The Green New Deal

We’re increasingly hearing the term ‘ Green New Deal’ (GND) in politics and news stories, but what is it, and how is it different from past attempts at government led energy efficiency programmes?

You could be forgiven for thinking the idea emerged across the water in America, where Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey are advocating the US Green New Deal; a radical plan for action on climate change which aims to addresses economic, social and environmental issues. The plan outlines ambitious action on biodiversity loss, together with a new jobs guarantee and social support, such as free healthcare.

The idea for the GND in fact originated in the UK in the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008. It was established by a group of academics, politicians, economists and activists who wanted to develop a bold and rapid response to climate change. The goal of the plan was simple, but proposed a complete transformation of the economy to achieve a more sustainable, regenerative, just and resilient society

Although the plan was generally well received, it failed to gain any real traction in the face of the austerity measures being implemented by the coalition government at the time.  Moving forward to the present day however, there has been a significant rise in public awareness around climate change, largely due to youth climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion and the increasing number of climate related emergencies. This has brought the key ideas in the GND to the fore and they have been re-evaluated by current politicians and political parties.

The GND sets out a programme of interlocking actions that need to happen to address the specific needs of the country. These include a radical and large scale mobilisation of resources in order to overhaul and de-carbonise our energy infrastructure, using state debt to fund renewable energy generation and retrofit the existing building stock. It also looks at creating a wave of new, secure and well paid jobs in the low carbon economy as well as progressing policies around social justice and the redistribution of wealth through new tax laws.

In more detail, the GND includes:

       A radical new vision for transforming our energy network to a renewable system that sees every building as a power station. This will involve upgrading and improving the performance of millions of properties to make them more energy efficient and installing renewables to enable them to generate energy for their own needs, to power vehicles and to share back to the grid. This will require a cash investment of at least £50 billion per year to be invested as widely and quickly as possible.

       The need for a ‘carbon army’ of workers, rapidly trained up to provide the workforce we need to transform our economy and undertake a vast environmental reconstruction programme; upgrading homes, installing renewable energy infrastructure and public transport systems.

       The need to incentivise energy efficiency and the production of clean energy by ensuring the cost of fossil fuels are realistic and include the cost to the environment. By taxing the profits of oil and gas companies, this can provide funding for the GND and the transformation to a low carbon economy.

       The need for a range of financial incentives that not only finance the development of energy efficient infrastructure, but also help reduce the demand for energy. This is particularly important for those in low income groups that would be hit hardest by rising energy prices and measures such as improving home insulation and building to Passivhaus standard should be a priority. We already have the science and technology to provide the systems and infrastructure we need for an energy revolution, but the funds are not currently available to roll them out into full-scale development.

       A series of financial changes which restore our financial system as servant, not master, of the global economy; restoring public trust and refocusing the use of capitol on public priorities and sustainability.  

This plan is undoubtedly radical and outlines the type of progressive thinking and large scale investment that we need in order to respond to the climate crisis at the scale and speed that scientists say is necessary.

Upgrading the energy efficiency of our existing housing stock is paramount, but the process for doing so will need to learn from the past mistakes of state backed energy efficiency programmes. The Department of Energy and Climate Change’s £240 million Green Deal failed partly due to the unaffordable high interest rates on loans to householders. Instead, we need to look to successful models like the subsidised lending scheme offered by the public bank KfW in Germany which has enabled the successful building or refurbishment of over 4 million homes since 2006.

Another reason why past government energy efficiency programmes have failed, is down to the way the work was procured and carried out by large construction companies using badly trained and poorly paid labour, with unrealistic timescales. Costs and quality were driven down to such an extent that real damage was caused to properties, leaving residents forced to seek compensation.

In order to deliver the number of retrofits required each year, it’s clear we will need a skilled workforce to be mobilised rapidly, with new community rollout mechanisms that allow whole streets or areas to be upgraded in sequence by properly trained local labour forces. We need ‘fit for purpose’ quality assurance frameworks and a progressive approach to procurement to deliver retrofits that consider occupant health and wellbeing as well as energy efficiency targets.

 The Green New Deal has the potential to transform our economy and deliver the low carbon society that will be necessary to tackle rising global temperatures. We welcome its radical approach and eagerly anticipate its implementation…. but in the meantime, we will get on with delivering our own low energy schemes, talking to people about low carbon construction and teaching our students about the importance of ecologically responsible design!