Towards a 21st-century Socialist Green Programme

Rohit Azad (rohit.jnu@gmail.com) teaches Economics at JNUShouvik Chakraborty (shouvik@umass.edu) is a researcher at PERI, UMASS-Amherst
17 March 2023

In this fight against the climate crisis, we believe the Green Growth framework provides a transitional path towards a sustainable future but stops short of imagining a world beyond capitalism. On the other hand, the Degrowth/Post-Growth framework has a post-capitalist imagination but perhaps not a concrete transitional path from here to there. We need, however, _both_ a transitional path from capitalism to an alternate system as well as a vision of such a society, which is based on equality in rights, opportunities and outcomes; collective ownership of the means of production; people’s well being over profits. In what follows, we imagine such a path —  working on the complementarities instead of the differences between these two frameworks — which we call Socialist Green Growth.


 

How Much Carbon Space is Left?
Climate scientists have pressed the panic button. They say there is very little time left to act before we hit climate tipping points, after which it will mostly be fait accompli. To see how critical the situation is, Figure 1A shows how much carbon space is left globally before we hit the thresholds of 2°C and 1.5°C (above the pre-industrial levels), respectively. But instead of acting swiftly, we seem to be moving ahead full steam towards these thresholds, leaving a smaller and smaller window for mitigation with each passing year. Time is of essence, as Figure 1B shows, according to which half of what has been emitted since 1800 was in the last three decades alone! 
There are two issues here, one of stock and the other of flow. The stock of carbon matters because it has a very long life; by some estimates more than 10,000 years. So, a part of whatever is emitted today will stay in the atmosphere for those many years. Flow matters because for a given yearly rate of growth of emissions, the absolute levels will keep rising exponentially, making the mitigation efforts that much more difficult if we do not act now. Before we go into how to address it, let us look at how we reached here.

The Twin Issues of Climate Change and Injustice

   


It is common knowledge that the countries of the global North have used most of the carbon space (dark blue portion of the bars in Figure 1A). To put things in perspective, we calculate the climate inequality quotient (CIQ). If you divide the global economy into different territorial regions and measure what part of cumulative emissions originated from that region in proportion to its share in the global population, you arrive at the CIQ. A value greater than one means that the region has appropriated more carbon space than what was due to them. We present the global CIQ in Figure 2. If the distribution of emissions was evenly spread, we would have got a figure of same-sized rectangular blocks, one on top of the other. But if the emissions are unequally distributed, we would get a funnel-like structure (or even a wine glass if it is unequal), as shown in Figure 2. The numbers (ratios) for each block represent the multiple to which that region exceeds/lags its fair share given the population it is supporting. It presents a startling picture. The global North has consumed four times its fair share! In sharp contrast, none of the other regions of the world has consumed what may be their due. 

The problem of climate change is as much a problem of injustice as it is of the crisis itself. This is particularly so, as Figure 3 shows that because the regions which have contributed least to the problem (green regions in the upper map) are going to be or already are the worst sufferers of the crisis (shades closer to red in colour in the lower map) because of their geographical location. As George Monbiot has said, “those who are least responsible bear the brunt of it.” 
Two kinds of issues arise from this simple representation of climate injustice. One, in any climate mitigation plan, should all the regions have equal responsibility in sharing the cost? Two, should the regions, which have not got their fair share in carbon so far, exercise the “right to burn” what is actually their fair share? There seems to be a clear consensus on the first question, at least in the academic circles, that the least is a plan of differentiated responsibility with the North taking the lead, even as there may be differences on how to arrive at a correct balance. Even in climate negotiations, there seems to be a broad consensus on differentiated responsibilities, at least on paper. 
It is the second question on which there seems to be a deep divide, even within the forces of the Left. No one, unless one is a climate change denier, would obviously openly endorse the “right to burn,” but the implications of some of the positions taken by the Left effectively translate into that. Uncritical endorsement of coal plants and mines in the name of asserting one’s fair share or questioning commitments to net-zero targets by countries like India, which are at times even couched as a fight against carbon imperialism, are just a few examples. 
That there is carbon imperialism at work is beyond doubt (as Figure 2 shows), but does that give us, in the global South, a blank cheque to mine and burn carbon? If we were to do so, we would be crossing the thresholds sooner than anticipated because the global North has already overshot its fair share. So if we were to emit our fair share, the total cumulative emission would far surpass the total carbon budget. A simple arithmetical solution is if the North could have net-negative emissions to the extent that cancels their overshoot, the South could emit its fair share without jeopardising the climate. That would have solved the twin problems of the climate crisis and injustice in one go, but unfortunately, such a path of net-negative emissions in the global North at an exponential scale is not possible. Natural sinks or even CCS (Carbon Capture Storage) can only absorb this much of the carbon emitted. 
This poses a catch-22 situation. If we argue that the South has a right to burn its fair share, we are undermining the fight against the climate crisis. But if we argue that the South has to bear the burden of adjustment to avert the climate crisis, we will be perpetuating injustice. Are the two—fight against injustice and crisis—mutually exclusive?  

The Politics of Net-zero
There is only one way in which both can be fought together without one cause being privileged over the other. It is true that net-negative emissions are not possible (at least not at a grand scale required in the immediate), but net-zero is possible. The difference we propose is that instead of looking at the net-zero targets nationally, we should look at them globally. While global net-zero can be achieved with each country reaching it respectively with different deadlines, as has been proposed in various negotiations, we believe that this limited definition of differentiated responsibility is not enough as far as righting the wrongs of the past is concerned. So, the North has to not only reach net-zero way ahead of the South but also needs to additionally absorb the emissions from the South to the extent that the North has overshot its fair share. This can be done if the North funds both the green path of declining emissions as well as the carbon removal process in the South; this can be called a target of global net zero (GNZ) with differentiated responsibility. A sample proposal of such funding is given here.


Before we proceed on how, let us understand what net-zero means. Carbon is emitted from various activities, natural as well as anthropogenic, but it is removed (absorbed) too, naturally and otherwise. Carbon removal, also known as carbon dioxide removal, is the process of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it away for decades or centuries in plants, soils, oceans, geological features, or long-lived products like cement (Figure 4). 
The balance of the two processes—emissions and absorption—is what stays in the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change. The current balance is presented in Figure 5. Of the total carbon emissions, 89% comes from fossil fuels, 11% from land use change, while 29% is absorbed by land and 26% by oceans, so that leaves the net emissions to the atmosphere at 48%.1 Net-zero is basically an attempt to make the latter to zero. It is obvious that this can be done either through decreasing the emissions or increasing removal (or a combination of both). There are serious limits to the latter—technological as well as natural; so, any serious effort towards net-zero has to constitute largely of reducing emissions and do so quickly. 
There seems to be no disagreement on this between the frameworks of green growth (of the progressive variety) and degrowth. Where they differ is on the strategy to decrease emissions. The former believe it can be done by decoupling growth from emissions through an overhaul of the energy mix of the global economy towards renewables with a phase-out of fossil fuels—a process that is led by the State and can broadly be achieved within the capitalist structures. The latter believes that while such a shift may decrease the emissions from fossil fuels, the material throughput of green growth will increase the emissions from land use change and, eventually, trump any effort to achieve net-zero emissions. In other words, green growth can only deliver in the interim according to them. Hence, they argue for a strategy of degrowth (primarily in the global North of the socially unnecessary sectors) and present a post-capitalist steady state (somewhat closer to Karl Marx’s conceptualisation of simple reproduction). We believe that the correct path lies somewhere in between.

 


Insofar as accumulation is the driving force behind the climate crisis, any challenge to the latter needs to also challenge the former, which the green growth school usually stops short of. In other words, an internal critique of capitalism, even with an overhaul of the energy system, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition in this fight against climate change and injustice. Equally well, an imaginary of a post-capitalist society is not enough without a concrete emissions reduction path laid out from the current to that imaginary, which the degrowth school usually misses despite claims to the contrary.2 Without a means to an end, the end has no meaning except in the realm of ideas (much like the idea of socialism as an alternative to capitalism). In contrast, without an end, just a means has no definitive purpose and may end up maintaining the current exploitative structures without raising fundamental questions about them (much like arguing for a welfare state without a larger goal of building a non-exploitative system in the process). But if we want to win this uphill battle against a system rigged in favour of capital, and that too when the time is short, we need to work on both the means and the ends, building on complementarities rather than differences.
We need, therefore, both a transitional path from capitalism to an alternate system as well as a vision of such a society, which is based on equality in rights, opportunities, and outcomes; some form of collective ownership of the means of production; people’s well-being over profits. Unfortunately, all of this usually brings back the old memories of the Soviet Union, or China presently, with its centralised planning and a similar zeal to accumulate (except under public ownership). We need neither the capitalism of the United States nor the “socialism” of China if we want to fight for a better tomorrow. Therefore, not only would we like to dissociate ourselves from the extant socialist experiments, which will defeat the purpose, but we also believe the imaginary should chalk out a completely different path—a new socialist project of the 21st century—along the lines discussed in the next section. The “new” differs from the “old” in many ways.   

What would this Global Green Programme look like?
As far as the transitional path is concerned, it requires the North to not only balance its own emissions but also unconditionally contribute, both technologically and financially, for the South to balance their own as well. While in principle, this seems simple, it is not so easy to achieve or even to articulate. In what follows, we present a possible blueprint of such a solution. For this plan of global net-zero with differentiated responsibility to be successful, two conditions have to be met. Since time is of essence in the fight against climate crisis, emissions from the South should not be rising exponentially as it prospers, while from the North, they should be declining rapidly even as the natural sinks are increased globally (borne by the North either geographically or at least financially). A balance of these three processes can result in a global net-zero emissions over time. This transitional path, by making the North pay for its stock of emissions without burdening the South at all, also addresses the issue of global climate injustice.
This GNZ strategy requires a rapid decarbonisation of the North because of the sheer inertia of the energy systems in use in these economies. It requires, as the Degrowth school imagines, the degrowth of industries that caters to frivolous consumption or wasteful expenditure, including on military. On the contrary, socially necessary consumption (along similar lines as The Monopoly Capital school) will have to grow in tandem with the rise in the population, except that the production of these commodities should be organised with a green energy system in place. So, a combination of green growth in essentials and degrowth of non-essentials is the way forward. The COVID-19 pandemic gave us a hint of what constitutes essential commodities—so, we could build on that. Does that mean the non-essential industries should be closed down by decree? Perhaps not. A combination of market-mechanism through pricing (to address the consumption side) and state regulation (to address the production side) would be a better way to go. The essential question is what needs to be prioritised in the days ahead.
On the side of consumption, we know non-essentials usually have higher carbon content. So, a high enough carbon tax can dissuade people, even the wealthy, from consuming these. For such a policy to take off the ground, it should not be a shock-and-awe push even as we know time is of essence. As many have argued, implementing such a carbon tax policy should be gradual, with very steep increases later. But such a universal indirect tax will also affect necessary commodities, depending on their carbon content. Moreover, indirect taxes are regressive because everyone pays the same price for a given commodity regardless of income. This regressiveness can be addressed at multiple levels: (a) necessities can be exempted from this tax; (b) an inbuilt carbon dividend that distributes a part of the carbon tax equally across citizens.
On the side of production, there needs to be policies that disincentivise frivolous and unnecessary activities and commodities. Restrictions on advertising and policies against planned obsolescence, as the Degrowth theorists have argued, will have to be a part of this economic plan. A balance, however, needs to be maintained so that a policy against planned obsolescence does not discourage energy-efficient innovations because then it defeats the purpose. Therefore, innovation and technology policies should solely be geared towards encouraging decarbonisation.
Such a 21st-century socialist global green programme also needs to address the question of rising wealth and income inequality, which is at the heart of both the climate crisis and the decoupling of the gross domestic product from happiness. A heavy tax on luxurious consumption, wealth, and inheritance, which is spent on public provisioning of quality health and education, should be a cornerstone of this alternative. 
As for the global South, let us take two of the largest economies in the South, China and India, as examples, which have been the engines of global growth in the recent past. So far, their high growth trajectories have been quite unequal even as they have been fossil-fuel intensive. In other words, the current growth process is neither progressive nor green. Why should we continue proceeding in this direction? Why not change gears and chalk out a fundamentally different development path which is both inclusive and green? But how?
Since the Chinese growth story was premised on exports, it required the labour cost to be kept under check. To be sure, a lower labour cost does not necessarily mean lower wages per se because labour productivity outpacing real wage rises can also result in lower labour cost. This could mean a simultaneous increase in employment and real wages but a rise in inequality, all of which hold out for China for more than three decades. Moreover, a growth path of this kind with heavy dependence on fossil fuels has also meant that China has the largest flow of emissions in the world today. At any rate, such a growth trajectory does not seem to be working out for China any more, especially since the global economy itself has been in a slowdown since the Great Recession of 2008-09. An inclusive growth strategy for China, in contrast, would be one that is driven by domestic demand, which requires a rise in the wage share. This would require, as the Chinese government has been articulating through the “new normal,” an overhaul of the development model with an active role of the state in pushing up the demand to take up the slack of lower export demand growth. A reorientation of the industrial policy of this magnitude also presents the economy with a golden opportunity of changing the energy mix fundamentally. Led by the indigenous green initiatives in the solar industry, a Chinese Green Deal, which is employment intensive, is something that should form the core of their development strategy. If planned properly, this will wean China away from coal and other fossil fuels. 
India’s growth strategy has been different from China’s. Our high growth phase since the 2000s has been domestic-demand driven even though exports of services played a decisive role in kickstarting the process. While the source of growth may have been different for these two countries, they have both resulted in a dramatic rise in inequality. In the Indian case, unlike China, the employment absorption in the formal sector of this growth trajectory has been abysmal. Whatever percolation of high growth happened to the lower rung of the workers was more a result of active state intervention through different social sector schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005. But why was there a need for an employment guarantee act? Because this high growth was labour displacing in nature instead of absorbing excess labour from the rural and agrarian economy. An Indian Green Deal, as laid out by us elsewhere, in contrast, would not only change the carbon footprint of the economy drastically but will also generate enough jobs to absorb the unemployed workers in India.
In conclusion, any such political project that questions the fundamentals of capitalism would require public support of the people against the might of capital, which is where the transitional victories will play a critical role. Such a transitional path of green growth within the capitalist framework with an imaginary of transcending this system to a new socialist future is what the progressive forces in the world should be fighting for. 
 


 

Rohit Azad (rohit.jnu@gmail.com) teaches Economics at JNUShouvik Chakraborty (shouvik@umass.edu) is a researcher at PERI, UMASS-Amherst
17 March 2023