition and a climate emergency are more mainstream than in the US, but the forces that led to the election of Donald Trump have their expression here too as the continuing agonies over Brexit, everything from the threatened closure of the British Steel plant in Scunthorpe to the resignation of Theresa May and her replacement by Boris Johnson, demonstrate.  Writing back in February (2), former Sustainable Development Commission Vice-Chair Rebecca Willis identifies four lessons for a UK mired in Brexit:

1.       Elected representatives need to speak out and acknowledge the climate crisis

2.       Don’t continue to hide behind the consensus of the 2008 Climate Change Act

3.       Decisions need to me made now about  a clear programme of transition over the next decades  around infrastructure, job creation, skills training and investment programmes and

4.        We need a young radical and politically engaged group outside the professional, technocratic and consensual existing environmental movement.

Less than six months later the landscape seems transformed. The school climate strikes, the voice of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, and the dramatic interventions of Extinction Rebellion have not only changed the discourse of the political establishment, but radicalised and breathed new life into the environmental movement. Elected representatives have begun to speak out as the declaration of a Climate Emergency following a debate in Parliament in April has demonstrated. The voices of other key policy makes have been unshackled too, such as that of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney (3) with his stark warnings about the need for economic policy makers to take the climate crisis seriously. The Committee on Climate Change’s report (4) to Government published on 2 May was another brick in the newly created edifice. Their core recommendation was that the UK should be zero carbon by 2050. This certainly isn’t enough for many campaigners who have variously argued for a zero carbon economy by 2025 (Extinction Rebellion) 2030-38 (various local authorities when declaring their own climate emergencies) or 2045 (Friends of the Earth), but it is a lot tougher than the 2008 Climate Change Act target of an 80% reduction by 2050. And it has annoyed the Treasury who have been working to a zero carbon date of 2060.  Willis’s point about signing up to the 2008 Act being a convenient place to hide was that lots of industrial sectors and others (agriculture, carbon intensive manufacturing, transport, housing etc) breathed a sigh of relief and piled into the notion that an 80% reduction was fine because they would still be in the other 20%, so serious planning, let alone urgent action could wait. If the Government accepts the Committees recommendation that excuse will disappear and that will have huge economic implications – now. Which of course leads on to the point about decisions being needed now on everything from infrastructure investment to job creation and skills training. NEF Director Miatta Fahnbullah (5) acknowledges that this won’t be easy, but her view is that if the UK economy is to be revived post Brexit there needs to be something in it for everybody; environmental justice working in tandem with social justice.

So any Green New Deal worth the name needs to be ambitious, bringing about radical reductions in carbon emissions over the next decade in line with the IPCC report headline recommendation to radically reduce global emissions by 2030, requires significant government action including large scale investment in infrastructure and technology as well as regulations to bend markets, and in exchange for the potentially disruptive changes that this will bring about, a good deal for the public such as good high wage jobs and a much bigger stake  in the new economy that is created.  The point is that if this is to fly it needs to start now. That British Steel plant in Scunthorpe is a case in point. It provides the UK rail industry with all its rail track. If that goes, another element in the jigsaw that is the future green economy is lost.  Vision, foresight and strategic investment now are essential.


1.       A Green New Deal: joined up policies to solve the triple crunch of the credit crisis, climate change and high oil prices. Green New Deal Group. NEF. 2008

2.        https://neweconomics.org/2019/02/the-green-new-deal

3.       https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/17/mark-carney-tells-global-banks-they-cannot-ignore-climate-change-dangers

4.       https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/net-zero-the-uks-contribution-to-stopping-global-warming/

5.       https://neweconomics.org/2019/03/britain-needs-a-green-new-deal-to-revive-its-economy-after-brexit

This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Town & Country Planning