Two strategies for a just transition to net zero

by Ian Gough

Image of a globe, lying on grass.
Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

The Climate Justice and Social Policy Group’s blog series on climate justice and social policy continues with a contribution from Ian Gough, Visiting Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics. The blog asks what a just transition to net zero in rich countries should look like, before setting out two radical steps towards an eco-welfare state and what these steps mean for social policy.

 Two strategies for a just transition to net zero

A fair transition to net zero in rich countries like the UK will need to pursue two strategies, each with profound implications for social policy. The first is the Green New Deal framework coupled with a ‘Social Guarantee’ of a guaranteed minimum income, plus expanded collective provision of essential goods and services. The second strategy goes further to counteract runaway private consumption in a constrained planet by starting a conversation on what constitutes sufficiency, and how we can conceive ceilings to income, wealth and consumption. Both would require rethinking the scope and capacities of an eco-welfare state but the second entails a more fundamental reorientation.

Strategy 1: Green New Deal plus Social Guarantee

 Ideally a Green New Deal (GND) goes beyond a Green Transition (decarbonizing the economy) and a Just Transition (doing so while addressing the social impact of such restructuring on hard-hit sectors, workers and communities that would lose out). But if this is its mission, it needs to recognise and foster synergies between safer climate and better welfare. At present GND plans come in different guises, such as the EU Green Deal plan, the Democratic Party campaign and the current Biden programmes in the US, and the Green Deal campaign in the UK.

On the climate side, current GND programmes go beyond carbon pricing to advocate heavy upfront investment in both the public and private spheres. There is a clear awareness that carbon pricing is almost always regressive, more harshly affecting lower income households and localities. Yet actual programmes are surprisingly thin on the ‘social arm’, often limiting proposals to better education/training and targeted protection for threatened communities. Where are social rights, the Sustainable Development Goals or, in the EU scheme, the Social Dialogue? There is an urgent need for a new eco-social contract.

To this end a new UK campaign proposes a Social Guarantee (SG) as a complement to a GND: to ensure every person’s right to ‘life’s essentials’ via collective provisioning. The idea is to build out from current rights, such as they are, in health and education to encompass other basic necessities, such as housing, adult care, childcare, transport and access to the internet. Building and rebuilding these sectors would directly benefit lower income households, reduce overall inequality and even lower carbon emissions. At the same time it would increase employment in essential jobs and improve their often pitiful pay levels (such as £9.30 an hour for an evening housekeeper in a care home). Much of this has started: innovations in collective service provision are already happening at the level of cities and other decentralized authorities around the world.

The implications for social policy concern taxation, funding investment, and finance – issues too long neglected. These issues are now coming to the fore in government plans for financing Covid lockdowns and promises to ‘build back better’ (e.g. the Biden $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan and the EU investment plan of  €1 trillion over ten years). The consequent reliance on upfront investment will in turn require a radical reform of fiscal frameworks, including greater state borrowing, a Green Investment Bank and potentially ‘Green Quantitative Easing’. In other words, a GND and SG together would require further increases in public spending, capital and current. Accordingly, a just transition to net zero will require new taxes, whether on (net) wealth, land, data, inheritance, unhealthy consumption, financial transactions and/or pollution. It is best to face up to this right away.

Strategy 2: Towards an Economy of Egalitarian Sufficiency

 This first stage would mark a big leap forward but it will not be enough: dilemmas of inequality, consumption and unsustainable growth will remain. To address these it behoves rich countries to begin questioning consumption. Huge shifts in household consumption in developed nations will be necessary to achieve a ‘1.5 degree lifestyle’. Yet simply to reduce the floor in the developed world in order to achieve net zero within existing socio-technical structures would deprive households of the vast range of goods and services – housing standards, personal transport, a range of clothing, a choice of nutritious diets, and so forth ‒ that current minimum income studies have agreed are necessary for effective participation in modern life.

The focus must necessarily be on the excessive and dangerous consumption of the rich, starting with the super-rich. This will entail a process of fair recomposition, which means distinguishing the ‘necessitousness’ of consumer goods and services – whether they are essential, desirable or excessive – alongside their environmental impact. Sooner or later we will have to start discussing sufficiency or what constitutes an economy of enough. This will require thinking about an upper boundary or ceiling of riches, luxury and waste. Social policy, which has done so much to further the study and awareness of poverty, deprivation and exclusion, will need to train its attention on unsustainable income, wealth and consumption. In the era of the Anthropocene, social floors need social ceilings!

Yet to speak of luxuries, riches and limits is to enter disputatious territory. How can such a debate be pursued, let alone consensus be achieved, in a democratic yet hyper-consumption society? Sufficiency movements today increasingly turn to emerging forms of dialogic democracy, such as citizen forums, which bring together citizens and experts in a space as open, as democratic, and as free of vested interests as possible. Fortunately, we can now draw on the experience of large scale citizen’s climate assemblies recruited from all groups in society lasting six months or more, such as the UK Citizen’s Climate Assembly and the French Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat. By the end both had achieved an impressive  consensus on a wide range of radical proposals covering eco-social policy.

These two strategies are radical but, given the dilemmas outlined in the collective CUSP blog, urgent and essential. Both have big implications for the social policy community: the first raises new questions about financing the (eco-)welfare state. The second raises new questions about inequality, unsustainable consumption and excessive wealth.

Ian Gough is Visiting Professor in CASE at the London School of Economics, and the author of Heat, Greed and Human Need: Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing.

All blogs present the views of the author, and not of the Social Policy Association.