A Different Approach – A Green Transition (Part 2)

Mar 19, 2024

Photo by Green House Think Tank

This is the second part of Jonathan’s discussion of a new approach to a Green Transition, as presented at the GJA AGM on 13 February.

We need a green transition, that is labour- not material- or technology-intensive, increasing how the economy flows locally rather than how big it is nationally or globally. The new jobs will not be in production in the UK but reproduction. It would depend upon new skills and jobs that reimagine, repurpose and reuse what already exists, and thus on activities that retain embodied carbon. Instead of using ever more energy to make more stuff that economy of scale and comparative advantage turn into fossil fuel powered global supply chains: a revolution of upskilling is needed to reconnect communities. Instead of Do-it-yourself, think: Re-inspire Your Community.

The shift to this new economy could be energised through local green jobs plans that ratchet down our level of resource supply and demand, making better use of what the economy already has, including repurposing resources like steel regionally and locally, reinsulating homes, renewables and less overall energy use. This would be a clear alternative to continuing to exploit more North Sea oil and gas, and also to end the massive predicted increase in the use of lithium and rare earth metals to power the transition to electric vehicles – reducing the scale of consumption of these, and our propensity to travel and consume ever more. 

Such green jobs plans need to be set in an economics of redistribution that turns politics into something we all participate in, something that provides the glue and grease that links the climate science and emergency declarations and policies into real plans, everywhere that can deliver sufficient collective transformation. That would be a great upskilling in contrast to the present absence of any government requirement on business to provide pathways to new skills and jobs beyond that company. That requires a government to go beyond doing litmus tests and tinkering in the market and instead to drive forward with a clear public-led plan. 

So how might this start in the absence of such a plan? I am involved in a local community enterprise – I am part of Energy Action Redhill and Reigate. Our leaky home surveys use infrared cameras to show residents where heat leaks, and we distribute free and half price insulation to households in need. But not just that! We are NVQ-ing up to levels 3 and 4 a group of energy champions. Initiatives like this are already getting skills in place, in readiness for government to finally mainstream investment in retrofitting the UK’s poorly insulated and leaky housing stock. 


Consider how this might look if the economy behaved like the national electricity grid. If we opt for a scaling up of renewables alongside the rethinking of demand explored above, the national grid will not need to expand exponentially to cope with the electrification of heating, transport and all else. Instead, more energy will be generated and consumed locally, and the grid will have a greater role in rebalancing and redistributing power, alongside new storage and demand management. Similarly, instead of continuing to increase the scale of energy generation and consumption, and the ‘economy’ distributing product from where it is centrally produced to consumers, it might serve to redistribute between far more self-reliant local economies, that retain more of their own work, and have a greater sense of place as the local vernacular of architecture, the seasonal variations of diet, and sports and pastimes more dependent on where you live. 

Demand less Now!

 Finally, I just want to touch on how this jobs transition links to the climate emergency, which is where we started. In 2022 Green House interviewed ecological economists, climate researchers and green politicians and compared what they said. They told us that the climate emergency requires us to go beyond scaling up renewables, to reduce overall energy demand. But energy demand has never been decoupled from economic growth, which means that the nature of the economy must change, and crucially also requires redistributing resources through society. This will mean the health of the economy must instead be tied to what makes for healthy communities within a healthy planet – increasing wellbeing and equality as a result of meaningful jobs that cut our ecological and climate impact. 

Capitalism seeks to narrow our thinking about demand reduction to the impact of high carbon advertising. This is clearly insidious. For example, consider the links between Love Island, social media influencers promoting the outfits worn and fast fashion that literally flies newly created fashion around the world. But it stops us looking beyond current ways of doing things. We need a jobs-rich transition, i.e. one that actively involves citizens everywhere, that shifts us to a green future rather than pivots the economy back to growth. 

We interviewed the lead author of the section on demand reduction in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report in 2022. She said, “There is no time left: we need a metamorphosis not a transition or transformation. We need to change everything.” But what rang out to me most was one key finding. Let me paraphrase. Demand reduction alone will achieve 5% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 but by changing cultures, institutions and infrastructure systems that create and sustain demand at the same time, it is possible to reduce demand for materials and energy, and associated carbon emissions, by 70%. 

 How to do this? We interviewed Professors Elizabeth Shove and Greg Marsden, who led work in demand reduction across buildings and transport. They highlighted the need to change systems of provisioning alongside daily practices. Shift out of cars to active travel at the same time as the creation of low traffic neighbourhoods but re-localising production and consumption to reconnect communities. Change what we wear at different times of the year.

But the biggest challenge to reducing demand was one of redistribution. 

Our Belgian partners, Etopia, highlighted how the fair rationing policies introduced in France during the First World War were not, as some might have us think, some top-down imposition but were demanded by the people. Why? Because maximum price controls left food and fuel beyond the reach of many, leading to mass social unrest. 

One way to provide that kind of social policy today, to remove the need for energy top-ups and food banks and ensure all can cover such basic needs, would be a Universal Basic Income. Ironically, throughout the recent energy crisis in the UK the opposite of this was maintained – a universal basic energy charge to everyone. As a maximum price was imposed for energy use in the UK the energy companies increased the standing charge on electricity and gas supply even more. So those least able to afford energy were penalised, forcing ever more ‘customers’ onto prepayment meters. Both standing charges and prepayment meters mean that in the UK the customer is rewarded for using more energy, rather than encouraged to reduce demand. 

Sufficiency: An Economics that addresses Limits and Inequality

 Perhaps the clearest exposition of how environment limits and inequality are related is set out by Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics. The inside and outside of the economic ‘doughnut’ represent the minimum and maximum amounts of resources consumed by individuals in a society – and the thickness of the doughnut is an indication of the level of inequality. To be sustainable two things are required. Firstly, the inside of the doughnut must be above the ‘social foundation’ for a decent quality of life – so the economy serves the needs of everyone. Secondly, the doughnut should not be too fat, such that the outside of the doughnut, reflecting the overall level of consumption of society as a whole, exceeds planetary boundaries – not just for climate change, but other ecological limits too.

So how does the UK currently stack up? In 2022 the UK used around 2000 TWh of energy each year, of which the energy used for transport was around 600 TWh. Considering current inequality in energy consumption, this equates to around 7000 TWh for the highest income decile in the UK, and around 800 TWh for the lowest income decile. This means the energy consumption of the richest 10% is nearly nine times that of the poorest 10% of the population. The energy consumption of the richest 10% is dominated by transport related emissions, whilst that of the poorest 10% is predominantly due to home heating and electricity. This highlights the importance of reducing transport emissions for the richest, and how retrofitting homes will proportionally benefit those with the lowest incomes the most. 

 One way to see how sustainable this current UK ‘economic doughnut’ is would be to compare it to the fair share of global energy consumption needed to limit global heating to below 1.5°C.

What might doughnut economics imply globally? How might eliminating poverty and ensuring that basic needs for all are met be achieved alongside the shift to live without driving climate breakdown? Research by Milward-Hopkins et al recently suggested that the minimum energy consumption per person for a decent living standard globally would be around 15GJ/person in 2050. Applying this to the UK would give an annual energy budget of around 350 TWh.  This would mean that the average energy use per person would be less half that for the lowest decile UK population, or little more than half that used for transport alone. To put it another way, for the UK economy to be sustainable, the outside of the doughnut must be within where the inside of the doughnut currently is. This would require nothing short of radical demand-side changes to reduce consumption alongside rapid deployment of renewable energy and other technologies to change the nature of the UK economy and how we all live.

So if we are serious about the climate emergency and about reducing the scale of material and energy consumption that the likes of circularity gap and emission gap reports highlight then we need to get serious about environmental limits and how this must also drive down inequality as a society embraces huge disruptions and change. If we, that is all of us, are serious in facing up to the climate emergency that confronts us, then we are equally committed to the need for a far more rapid transition to zero carbon, and a greater need for redistribution. And vice versa.

 Choosing a New Way Forward

So where does that leave us? On first glance it would appear we have three choices: to ignore climate change, pursue green growth or act on the climate emergency. These are considered below.

The first option is that epitomised by right-wing politics and global consumer capitalism.

While this might, at least on occasions, pay lip service to the green agenda, its structures and actions still fundamentally ignore climate change. This is continuing to drive up inequality within and between countries, such that the economy increasingly serves a smaller subset of the global population – whilst placing us all at the mercy of dangerous climate change in the future. This is epitomised by Saskia Sassen’s description of the economy expelling both large numbers of people and large areas of the planet as beyond that which is served by our economic system.

Some mainstream optimists place at least some (or all!) their hope on a reformed capitalism being able to deal with climate change through technology-led green growth, at least at some point in the future. This not just risky – it is a deceitful lie. Green growth still concentrates wealth to the few, whilst shielding high-spending Northern and urbanised populations from the continued exploitation and extractivism that underpins this, and the harsh reality is that at best it will deliver only slightly delayed climate meltdown compared with the first scenario.

Global capitalism draws on both of these growthist positions. They are but two different narratives that fit within the current economic and political architecture – different stories that seek to justify sustained growth of increasingly globalised capitalism: continuing to concentrate power and wealth; and continuing to drive up inequality and planetary system failure. They either deny or greenwash over the scale of the climate and ecological emergency that confronts us. Politicians representing different ends of this status-quo continuum, such as the Conservatives and Labour in the UK, deny the political space to contend that this is flawed, and to consider the real alternatives that exist.

There is a real need for the third choice, the only real alternative, to gain in confidence such that it becomes the mainstream. This is to deliver a rapid, green, jobs-rich, transition that cuts demand for materials and energy, supported by global agreements that curtail resource extraction. This would be reflected in a smaller global economy, with far greater circulation of money locally. Instead of tracking aggregate consumption levels through GDP growth, governments must prioritise sufficiency: delivering quality of life for all.

By Jonathan Essex, Greenhouse Think Tank