The Ides of March have come and gone.
In response to an accelerating climate crisis, activists and policymakers have in recent years urged governments to move away from fossil fuels and at the same time create new clean energy jobs, particularly for workers in the oil, gas, and coal sectors. These proposals fall loosely in the category of “Green New Deals,” which references the government stimulus packages launched by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to rescue the U.S. economy during the Great Depression of the 1930s. While some of these Green New Deals are market-driven reform packages with an emphasis on decarbonization, others propose more significant economic and social transformations.
The European Green Deal, initiated at the end of 2019, aims to combine a transition to clean energy with an emphasis on economic equity. A similar initiative in the United States, associated most visibly with a resolution introduced at the beginning of 2019 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in the House and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) in the Senate, has inspired some elements of the Biden administration’s economic stimulus bills as well as some stand-alone legislation that has not yet passed Congress. In 2020, the South Korean government made a Green New Deal part of its official policy with an emphasis on boosting renewable energy and creating jobs in that sector.
The Global South is both present and absent from these initiatives. It is absent in that mainstream Green New Deals focus on the reactivation of economic growth in their own countries or regions, and the global South is scarcely mentioned. And yet the Global South is very much present as well, for many of the materials required in clean energy infrastructure come from this vast region. In other words, Green New Deals depend on a resource flow from lower-income countries without taking responsibility for the possible impacts that may have on local or transnational ecosystems and societies.
Latin America plays a disproportionate role in this resource flow. For centuries, the continent submitted to the extensive extraction of precious metals and other valuable resources by colonial powers, what Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano described as the “open veins of Latin America.”
That era is not over. Since 1970, according to a 2020 article in the journal Dialogos, the extraction of resources from Latin America has increased fourfold, greater than the global average. A significant portion of these resources leaves the continent as exports.
A transition away from fossil fuels currently requires a vast amount of minerals to build the infrastructure of renewable energy. According to the World Bank, the extraction and refining of minerals such as lithium, graphite, and cobalt will increase by 500 percent by 2050. More than 50 percent of the world’s supply of lithium, a key component in solar panels and the batteries in electric cars, can be found in the Lithium Triangle, a vast area of salt flats spanning Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Meanwhile, nearly 40 percent of the world’s copper, another key component in “sustainable” energy infrastructure, can be found in Peru and Chile.
“The majority of Latin American economies import at a higher price than they export,” points out Miriam Lang of the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar in Ecuador in a recent workshop cosponsored by the Ecosocial Pact of the South and Global Just Transition. “In other words, they are decapitalizing in material terms without generating positive economic returns. This reinforces the idea of an unequal ecological and economic exchange.”
The increase in extraction of natural resources from Latin America—fossil fuels but also minerals like lithium and raw materials like balsa wood—has a direct and negative impact on the communities where the extraction takes place. “This energy transition is being promoted to avoid the natural disaster of climate change,” notes Esperanza Martinez, a biologist and lawyer with Ecological Action in Ecuador. “But in the Global South we see that these actions have nothing to do with natural disasters. These are manmade disasters.”
The extraction, for instance, has taken a huge toll on the natural world. Biodiversity has declined worldwide since 1970 at a rate of 68 percent, according to the World Wildlife Fund. But the figure for Latin America and the Caribbean is an astonishing 94 percent.
Enrique Viale, the president of the Argentine Association of Environmental Lawyers, draws a parallel to the development debates of the 1970s when the countries of Latin America were pushed toward making considerable sacrifices in the name of economic growth. “Today, in the name of the energy transition, everything is approved,” he says. “We’re going to build new nuclear plants: because of the energy transition. We’re going to do offshore oil and gas drilling: in the name of the energy transition. All for the energy transition of the Global North, we are going to sacrifice our territory yet again. Before it was in the name of development, and now it’s in the name of the energy transition.”
Meanwhile in the Global North, the Green New Deals recognize the urgency of climate change and the necessity of combining economic justice with decarbonization. But they do not propose complete economic transformation. “I would call the European Green Deal a passive revolution,” observes Ulrich Brand, head of the Research Network Latin America at the University of Vienna. “It’s an attempt by elites to change the resource base of the economy, the energy base, without changing the power structure or the dominant logic of capitalist growth and accumulation.”
As it stands, the transitions envisioned by the Green New Deals run the risk of simply shifting the burdens of tackling climate change from vulnerable communities in the north to those in the south. “We can’t just shift zones of sacrifice around,” notes Rajiv Sicora, senior policy advisor for U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). “To eliminate them altogether, we’ll need global cooperation on genuinely democratic models of development.”
The U.S. Green New Deal
The Green New Deal in the United States is largely aspirational. It has appeared in the form of a nonbinding resolution in Congress but not as a piece of legislation. It has influenced parts of the Biden administration’s climate policies, but the most significant portions of that agenda have not passed Congress. And it serves as a rallying cry for U.S. progressives—and a lightning rod of criticism from the right wing—though it translates into very different programs depending on which activists you consult.
“There are some ways that the Green New Deal has already made a tangible contribution,” Rajiv Sicora reports. “The Biden administration has set some ambitious goals, though they’re not in line with a U.S. fair-share approach to global emissions nor do they deal with the climate debt to the Global South. The administration, for instance is trying to get to fully renewable electricity generation by 2035. Another direct influence is the Civilian Climate Corps, which is modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal that put unemployed young men during the Depression to work building parks, planting trees, and doing ecological restoration projects. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez played a central role in defining what that proposal would look like if it were implemented.”
The administration, he continues, “has also placed a genuine emphasis on environmental justice, at least within borders of the United States. It has set a goal of distributing at least 40 percent of the benefits of climate investments to historically marginalized communities, those who have borne the brunt of the impacts of extraction and the combustion of fossil fuel, and the other harms and injustices of our economy.” This Justice40 initiative, he adds, “synthesizes decades of work by the environmental justice movement led by Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities in the United States.”
Although the administration has yet to push its major economic bill, Build Back Better, through Congress, it did manage to pass an infrastructure bill last year. “They’re trying to claim that this infrastructure bill is climate-friendly,” Sicora adds. “But it invests more in car and highway infrastructure than in public transit, which is outrageous.”
He contrasts the administration’s approach with the more transformative Green New Deal, “which uses an emergency framework and stresses the importance of improving the material lives of everyday people and the need to fundamentally restructure our economy. The Green New Deal envisions creating millions of unionized jobs. To do this, we have to mobilize a holistic government response over the next decade.”
The differences between the more transformative Green New Deal and the Biden administration begin with the scale of funds. Bernie Sanders, when he ran for president in 2020, “put out a detailed and visionary Green New Deal platform that called for investing $16 trillion over 10 years,” Sicora continues. “President Biden in contrast started out with a $2 trillion proposal that was part of his signature legislation, Build Back Better.” The climate spending in that bill has been reduced to $550 billion, and still the Democratic Party has not managed to get Build Back Better passed in Congress. “And the leadership of the Democratic Party has not had a strategy to mobilize people at a grassroots level to push for this, or to overcome the resistance of corporate-backed Senators,” he adds.
Another major difference involves the drivers of the transition. For the Biden administration, the private sector is the leading edge of the efforts to scale up wind and solar. For advocates of a Green New Deal, “the public sector should be the driver of this transition,” Sicora explains. “The public sector can do it faster, and ensure high standards and democratic participation. We can develop the economic planning capacity to phase down fossil fuels at the same time as we scale up renewables.”
This emphasis on the public sector extends to three bills associated with the Green New Deal: on public housing, on cities, and on public schools. Sicora has worked closely on the schools bill. “Every school in this country should be safe, comfortable, and zero-carbon,” he says. “But right now, school facilities across the country are literally falling apart, and health harms and climate disasters are an everyday threat to Black, Brown, and low-income students. Public schools, as Rep. Bowman says, are the heartbeat of our communities. They’ve suffered from neglect and disinvestment for decades, but it’s hard to think of a single institution that touches the lives of more people.”
The three bills also illustrate the organizing strategy of Green New Deal advocates. “We’re also talking about what coalitions we need to pull together to win radical change,” he concludes. “We need teachers fighting alongside workers who would benefit from retrofitting schools and alongside student climate activists. Even if these bills aren’t close to passage right now, we can use them as powerful organizing tools, and we’ve seen those coalitions start to come together to push for related funding in the Build Back Better package.”
The European Green Deal
The European Green Deal, first introduced in December 2019, promises “economic growth decoupled from resource use” and envisions increasing the share of renewables to 40 percent of overall energy use, renovating 35 million buildings to make them more energy efficient while creating 160,000 new Green jobs in the construction sector, and boosting organic farming as part of a “Farm to Fork” program that aims to make agricultural production, distribution, and consumption more sustainable.
The EU has pledged to spend as much as 30 percent of its long-term budget, which would amount to around $700 billion, to reduce carbon emissions by 2030. As part of the plan, a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism would effectively apply a tariff on carbon-intensive goods coming into the EU. A Just Transition Mechanism of around $85 billion over six years would help poorer regions of the bloc meet the plan’s goals. Within this mechanism, a “public sector loan facility” would combine grants from the EU budget with financing from the European Investment Bank.
“I see the Green Deal in continuity with the Green economy formulated after the financial crisis of 2008-9,” observes Ulrich Brand. “It is explicitly a growth strategy to transform the EU into a just and wealthy society with a modern, resource-efficient competitive economy. It is a growth strategy designed to give Europe a competitive edge.”
This is not, Brand is quick to add, a complete transformation of the European economy. “It is an attempt to transform the energy basis of the economy but not its political economy,” he explains. “For instance, the plan is to have a certain number of electric cars by 2030, which means it’s not about restructuring the whole transportation system.” Also, the success of the plan is predicated on large-scale resource extraction from the Global South.
More progressive versions of the Green Deal exist in Europe that differ from the official policy in four important respects. First, more progressive versions put the state, rather than private capital, at the center of restructuring the economy. Second, in place of a paternalistic approach, the more progressive versions insist on a just transition in which workers secure good jobs, particularly those in high-carbon certain industries that are being restructured or phased out. Third, not only should the economy be electrified but also certain branches such as automobiles, air transport and the chemical sector should be reduced and reorganized. Although there is some consensus around such reorganization, Brand notes, there is more disagreement about challenging the growth imperative of capitalist economics.
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