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How We Can Win a Real ‘Green Recovery’ from Covid-19

Across the world, government promises of a 'green recovery' from the pandemic are ringing hollow – they will only be forced to act when we build mass working-class movements which demand radical climate policies.

Last week, young people around the world geared up for the first ‘global strike’ for climate of the year. Today, though, the context of that action is wildly different. A massive economic crisis has made an environmentalism centred on redistribution and public investment even more important, particularly as the youngest are hit hardest by this wave of unemployment.

In the UK, things are looking dire. In a bid to recover from the pandemic, the Tories have once again left environmental need in the margins, with little serious opposition voiced by Keir Starmer. The climate movement also faces an additional hurdle in the form of the Police Crackdown Bill currently progressing through parliament, which could effectively criminalise many street protests.

The Tories have classed climate change as a less important option in what is falsely framed as a balancing act between opposing needs of environment and economy. This did not need to be the case. With fossil companies seeking out government subsidies, the Covid-19 pandemic was a prime opportunity to regulate the industry further and incentivise green transformation to create many more jobs; if they were serious about shifting to a low carbon economy, the moment for a much-needed U-turn would have been now.

Instead, public money is being spent on supporting major fossil fuel businesses as part of the Covid recovery stimulus. Companies like Drax, who were previously on track to produce renewable energy, are now in receipt of £350 million to produce more new gas power. No meaningful incentive has been attached to this payment to encourage them towards a green energy transformation; instead, a new ‘super deduction’ tax relief has been offered to companies which leaves the backdoor open for a surge in fossil fuel investment. Initiatives like these, which peel back any regulation or incentive towards green transformation, encourage companies to extract as much as possible.

Meanwhile, the flagship environmental policies which could have put Britain back on track to meet decarbonisation targets have faced the chop. Hundreds of millions of pounds have just been cut from the Green Home Scheme, designed to create thousands of well-paid construction jobs by retrofitting houses. After the coldest winter since 1995 this would have been a welcome move, reducing fuel poverty for many families all over the UK.

Parliamentary opposition post-Corbyn is underwhelming and wildly out of sync with today’s climate movement, which has finally turned its back on wonky market fixes. Starmer’s climate programme scales back pledges popularised by Rebecca Long-Bailey’s Green Industrial Revolution by offering far lower levels of investment, fewer green homes, and fewer green jobs. This lack of ambition both sits in denial of the scale of the climate challenge and abandons Labour’s working-class constituents, who will suffer the most from its fallout.

After decades of disconnect between the movement and working-class people, climate conversations are finally being had in tandem with straightforward ideas such as public investment, decently-waged jobs and an affordable housing guarantee. A new and transformed environmental movement was born out of the Green New Deal, which Starmer and the climate old guard are now working to undo.

But radical ideas must continue to be put forward to properly address both climate change and the unemployment crisis we have before us; ‘Third Way’ ecological politics is not going to solve the problems of ex-coal mining regions. Critics of Cumbria’s new coal mine, for example, should draw attention to innovative green solutions with real-life examples, such as the coal pits of Germany’s Ruhr Valley, which use gigantic batteries and hydroplants to produce electricity for 400,000 homes. The time for a pragmatic and tangible class-based green politics for young and old is now.

However, as Matt Huber argues in relation to Bernie’s Green New Deal in the US, a programme with mass appeal is evidently not enough. We have had strong left-wing green projects in recent years: Corbyn’s 2019 policy programme and Rebecca Long Bailey’s Green Industrial Revolution pioneered solutions to solve both inequality and climate change but were not enough to get us over the line in 2019. As Huber explains, climate policies often risk being ‘a politics of the professional class for the working class’; Leo Panitch has also articulated the profound gap between ‘class-focused’ and ‘class-rooted’ green politics. Only through working-class organisation can such an ambitious and meaningful Green New Deal be delivered.

That is not to say that we should abandon electoral politics. There is much to be achieved on the local level. Young activists serious about avoiding a climate disaster ought to put pressure on local government and engage with upcoming council elections. A recent report by campaign group Platform highlighted the enormous challenges we face on a local level; billions of pounds’ worth of investment in fossil fuels is spent through local government pension funds. And there are examples of concrete steps against this: after declaring a climate emergency, all ten Greater Manchester councils have made plans to reduce emissions by 50 percent and create jobs before 2025 with initiatives like the construction of on-site solar and wind generators on council land.

Fundamentally, there also needs to be a strategy beyond the state. The Tories’ attempted protest ban has come as a response to mass mobilisations by groups like Extinction Rebellion, because they have been effective in putting climate change on the political agenda. But one-off mobilisations are not enough; last week’s climate ‘strikes’ largely took place online through social media, away from the real battlefields—on estates, in workplaces, and in the community at large—as well as in colleges and schools.

A stronger strategy requires the hard graft of building institutions – such as powerful trade unions, community groups, and a robust left media. Before we can dream of capturing the state to put forward a nationwide (then global) Green New Deal, the task at hand is to build a democratic structure strong enough to win it.

Short-term remedies for the existing economic and unemployment crisis cannot function as a get-out clause for the climate disaster we are hastily approaching; likewise, any serious attempt to tackle unemployment must draw upon robust climate solutions. Only a programme like the Green New Deal can provide a genuine agenda for the jobs, infrastructure, and housing much needed by Britain’s working-class communities. However, just as important as the solutions are the methods through which they are delivered.

Right now, the climate movement must look beyond the NGO industrial complex, and work meaningfully to build a coalition which can overcome the fast-developing climate disaster.