The pandemic is an opportunity for the systemic changes necessary to fight the climate crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic stalled the world economy and has subsequently affected every aspect of our social lives. The damage of this crisis has been distributed unevenly across the world, within nations,  and all the way down to the household level. But from this great tragedy, two silver linings have emerged. A historic truth has again become common sense, and an existential challenge is receiving the attention it requires. There is an opportunity to overcome the suffering brought this past year and take on the already existent challenges facing society. We can bring about a fair and green recovery out of this turmoil that will benefit the socio-natural world which we all inhabit.

The historic truth in question is that the state has tremendous power to manage and engineer our social and natural world. It has been doing so for decades, although not always in the interest of all its citizens, and in increasingly less obvious ways. The current public health challenge has forced it into action, to protect lives, save jobs, and defend the collective interest of all citizens. Now the people expect the state to play a significant part in our economic recovery. The pandemic – a human-induced product of environmental destruction – is entwined with the greater, more existential threat to our world: climate breakdown. Whether this has been ordained or is merely the inevitable result from human encroachment into nature, one global crisis has propelled another to the top of the world’s priority list and shown us the means with which to fix it.

These two outcomes present an unmissable opportunity. We must use the state to make the economic recovery green and fair, and work to ensure the prosperity and security of the human race across the world. While a green recovery is common parlance amongst world leaders today, the adoption of green politics in the mainstream is also accompanied with rhetoric, as is often the case in politics. There remains the task of preventing greenwashing, promoting a recovery that is fair, and challenging the already existent inequalities in our society. The crisis has compounded the woes of those least well-off; that alone is reason enough to challenge inequality. But at a time of large public spending and the agreed-upon need to do so, the challenge is creating lasting changes with this once in a generation opportunity.

It is problematic to determine the mainstream of any political discourse on the examples of the US and UK, but the US Covid recovery stimulus is a fundamental sign of green becoming mainstream. Whether it can be dubbed the ‘Green New Deal’ remains to be seen. PM Boris Johnson’s announcement that his Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, promising 250,000 jobs, was applauded. However, this plan has had many critiques based on funding and the ability to execute. Similarly, President Joe Biden’s plan fails to match the 2008 stimulus spending, with only 12% spent on low-carbon projects. Rhetoric and greenwashing are a present challenge that needs confronting.

But how do we know what kind of green recovery we want or can feasibly deliver?

Challenging inequalities should occur at an international, national, household, and individual level, correcting deficits in health, education, income, and representation. Perfection is not the goal, but these targets direct strategy, combined in context specific variations of importance. This is an incredible opportunity to be bold in our state strategy and have the state directing elements of economic transformation. This has been done before through Developmental State models in East Asia post-WW2 in their own manner. Green is now the necessity at the heart of such a model, as the climate crisis threatens the whole of humanity, to differing degrees and through indirect channels, such as forced migration.

At the crux of the Developmental State was a political consensus for an overarching national mission of development and economic progression. This included welfare benefits for capital and workers, as well as oppression. The Developmental State can morph and reflect different models depending upon the time and place. The UK can implement a strategy underpinned by democracy and the need for less inequality, through the industrial programme of Green Economics and societal decarbonisation. This is also a chance to use the energy of local democracy and civil society collectivism that the pandemic has brought to the fore. There are communities also willing to engage in the Climate Crisis. That is why a Local Green New Deal framework is being floated as a serious discursive and technical paradigm from which to achieve the ambitious plan of minimising inequality.

The framework promotes the devolution of powers and resources from central government to local government, to share responsibility for growing a green and fair recovery. Critically, the UKhas some of the worst regional inequality in the world, which urgently needs addressing. Local government working effectively can share the burden of tasks with central government, making the greening of our society faster. It is important not to lose sight of the green element of such an ambitious strategy. While the UK claims to be a climate leader, it is currently not on track to meet its 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, and is predicted to miss its fourth and fifth carbon budgets. The All Parliamentary Net Zero Group has published a 10-point plan for rectifying this stall by first and foremost setting out a Net Zero Roadmap – a holistic governance strategy for making change happen. Along with this plan, an estimated £40bn of spending is needed a year to reach the 2050 target.

The phenomenal spending during the pandemic shows us that the capacity and conditions are there for huge state investment, that they can operate autonomously well at the local level, and that they are needed to lessen the economic contraction Notably, the local track-and-trace service outperformed the outsourced and centralised Serco Track and Trace, described as a ‘disaster’ for not involving local health networks. A Local Green New Deal aims to all do all of the small things necessary to keep emissions down, to do it well, and do it a lot. This is not always within the remit of central government, and the state has many modes of expression, whether it be public corporation, private corporation, or civil society. The transition to environmental sustainability includes many exciting and innovative combinations of these actors. But they are all underpinned by the challenge of tackling the long-term damage of austerity, streamlining social, economic and environmental strategies, and facing emerging crises in housing, education, training, incomes, gender equality and access to fulfilling work.

Research, such as the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, argues that “local authorities now need to view every single function through a climate emergency lens.” This must be substantiated with ideas from the Feminist Green New Deal framework that counts care-work as infrastructure investment, for example. Lessons can be learned from local industrial strategies, and we should take advantage of the governance and strategy role of combined authorities, councils, and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). Clean growth strategies are just part of the road to achieving a green and fair recovery.

Critically, Green Alliance analysis argues we do not “need to keep reinventing the wheel” of governance and strategy; we have institutions and resources available for regions to “play to their strengths.” Unfortunately, the Climate Change Committee found that the “powers, levers, and influence available… are constrained by significant funding and resource challenges.” Without spending now, the UK faces more local government cuts, as councils face an £11bn budget hole from 2020/21, and unemployment at 2.2 million by the end of the year, 6.5% of workers. Recent research from Green New Deal UK argues a green stimulus plan could produce 1.2 million jobs in two years. The logic behind and need for localised green recovery plans is there, but the support and coordination from central government is not.

 But how do these ambitious ideas find their way to national policy?

The problem with strategy is that it so often gets left on the page. There is a wealth of material on green recovery and its prudence; the idea for a Green New Deal was circulating at the time of the 2008 crash. It has taken another global crisis and 14 years for green politics to take precedence. Obviously, the contexts are different and the pathway to green politics is neither linear nor entirely knowable, but there has been an observable change. The work of think tanks and protest movements such as Extinction Rebellion – the ones that are actually disruptive – provide the push and pull that gets the climate crisis attention. The UK declared a climate emergency first. This ran parallel to increased media attention on the climate and the beginning of Extinction Rebellion’s ‘summer uprising’.

The work of groups that produce research and advocacy, and even agitation and disruption, for a cause are effective, but not in clear and direct manners. Rarely does the advocated strategy find its way perfectly from paper to policy, but the production of the more extreme strategy produces a political pull or push known as the radical flank effect. This can produce a negative effect of alienating the centre ground, or preventing the election of a party willing to implement such a policy. Joe Biden is a centrist and has adopted these radical green policies from the progressive left of the Democratic Party. Such radicalism can also stop effective leaders from being voted into office due to alienation in the voter base, as may have happened to Bernie Sanders. Eventually, grassroots activism and think tanks should be able to take part in the paradigm or policy shift they help bring about. However, this is never guaranteed and such politics – the fight over whatthe green political consensus is and howbest to implement it – continues as a struggle between the centre and the radical flank.

Grassroots activism can take the form of student groups as GRN UK, a subsidiary of Green Recovery Now, a student environmental group in Oxford fighting for a green and fair recovery. They are a part of the endeavour of research activism, using student research capabilities to educate on and advocate for a fair and green recovery. One advocacy method commonly used is public policy briefs. These can help outline local strategy, public policy, and social outcomes, framed by a green and fair recovery as its metrics of success. This brief is an analytical and strategic two-page argument that ties in civil society, state, and market actors, neatly defined social equalities of measure, and the appropriate policy and administration flows that produce economic recovery whilst explicitly directed against social inequalities.

The two silver linings of this pandemic leave us with no excuse to not harness the power and resources of the state to take on the world’s existential crisis and shape our societies in a way that is fair. Central government is necessary for providing overarching legitimacy, confidence, and insurance for these drastic structural changes. But it is at the local level where we find true innovators and leaders that need to be given the power and funds to regenerate the UK’s regional economies in a way that is green and fair. These radical ideas of restructuring become mainstream because of advocacy groups discussing strategy and campaigning for it. The challenge today is having advocacy bodies combining in voice and message in the run up to COP26.

Disclaimer: this article was written by the leader of GRN UK, and first published in the Oxford Strategy Review