The politics of green transformations

Edited by Ian Scoones, Melissa Leach and Peter Newell (University of Sussex) / 2015

The politics of green transformationsThere are growing calls for a range of green transformations. This book explores what this means in practice and who will push it forward. It takes an inter-disciplinary approach and refers to different contexts ranging from China to Germany.

As the introduction explains, “transformations are inevitably multiple and contested” and so “politics and power are important to how pathways are shaped, which pathways win out and why, and who benefits from them”.

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While there is widespread acknowledgement of the multiple environmental crises we face there is no consensus on what the main drivers are and how to address them. Depending on your perspective the drivers are “overconsumption, urban expansion, population pressures, unequal economic relations and globalization”. This influences whether actors advocate for transformations which are:

  • technology-led e.g. low carbon energy,
  • marketized e.g. carbon pricing, valuing natural capital,
  • state-led e.g. energy efficiency and public transport or
  • citizen-led e.g. agri-food movements and buen vivir.

“All have different implications for who should be involved on what terms and who wins and who loses. Such choices about ‘green’ directions therefore inevitably have implications for social justice and social inequality”. This means that “glib policy statements of win-win green economies often obscure the many hard trade-offs implied by attempts to square environmental aims with social justice, or to pursue a just transition”.

Each of the authors challenges “conventional assumptions that green transformations can be either solely market or technology-driven”.

Sustainable development and ‘green economy’ are the most visible and mainstream but “are not the only ways of framing green transformations”. There is an on-going debate about what the ‘green economy’ is with some rejecting it while others seek to incorporate social justice issues. 

Melissa Leach looks at the different definitions of ‘green’ (e.g. conserving ‘nature’ for its own sake or a focus on the benefits nature gives to humans) which to different degrees also prioritise social and justice issues. She asks “whose knowledge counts in defining ‘green’ goals and values? Who defines what a ‘good’ future might be and how to get there?” and notes that “different ways of knowing are often associated with different ways of being, including different ways of living with and valuing nature”. She critically analyses current discourses on green limits (e.g. limiting increases in global average surface temperature to 2 degrees and keeping within nine planetary boundaries) and finds “they align too easily with top-down, control-orientated forms of intervention that attempt to substitute ‘fixes’ for structural transformations”. This can lead to negative consequences such as the growing of biofuels to reduce emissions leading to competition with food production.

Using examples such as the debates over GM crops and limits to growth Erik Millstone shows how scientific evidence (either overstated or understated) is used to support political agendas. He says that the key division is between those who have argued that “achieving long-term sustainability will require radical socioeconomic transformations” while others argue that “incremental regulatory and technological changes could be sufficient”.

Andy Stirling questions the growing tendency from some actors to put the urgency of dealing with the ecological crisis ahead of democratic participation. He argues “sustainability has always been centrally about democratic struggle” and that the only reason sustainability is now prominently on the global agenda is because of “diverse, protracted, radically challenging and overtly political agonistic struggles by subaltern social movements” like those that pushed for the rights of slaves and workers. He criticises attempts to depoliticise green issues (e.g. attempts to influence individual’s behaviour) instead of focusing on “powerful vested interests” and growing consumerism.

Peter Newell looks at past transformations to try and understand how green transformations might play out in future. He looks at the roles of different fractions of capital, finance, labour and states during the industrial revolution, fordism. globalization and most recently the increasingly financialized global economy. Given the strong resistance of vested interest what is needed to shift investments to renewable energy are long-term government policies, strong price-signals and regulation and legal lock-in. However, unless serious attention is paid to a ‘just transition’ then there is a danger that “capitalist inequalities and patterns of exploitation will persist in the constitution of a lower carbon green economy”. He covers a range of critiques of green growth and green capitalism e.g. one way of interpreting the “current discourse about win-win opportunities for growth that is ‘green’ as precisely an attempt to depoliticize critique and attention to the limits of growth and its destructive environmental effects”.

Matthew Lockwood argues that how green policies are designed (partly dependent on a country’s institutional systems and dominant policy paradigms) will have an impact on whether they have positive or negative feedback effects. He focuses on the politics of energy between energy providers, policy-makers and end users in several countries:

  • Germany – a broad coalition ensured significant uptake of renewables
  • UK – policy uncertainty slowed uptake
  • India – some policies to incentivise wind power but low levels of subsidies
  • China – strong state incentives were successful

Adrian Smith and Adrian Ely focus on the politics of grassroots innovation by comparing:

  • mainstream innovation e.g. state-funded universities focus on for-profit scientific and technical innovation such as biotech and nanotech
  • grassroots innovation movements e.g. social movements doing community projects using indigenous knowledge to meet a social need via organic food or small-scale renewable energy

They conclude grassroots innovation movements continue to push for green transformations from below by “challenging the conventional boundaries, definitions and agendas of more elite innovation institutions e.g. elite emphasis on a capital-intensive ‘cleantech’ and financialized green economy”.

In their chapter on mobilising for green transformations Melissa Leach and Ian Scoones look at different types of green movements (e.g. focus on individual behaviour / activist organizations and networks / professionalized NGOs) who use different strategies (protests / lobbying governments and at international summits). They note sometimes it appears there is no formal green movement but that groups such as small-scale producers, forest dwellers and informal shack dwellers practice ‘quiet sustainability’ whereby “they carve out livelihoods that very often have positive environmental benefits”. They note that “as ‘green’ reformist agendas become more mainstream, with the rhetoric around the ‘green economy’ increasing in recent years, this has pushed more radical visions of transformation to the fringes”.

Mariana Mazzucato explains the crucial role of the green entrepreneurial state in leading green transformations e.g. China’s ambitious wind power programme, Germany’s renewable energy transition, and picking winners such as Tesla Motors. She argues the state ‘crowds in’ private investment (debunking the theory it ‘crowds out’) and in addition to this ‘dynamizes it in” by having a clear vision, mission and plan. For example the state provides ‘patient capital’ (e.g. feed-in tariffs in Germany) to risky renewable energy projects and by funding research & development. She concludes the scale of green transformation needed will not happen if states just ‘nudge’ the private sector (e.g. through subsidies, tax reductions and carbon pricing). Instead of relying on “the false dream that ‘markets’ will run the world optimally” if left alone states should play an active role throughout the process.

Stephen Spratt explores the links between different types of transformations e.g.

  • decarbonising the global economy / promoting green growth / degrowth / redistribution of income and wealth

and different types of financial institutions and financial instruments e.g.

  • commercial banks / investment banks / pension funds / microfinance / multilateral development banks /sovereign wealth funds

Certain goals match certain types of finance such as investments in renewable energy (pension and insurance funds), energy efficiency (most types) and a transition to a circular economy (venture capital and private equity funds). However, there has been little financing mainly due to short-term outlooks, too many small-scale projects and because “financial institutions aim to maximize risk-adjusted returns”. On the other hand visions of green transformations that argue for limits to growth and to tackle consumerism (“dark-green”) are “incompatible with the financial systems we have” and so are “likely to be opposed by much of the ‘real economy’ as well as the financial sector and mainstream politicians”. International grassroots alliances would need to be built to reform finance.

In the final chapter Hubert Schmitz argues that because “no single actor has the resources to bring about the green transformation” what are needed are diverse transformative alliances made up of actors from government, business and civil society who explicitly aim to include “actors whose priority is not environmental sustainability” (e.g. they could want greater energy security) to ensure long-term impact. It will also be key to fully understand who will be the losers that will resist green transformations e.g. the fossil fuel industry. Schmitz notes that in future it will be likely be rising powers such as China and India that drive forward green transformations (e.g. biggest investors in mitigation) because “most of Western Europe and North America is politically paralysed and financially constrained”.

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This summary was prepared by Why Green Economy?. The views expressed have been paraphrased. See the original source for more information.


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