Climate change caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) has risen to the top global threat of the 21st century. Although developed countries contributed the most to historical emissions, since the mid-2000s developing countries have overtaken developed countries as the main producers of greenhouse gases. Nowadays, many climate change discussions focus on developing countries, especially those who burn fossil fuels to support economic development and poverty alleviation. And any serious proposals seeking to significantly reduce global GHG emissions must pay attention to the economic, social and political situations of developing countries.
One such proposal supported by many progressive thinkers and policy makers is the Global Green New Deal (GGND). Following the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the UN Environment Programme commissioned a report that was aimed at remaking the post-recession economy in a way that would achieve not only economic prosperity but also environmental sustainability and poverty eradication. The proposals contained in the report as a whole become known as the GGND. A crucial component of the GGND is its policy proposals geared towards the Global South. It calls for large-scale foreign investments in low-carbon and clean energy technologies in the Global South and international transfers of technologies to facilitate the development of a domestic low-carbon economy in the Global South.
Finance and technology are definitely key for implementing the GND in Global South countries, but the orthodox version of the GGND overlooks the external and internal structural factors that countries in the Global South are facing. In our latest Economic and Labour Relations Review article, we argue that failure to pay attention to these structural factors may lead to consequences that contradict the GGND’s original intentions of creating decent jobs, reducing emissions and ending poverty.
To begin with, the GGND takes a North-centric perspective. When it calls for more foreign investments in renewable energies in the Global South and more transfer of technologies to the Global South, it implicitly assumes that countries in the North have better, greener and more sustainable modern technologies that the South should accept and adopt. By making this assumption, it dismisses Southern production and consumption practices or values that are cleaner and more sustainable than competing ones in the North.
Ultimately what lacks is an analysis of the historical processes that underpin today’s unsustainable and unequal global economic system. Due to the long history of colonialism and imperialism, many Southern countries still specialize in producing and exporting extractive resources, which generate lower economic benefits but higher levels of environmental degradation. Without empowering workers in the Global South, the GGND will contribute to the perpetuation of this ecologically and economically unequal international economic structure. Recently, the global push for expanding wind energy capacity has caused an ecological disaster in Ecuador, as legal and illegal logging of balsa wood used in manufacturing wind turbine blades almost tripled between 2019 and 2020. And Kyoto Protocol Annex B countries consistently have higher consumption-based carbon emissions than production-based emissions.
Moreover, despite the GGND’s emphasis on the amount of job creation in Southern countries, it nevertheless fails to pay enough attention to the quality of these jobs. An important shared characteristic of countries in the Global South is the existence of a large informal sector. An ILO estimate shows that informal employment is 85.8% of total employment in African countries, 71.4% in the Asia and Pacific region, 68.6% in the Arab states, and 53.8% in the Americas. The jobs that the GGND creates could be largely concentrated in the informal sector, where workers are not protected by labor laws, lack social welfare and employment benefits, are underpaid and overworked, and have less job security. Indeed, our estimation shows that in both solar and wind energy sectors, informal employment can take about 55% of all the generated employment!
Last but not least, a fundamental contradiction of current GGND proposals is that they do not challenge the logic of capital accumulation and the commodification of nature and labour. A main feature of most GGND proposals is that they would create green jobs in the economy through investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. However, having a large number of green jobs does not necessarily mean that these jobs are good jobs for a sustainable society. Recent studies show that although the amounts of energy and emission required to create each dollar of output have declined (i.e. today’s technologies are more efficient), the growth of the global economy has completely wiped out the efficiency gains. The end result is increasing, not decreasing global GHG emissions. Besides, although the GGND is likely to generate a short-run economic boom, decades of global neoliberalism shows that the distribution of the economic benefits can be highly unequal, and the financial sector may extract too much value from the green economy. This is especially relevant for the Global South since it is usually the place where such contradiction manifests itself.
Compared with the inadequate – or even complete lack of – actions from major carbon-emitting countries, the GGND proposals are progressive in that it calls for immediate actions before the climate emergency becomes disastrous. However, its success will depend on how well it tackles these structural factors in Southern countries.