The green new deal is back

There’s fresh international interest in the flagship green-growth project. What is the Green New Deal and where did it come from? Paul Hockenos takes a look.

The “Green New Deal” was proposed in 2009 by the European Greens in the context of the European Parliament elections. (Public Domain)

About a decade ago, the European Greens’ visionary Green New Deal (GND) program – a full-scale environmental overhaul of our economies driven by public investment – had been put on a high shelf in a backroom somewhere in Brussels. The brainchild of several circles of environmentalists and then picked up by the European Greens in the late aughts was, perhaps, ahead of its time (critics, on the contrary, sniped that it was really nothing more than a naïve wish list.) The idea was twofold: to finance green infrastructure projects with state investment, which would put people to work and act as a stimulus is the crisis-racked recession economy. And also to give incentives for private capital. The GND brought together economic growth and environmental protection – an attractive win-win strategy, it was thought.

But it didn’t get a lot of traction in Europe at the time. In the 2009 European Parliament vote, the EU Greens bumped up their percentage of seats in the EP just marginally: from 5.7% to 7.5%, ultimately a disappointment.

“The problem was the term ‘New Deal,’ which in the U.S. is known from the era of the Great Depression the state investment and public works program launched by Franklin Roosevelt in the mid-1930s and has positive connotations,” says Sven Giegold, a German Green in the European Parliament and co-author of the European Greens’ 2008 Green New Deal program. “ While in English ‘New Deal’ means something, it doesn’t in French or German, and people didn’t really get it,” he says. “In France we just shortened it to ‘Green Deal’ and then after the 2009 EP vote we more or less dropped this tag,” says Giegold.

As the severity of the financial crisis receded, Giegold says, there was also less talk of and need for stimulus, he notes, which was central to the GND program of the aughts. But Giegold argues that the content, basically ecological modernization guided and in part financed through fiscal spending, has been at the core of every Green campaign platform since then as it is now in the current program for the upcoming May European Parliament election. (Interestingly, in contrast to the EU Greens, the UN Environment Program stuck with it, enshrining their version of it in Global Green New Deal in 2009 and keeping the term and the program in currency.)

Today though, the manifesto has been taken down from the shelf and dusted off – by left-wing U.S. Democrats (see Part II next week). As candidate in 2018, the democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, now a U.S. congresswoman, ran her campaign plugging for a Green New Deal. And she’s not alone. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign, on which Ocasio-Cortez worked, touted a version of the Green New Deal. Today, presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, as well as another 30 congresspeople – all Democrats, have endorsed the plan. Moreover, the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, and his left-wing European movement DiEM25 have taken some version of it on board. The London-based Green New Deal Group, founded in 2008 and never disbanded, is pushing it from the UK.

Before we take another look at what the GND is, let’s get something about its origins straight. It was not, as Wikipedia and other sources claim, the idea of US columnist Thomas Friedman, although he did pen two commentaries using the term in early 2007. He called for a GND, citing the way that Roosevelt‘s New Deal snapped the U.S. economy out of the depression. Friedmann argued further: “If we are to turn the tide on climate change and end our oil addiction, we need more of everything: solar, wind, hydro, ethanol, biodiesel, clean coal and nuclear power — and conservation. It takes a Green New Deal because to nurture all of these technologies to a point that they really scale would be a huge industrial project… To spark a GND today requires getting two things right: government regulations and prices.”

The European Parliament’s Greens, led by the Germans and the UK’s Caroline Lucas, turned the catch phrase, which was already in use at the UNEP, into a policy paper with real content.

The EU Greens contracted the prestigious German environmental think tank, Wuppertal Institute, to study the possibility of bringing together green politics and market economics under one hat and with one label. The idea was to cut green gas emissions through government spending in eco-friendly industries and infrastructure that could stimulate economic recovery during the financial crisis, which had hit in 2007. The nub of this, the institute recommended, would be: “state investment in activities which produce goods and services to measure, prevent, limit, minimise or correct environmental damage to water, air and soil, as well as problems related to waste, noise and eco-systems. This includes innovation in cleaner technologies and products and services that reduce environmental risk and minimise pollution and resource use.”

The results of the Wuppertal study were incorporated into the European Greens’ “Green New Deal for Europe manifesto with which they ran on in the 2009 European Parliament elections.

Here are some snippets from the program, which obviously haven’t lost their relevance:

  • “Shifting to a greener economy and combating climate change will boost employment and make us more self-sufficient, reducing our damaging reliance on energy imports.“
  • “Neoliberal ideology in Europe has established a system where the interests of the few come before the general well-being of its citizens. They have put the profits of polluting industries ahead of the environment and public health.”
  • “The impact of a resource crunch and dangerous climate change would dwarf that of any financial and economic crisis. Thankfully, most of the solutions are already at hand. The current economic slowdown is an opportunity to transform our system, so that we can avoid the extremes of the resource and climate crises, and secure a good quality of life.”
  • “Combating climate change is a win-win process. A combination of ambitious and binding targets, of incentives and of public investments into green technologies and services will help create millions of green jobs in Europe and tens of millions worldwide.”
  • “Nuclear energy cannot be part of the solution to climate change. Expensive investments in this dead-end technology will not be able to contribute to the urgently-needed emissions reductions and will divert much-needed funds from the promotion of sustainable energy production.”
  • “The resource crunch we face runs far beyond energy resources. A more sustainable approach to our agricultural and marine resources is vital for our wellbeing, the health of our ecosystems and their wealth of biodiversity.”
  • “A Green New Deal calls for massive investment in education, science and research in green, future-oriented technologies to put Europe at the forefront of a global economic revolution.“
  • ”A truly prosperous, innovative, stable and sustainable economy requires a fairer society guaranteeing fair working conditions, equal opportunities and a decent standard of living for all. Europe must defend social values and justice while adapting to the needs of changing times.”

Giegold says that in 2008 there was tension between the UN and the European version of the plan. The EU Greens had social concerns at the forefront – the financial crisis acute at the time – realizing that there was the possibility that environmental modernization could adversely impact the less well-off, and thus hurt the GND’s chances. The UN, he says, deemphasized social impact because it thought the leftist slant decreased the chances of their GND package gaining broader acceptance.

Since then, he says, the EU Greens and most of the European Green parties advocate state-financed investment in climate protection, as the GND posited, but more as a transformative process rather than an economic stimulus. Indeed, the green-stimulus route was NOT taken by the Europeans but it was advanced in Korea, China, and, to a lesser degree, in Obama-era America.

Next Installment: The Green New Deal lives in in the U.S.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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