A Green New Deal in a world shaped by the coronavirus is possible – in many countries, it is already a reality

The COVID-19 epidemic will profoundly change the world. In many ways, it already has. Trillions of dollars have been conjured out of thin air by governments desperate to prevent total economic collapse; the airline industry has been brought to an almost total standstill as national borders have closed; and the price of oil has plunged to historic lows in response to the glut of crude oil on the market. These are just three examples of things that would have seemed unimaginable at the beginning of the year. When it comes to creating a sustainable future post-COVID-19, we must also dare to imagine the impossible. And in many countries around the world, where work that contains aspects of the Green New Deal is already underway, we are being shown what is achievable.

Globally, the Green New Deal (GND) are policy ideas that, at their most ambitious, envision a decarbonised economy that serves people and planet. In June, European Union leaders are scheduled to flesh out a Green Deal that aims to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent. In March, South Korea’s ruling party became the first in east Asia to announce plans to help the country reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Meanwhile, in the United States, progressive Democrats are pushing presidential candidate Joe Biden to deepen his pledges on environmental justice before the November election, while seeking to elect more Congressional representatives such as GND advocate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The amount of money already pumped into the economy to maintain the status quo in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic renders any argument that paints a Green New Deal as unrealistic or unaffordable completely invalid. Countries must deepen their ambitions and learn from plans that are already being rolled out.

In Costa Rica, for example, renewables (mainly hydropower) already produce 98 per cent of the country’s electricity supply. The small central American country has an extensive plan to decarbonise by 2050. Rewilding (restoring land to an uncultivated state) started in Costa Rica three decades ago; as a result, the country’s forest area has doubled to over 50 per cent through stringent national park protection and the ending of cattle ranching subsidies. Agroforestry – farming with forests – has also been a key part of Costa Rica’s rewilding success.

Costa Rica has trail-blazed before. It dismantled its armed forces in 1948, ending its military carbon bootprint – a global driver of climate change. The country’s next challenge is decarbonising transport, which is currently responsible for approximately two-fifths of national emissions, by investing in electric trains, buses and taxis, while extending the cycle path network. Costa Rica’s overall carbon footprint – historical and present – is miniscule, like the rest of the Global South. Yet the people of the majority world face the worst consequences of climate change.

Islands on the frontline

Central Pacific islands that could be consumed by rising sea levels are another climate change frontline. These islands are navigating towards zero-carbon shipping, a sector which currently accounts for 2.5 per cent of global greenhouse gases. The Marshall Islands, amongst others, are releasing ‘blue bonds’, financial instruments to raise investment to retrofit old ships towards low-carbon technologies and build zero-carbon vessels. The Marshall Islands were the first island nation to set out plans to become carbon neutral by 2050, leading a charge of small island nations taking urgent climate action to ensure their very survival.

The African island-nation of Cape Verde is decarbonising whilst supporting small-scale farmers. With its remote Atlantic location, it relied on fossil fuels and imports, including food, until local renewable energy began breaking both dependencies. By 2016, Cape Verde had 30 wind turbines creating around a quarter of the archipelago’s electrical energy needs. It is currently aiming for 100 per cent renewable energy. Without an extensive national grid, solar and wind power could eventually replace the diesel generators that are supporting farmers to irrigate the soil and fishermen to freeze fish.

Cape Verde shows how community-based projects can empower people, both in terms of energy and citizen engagement, and off-grid renewables are increasingly delivering access to electricity across the continent.

But from Tunisia to Mozambique, Morocco to Kenya, and beyond, mega-renewable projects often resemble green colonialism. They push people off their land, utilise precious water resources, perpetuate centralised power structures and siphon profits offshore. Policymakers need to work with the world’s most vulnerable communities to make sure that green projects centre the requirements of the people who need them most.

Under the Ten Island Challenge, Belize and nine other Caribbean nations are moving towards 100 per cent renewable power. But the fact that the initiative is sponsored by Virgin Airlines billionaire owner Richard Branson shows the way in which high-carbon industries are willing to hijack environmental causes to greenwash their high emissions. Vulnerable ecosystems cannot be protected by or for tourists flying in.

Aviation causes about 4 per cent of global emissions, yet it is exempt from climate agreements. Rather than depending on tourist money in another wave of colonialist dependency, the Global South deserves reparations from the countries of the Global North that have historically created most of the carbon emissions. In addition to states, the major corporations responsible for these emissions should pay up. Climate reparations could fund projects such as agroforestry, ecosystem protection and low impact energy storage.

Beyond business as usual in the Global North

In December 2019, all of the 27 EU members states except for Poland, agreed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 through a Green Deal, including a €7.5 billion just transition fund. But just as the plan drops the word ’new’ associated with the era-defining 1930s project of economic transformation in the US, Europe’s Deal fails to envision the necessary structural change required for true global social and ecological justice.

The Green Deal extends the economic logic that caused the problem in the first place: by relying, for instance, on underwriting private finance as it did after the 2008 financial crash. It misses the opportunity to pivot towards an alternative financial system – one, for instance, on publicly owned banking. The EU’s plan also fails to stop fetishising endless growth, even though the concept clearly contradicts the fact that we live on a finite planet. Campaigners, activists and academics are collaborating under the umbrella of a Green New Deal for Europe (GNDfE). Together they have published an extensive Blueprint for Europe that builds on the idea of the just transition, a project supported by unions in order to shift workers from destructive industries into green ones.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that it is possible to quickly switch and expand manufacturing capacity, from car parts to ventilators, for example, or from designer clothing to surgical gowns. Why can’t other industries, arms to wind farms, also transform?

Across the world, corporations are crying out for bailouts, but we cannot keep putting profits before people. By rescuing low-cost airlines that the environment cannot sustain, for example, or by injecting money into big banks that keep ripping people off through expensive credit, we are only pushing the can further down the road. This pandemic is only the most visible wave of the disaster that rampant, unchecked capitalism has led us to; we must take full advantage of this moment of reflection the coronavirus has afforded us. We must heal the world.

The Blueprint for Europe pinpoints how the EU’s current Green Deal is based on greening already existing schemes that are simply not working for people or planet. For example, the Common Agricultural Policy – one of the EU biggest spends – mostly functions as a handout for large landowners and agrobusiness. The EU’s €7.5 billion just transition fund is chicken feed compared to the subsidies given to carbon intense companies by the EU and its members states. Instead the EU should direct all public spending into fully transparent, ecologically sound projects. It should regulate the economy towards inclusive ecological prosperity. It needs to advocate global social justice.

Global justice

In terms of global justice, Europe needs to take urgent measures, from ending support for agrobusiness to stopping tax avoidance and endless resource wars. But we can go even further. As climate science becomes ever more precise, climate litigation could raise reparations against the worst polluters to pay for a global, decolonialising Green New Deal.

The Blueprint for Europe singles out the importance of grounding a green transition in local democracy. Since the 1970s the Danish government has supported community wind farms nationwide. As a result, wind energy accounts for nearly half of all electric power in Denmark. Scotland has a similar story: there are over 20,000 community renewable installations, meaning that small communities are net producers of energy and reaping the benefits. Of course, Scotland’s economy still relies largely on oil extraction – and this is an area where it could learn from Costa Rica.

The policies advocated for under the GND do not stop at community-based renewables. The US has learnt a painful lesson about the necessity of public healthcare. Likewise, there are many European examples of workers’ rights, welfare and ecological protections that are considered radical pipedreams in a US context.

Looking at Europe, many of the plans laid out in the Blueprint are already in action, such as housing for all in Finland and free transport in Luxembourg.

The Green New Deal’s potency is demonstrated by the fact that even with Donald Trump as president, renewables are gaining ground in the US whilst coal is fading. Deep in ‘coal country’, schools in Colorado’s Delta county offer courses in solar energy training, whilst in the Appalachian Mountains plans will turn Bent Mountain, a former coal mine, into a solar farm.

In a world of overlapping crises of climate change and many injustices, the coronavirus pandemic is the immediate priority. But whatever happens afterwards, it would be criminal to return to business as usual, when we have the potential to rebuild a just and healthy world.