So what is the “Green New Deal”, anyways?

For those interested in climate change or climate policy, you will have come across some variation of the phrase “Green New Deal”. The concept has been a part of global climate discourse for nearly 15 years. But even for climate change buffs, there is often little clarity on what precisely this new deal is supposed to be. As it turns out, a little confusion is nothing to be ashamed of as there are actually “Green New Deals”  that vary based on geography!

For a bit of background, the term “Green New Deal” first broke into international consciousness in early 2007 thanks to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman. Friedman coined the term — drawing on the emotional resonance of the 1930s policy called “the New Deal” which was a component of the United States’ recovery from the Great Depression — to capture the sentiment that a holistic political, cultural, and economic effort is needed to tackle climate challenges. 

Since Friedman’s original usage, the “Green New Deal” title has been seized upon by several organizations and politicians, leading to an inconsistent series of ideas and policies all branded with a similar name. Let’s take a look at a few of the “Green New Deals” that you may have come across. 

The United Nations’ “Global Green New Deal”:

If we take things chronologically, the United Nations was one of the first to translate the concept of a “Green New Deal” into policy recommendations. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, the UN Conference on Trade and Development announced a “Global Green New Deal” in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

This version of the “Green New Deal” challenged governments around the world to provide stimulus funding for green industries, to spend at least 1% of global domestic product (GDP) on reducing carbon dependency over a minimum of two years, and to work in tandem to achieve several of the UN’s key climate-related objectives: economic recovery, eradication of poverty, and the reduction of carbon emissions

Although the UN’s 2008 recommendations struck an important tone, the UN has no direct power over its member nations in the arena of climate policy. As such, its “Global Green New Deal” has not had legally-binding implications. When thinking about the UN’s version of the deal, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA Margarent Huang provides a helpful framing: “The U.N. is like your conscience. It can’t make you do the right thing, but it can help you make the right decision.”

The United States’ “Green New Deal”:

In the United States, political discourse on a “Green New Deal” began during the 2008 elections and picked up steam when parts of President Barack Obama’s climate platform were wrapped into the 2009 stimulus bill. Although this provided important funding for green initiatives, this “green stimulus” did not get the attention that the climate change community was hoping for.  However in February 2019, a resolution officially titled “Green New Deal” arrived in front of the US Congress. In this resolution, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey called on the federal government to commit to creating green jobs and move the US economy away from a dependency on fossil fuels. 

Much of the 14-page resolution — including the revival of the name “Green New Deal” — was shaped by the Sunrise Movement, an activist group that conducted a sit-in protest at Representative Nancy Pelosi’s office. Representative Ocasio-Cortez joined the Sunrise Movement during parts of the protest and brought the group’s ideas forward with Senator Markey’s support. 

Although the resolution was non-binding, it was nonetheless defeated 57-0 during a vote in the US Senate in March 2019. Democrats largely protested the voting process, citing a lack of genuine engagement or consideration from the Rublican majority at the time. There have not been further “Green New Deals” brought to Congress, but the recent shift to a Democratic majority in the Senate increases the likelihood that similar proposals will be on the way.

The European “Green Deal”:

The final major deal doesn’t include the word “new”, however it is the deal that is currently the most active and promising. This European version of the “Green Deal” is a 24-page document that provides an action plan for making the EU carbon neutral by the year 2050. More specifically, this “Green Deal” focuses on improving quality of life through building a cleaner, more circular economy, reducing pollution, and restoring biodiversity. 

The “European Green Deal” isn’t actually a law in and of itself, but it has been translated into a set of legally binding goals in the European Climate Law, which is currently being considered by European Parliament. The bill’s measures are still being fiercely debated and the current target is to agree on the final form for the bill by the end of June 2021. Should the European Climate Law receive the necessary votes, the EU member states will be responsible for ensuring that Europe becomes the first climate neutral continent. 

In conclusion

The proliferation of “Green Deals” over the past few years may have contributed to some confusion. On the positive side, the rise of multiple “Green Deals” reflects a growing discourse and interest for addressing climate change risks via policy routes. With the “European Green Deal” and its associated Climate Law, we may very well see one of these “new deal” concepts become legally enforceable climate policy this year. In the same spirit of the original “New Deal” in the 1930s, these holistic climate policies hold the promise of reinventing how we work and live in order to solve our most pressing challenges.

Anna Breu has long been fascinated with the unique challenge of creating action around climate change and sustainability, and she holds a degree in Environmental Studies and Psychology from Middlebury College (USA). Anna works as an Associate Director at BTS in London where she focuses on strategy execution and creating change momentum in organizations, skills she likes to use outside work in the context of environmental issues. Anna is particularly focused on the role of her home country – the US – plays on the international stage, and is passionate about the potential of circular economies.

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