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It’s the (local) economy, stupid

The green transition is under attack from above and below. How can we best defend ambitious policies during a time of polycrisis?

By Oliver Greenfield GEC · 20th March, 2024
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Image by Kirk Slow / Unsplash

2024 is global election year, with 1/3 of the world’s population heading to vote. Against this context there is a prevailing political shift to the far right, to populism, to climate denial, even to autocracy. This is of particular concern to those who want to see action on climate, environment, and social issues, and a peaceful global order.

This shift is two-pronged – it comes from both above, and below.

From above – geopolitical trends of war and economic stagflation are pressing countries to focus inwards on security, migration and economic growth. Against these headwinds, multilateralism and global cooperation is struggling generally and the struggle is even more pronounced for climate, environment and inequality actions. The UN is running short on funds, and its flagship event this year – Summit of the Future – is wilting under the lack of multilateral attention.

From below: Farmers, miners, squeezed middle classes and working people left in poverty are starting to conclude globalism has done little for them, stoking nationalism, populism and culture wars. This trend has also mutated to target green transition policies, which some are seeing as further threats to already precarious livelihoods. “We can’t afford the green transition,” is an emerging new campaign slogan, that builds onto “globalism has given you nothing.”

The EU green deal is under severe threat at the impending European elections, from governments terrified of farmers, to citizens already stretched to the limit by the cost of living crisis.”

This is most evident in Tractors blockading cities across Europe. The EU green deal is under severe threat at the impending European elections, from governments terrified of the farmers, and from citizens already stretched to the limit by the cost-of-living crisis.

EU green deal policy is under attack from countries outside the block that don’t like the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), or new EU deforestation legislation – threatening their supply chains and access to the European markets. Earlier this month the EU’s global push on circularity policy at UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi failed among this usually most aligned gathering of environment ministers. The proposal was pulled, and dark clouds foretell of bigger storms ahead.

And then there is US politics. Two old white men, one a liberal globalist, the other the archetypal right-wing populist, will go to the polls in November, with the future of America, western democracy, and possibly global climate on the ballot.

Green transition leaders must do better to convey that the enemy is not the green future, instead it is the current system that does not reward the right things.”

Or is it? The GEC exists to promote transition, and it is our conclusion that a significant recalibration to local value is critical. We have long argued that a successful green deal is rooted in communities not in commissions or global agreements.

Climate change, per se, often does not register among the most important problems that citizens want their governments to address. However, concerns about the effects of climate change is embedded in some of the other priorities like access to water supply, food shortages, energy prices, or concerns about natural disasters.

We also need to acknowledge capitalism and globalism have failed many working people. Inequality within Western nations is growing and so is debt – both personal, and national, especially in lower- and middle-income countries. The only reason global inequality has seen some improvement is due the stagnation in the West, in contrast to continued albeit lower-than-before growth in Asia.

Jorge Alcala 325378 Unsplash
Photo by Jorge Alcala on Unsplash

The Western, corporate-globalist model needs deep green and fair reform, and the recalibration of focus to greening localism may paradoxically be the tonic greening globalism most needs.

But what does greening localism mean? And what could it mean set against the shift to nationalism and populism?

A "Greening Localism" approach could be characterised with national ‘security’ – or national ‘self-reliance’ approach. It includes energy security (e.g. Europe’s gas price chaos from Russia supply disruptions), food security – (e.g. from Ukraine grain or weather impacts on food imports), financial security, local supply chains, circularity, resilience to global shocks, greening of small and informal businesses, ensuring communities benefit and the livelihoods of the excluded, the impacted and the poorest are improved. Importantly, low- and middle-income countries and local communities must see real and tangible benefits to secure their support.

Rather than ignoring or resisting greening localism we must work significantly harder on it so citizens who find the rhetoric of nationalism appealing can also lend their support to green and fair measures. After all, a stable, secure climate along with affordable energy, food and more local jobs will overwhelmingly benefit those countries and communities losing out under the current economic system.

To win the battle at the bottom is the current highest priority. Greening localism must offer more to the most impacted communities: to farmers, to miners. It must also offer more to those that have been poorly served and excluded: to youth it needs to give green careers, jobs and hope, to women it must give equal pay, rights and prospects, to small business, it must improve their access to markets, to training and to investment. It must offer transition negotiation mechanisms that are transparent and fair – we call these eco-social contract processes for new green economic architecture.

Stepping back, the scale of economic and social transformation is so big that we will need both Greening Globalism and Green Localism. But the key insight is that greening globalism and globalism itself is not the master but the servant.

Any change won in greening globalism spaces needs to act as a national multiplier, an enabler of more local and national ambition.

We try to walk this talk at the GEC. Our GEC global policy work and our global secretariat serves localism and our national hubs. So, as elections loom across the world, and retrenchment trends deepen, now is the time to redouble our efforts on localism – green economy localism. It might just keep the transition on track if right wing nationalism takes the popular vote.

- Oliver Greenfield, GEC

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