What could an Australian green new deal look like?

November 28, 2019
An Extinction Rebellion protest in Melbourne in October.
An Extinction Rebellion protest in Melbourne in October. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Australia’s hottest summer on record just nine months ago. Monsoon rains leading to life-threatening flooding in parts of northern Queensland. Long-term droughts crushing farmers and out-of-control bushfires ravaging Australia. The effects of climate change are here already.

Yet the government remains inert.

Despite this, many Australians are participating in the rapidly developing international climate emergency movement. They have heeded climate activist Greta Thunberg's call: “We need to act as though our house is on fire — because it is”. Their actions are challenging the system that has produced the climate emergency.

We lag behind, however, in one major area: the development of a green new deal (GND) proposal.

Socially transformative

In response to the climate emergency and growing social inequality, socialist parties and campaigns in Europe and North America have proposed socially transformative GNDs. In these, a just transition for workers — such as the Australian Council of Trade Unions has discussed — is integrated and superseded.

These socially transformative GNDs aim to simultaneously reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, mitigate climate change and address social inequity and systemic racism, all within an approach that pays for itself.

Britain’s Labour for a Green New Deal plan, adopted at the party’s conference in September proposes extensive public ownership of renewable energy production, public transport, a just transition for workers and universal basic services to secure a zero-carbon economy in the country as early as 2030.

The plan also argues that rich countries — the previous beneficiaries of the fossil fuel economy — must accelerate decarbonisation and provide aid and transfer technologies to poorer ones to hold global warming to 1.5oC. This needs GHG emission reduction to start now, with a 50% cut in worldwide emissions by 2030 and a zero-carbon economy across the globe by 2050.

Were the Australian left to “get on board” with a socially transformative GND, what could we expect from it? 

Empowering the transition

A starting point for an Australian GND would be to promote an even more powerful movement.

This is because the movement must overcome the power of the fossil fuel companies and their allies in finance and politics that, for the moment, has gained support from many workers in fossil fuel industries by claiming to provide them with jobs. This has confused Australians regarding the realistic potential to respond to the climate emergency. 

A GND will demonstrate a political alternative. Rather than push the cost of responding to the climate emergency onto working people, a GND will shift the burden onto those who can bear it: the rich corporations who have benefitted from the current economic regime.

An effective response to the climate emergency is inextricably linked with the sovereignty and knowledge of Australia’s First Nations. They are connected with their Country and a GND must be rooted in engagement with and guidance from Traditional Owners. Colonisation has damaged that connection, so decolonisation through treaties will be central to a GND.

Governments and parliaments in several countries have adopted climate emergency declarations, including Britain, Canada and France. Their purpose is to mobilise resources as swiftly as possible to respond to the climate emergency.

In Australia, a 400,000-strong petition has called for such a declaration, but the Coalition government has failed to join in. Declaration of a climate emergency would align Australia with other countries in stating the political pressure to act.

100% renewables

The GNDs proposed by US Democrats and the British Labour Party involve moving to 100% renewable energy by 2030. Australian think tank Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) put forward a 10-year stationary energy plan in 2010 as a “road map” to renewable energy for nearly all buildings, appliances, transport and industry in Australia, which would be produced at a cost similar to fossil fuels.

It used scaled-up versions of already operating and more commercially viable renewable energy technologies, and estimated the implementation cost at $370 billion, although more than $100 billion would be saved on not repairing and replacing fossil fuel electricity generation.

Since then, more wind farms and photovoltaic solar have come online and energy efficiency has improved. Moreover, projects using technologies not envisaged by BZE are now being developed.

This includes testing for Australia’s first offshore wind farm in Victoria’s Bass Strait, providing jobs in a region previously dominated by coal and oil production, and the building of a major pumped hydro site at the former Kidstone mine in Queensland. This will push down the future cost of fully converting to 100% renewables.

Beyond that, as economist Ross Garnaut has argued, Australia is in an advantageous position with both wind and solar resources to raise industrial production or produce hydrogen for export. 

Within the US, a GND for upgrading public housing has been proposed. For Australia, where rates of homelessness have risen 14% in 5 years, a GND would incorporate “homes for all” whereby a “housing guarantee” would reduce homelessness and increase the rights of renters, while shifting focus from home-ownership to housing co-operatives. New buildings would be designed, and existing ones re-fitted, for energy efficiency, as proposed in British Labour’s GND.

Reducing emissions from the transport sector must be a central component of a GND. In cities, comprehensive public transport systems would be supplemented with zero emissions vehicles. Rail freight would replace long-distance trucking, and high-speed rail would supplant air travel, wherever possible.

Sustainable communities

Disinvestment in fossil fuels and refocusing priorities towards a sustainable future will need a new economic structure, as proposed by GNDs in Britain and the US.

Replacing production for profit with public ownership is a means to effect a reorientation of the economic system to an economy based upon minimising materials used, keeping materials in use, minimising waste and regenerating natural systems, without compromising living standards.

Public ownership also enables and ensures a just transition for workers, with those coming out of fossil fuel industries guaranteed jobs or income, and union rights across the workforce.

Public ownership will need public investment and a public green investment bank as a driver. This will lead towards restructuring national and international finance.

What British environmentalist George Monbiot has called public luxury, rather than private consumption, allows high living standards to be maintained, but where products and services are both ecologically friendly and brought into the public realm. Luxury for the many, not for the few, involves reinvesting in public spaces, galleries, museums and other public amenities. 

Universal basic services (UBS) can be provided to ensure every individual has their basic needs met and are able contribute to society and live comfortably, regardless of immigration status. Such services would include food, water, health and social care, education, energy, housing, transport and communications. The strength of UBS lies within its inclusivity, with everyone provided for regardless of an ability to pay.

Climate change is likely to widen the inequality gap between urban and regional, rural and remote communities, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Investment and UBS in these communities will raise their resilience.

Regenerative agri/aquaculture

Change in farming practices toward sustainability are also a key part of a GND and the reduction of GHG emissions. We need to move to regenerative farming practices and sustainable aquaculture practices such as line-fishing. This would support a healthier, mostly plant-based diet — the so-called “planetary health diet”.

Investment in small family-based farms, with grazing livestock, would reduce animal agriculture emissions, improve soil and land quality through carbon absorption, and reduce land used to grow crops to feed animals that are bred for slaughter. This would also reduce water use and wastage.

Overall, food production requires reorganisation away from being profit-driven to becoming sustainable, accessible, secure and respectful. Food production in this manner will enable re-wilding of the land and oceans and increased conservation efforts.

Degrowth and decolonisation

On a planet with finite resources, economic growth cannot continue indefinitely. A socially transformative GND would, through public ownership and public luxury, scale the economy to meet human and environmental needs with healthier, happier lifestyles. We need to, as Canadian author Naomi Klein discusses, take on people’s financial and environmental concerns together to win support for a GND.

Redefining our lifestyles would also include a reduction in working hours and more time engaging in voluntary and community activities. This would help us create a connectedness to land and people, similar to that experienced by Australia’s First Nations, that would benefit the whole population and the wider global community.

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