Peter Newell is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. He works on the political economy of climate change and energy transitions. He previously worked at the universities of Oxford, Warwick and East Anglia and NGOs Climate Network Europe and Friends of the Earth. He has sat on the board of Greenpeace UK and Brussels-based NGO Carbon Market Watch and is a member of the advisory board of Green House think tank. His books include Globalization and the Environment; Climate CapitalismGoverning Climate ChangeClimate for ChangeThe Effectiveness of EU Environmental Policy; Global Green Politics and Power Shift.

How do you see the tensions or synergies between on the one hand a managed degrowth in Europe and on the other hand the ability of Europe to achieve its geopolitical goals, such as promoting security in the widest sense?

“The dominant Liberal Peace doctrine suggests that high levels of economic interdependence are crucial to maintaining peace in the world. If Europe delinks from the global economy as part of a degrowth agenda – such as by shortening supply chains, reducing flows of international trade and regulating international production – this would reduce its economic interdependence. The liberal peace idea suggests this could also have knock-on implications such as international relations becoming more conflictual (e.g. trade barriers rise and economies start to shut themselves off) and thereby reducing disincentives to go to war. There is also a fear that this might limit Europe’s leverage to advance its geopolitical aims through reciprocal relations with other countries or regions around trade and investment, which are often key bargaining chips for advancing other social and environmental goals.

In my view, however, Europe should focus on cooperation with other countries to tackle global challenges – environment, health, poverty and so on – whilst having a more de-globalised economy. Europe could seek ongoing political exchange, cultural exchange and social exchange and cooperation on such issues whilst delinking some economic aspects, or at least not seeking to globalise further.

Geopolitics would be very different if a degrowth agenda was pursued, but it might strengthen the European Union’s ability to act in some areas. For example, one of weaknesses of the EU’s response to Russia has been the continued dependence of some European countries on Russian gas, leading to a reluctance to impose sanctions or take other measures.

This, together with illicit and more explicit trade flows and financing, investment in property as well as links through the arms trade has meant that Europe has been literally financing the war through buying Russian gas. The reduced energy demand under a degrowth strategy could help reduce dependence on energy imports and increase leadership in this area.

Peter Newell
Peter Newell

There are close relationships between concentrations of fossil fuels and autocratic regimes such as Russia and Saudi Arabia – and the list goes on. Europe engages in geopolitics with quite a few undesirable regimes. Instead of shaping their behaviour through the traditional geopolitical means such as trade sanctions or threat of conflicts we might be able to reduce their power by stopping importing their fossil fuels, which are a key source of their wealth. The shift to a lower carbon economy would see their wealth start to disappear unless they diversify their economies. Multilateral arrangements such as the proposed Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty would be needed to have a multilateral fair phase-out.

So actively pursuing a degrowth agenda might impact on some of the drivers of conflict. This is not just about interstate conflicts, which are just one part of the geopolitical puzzle; regional conflicts are tied to terrorism and extremism in many parts of the world, many of which are home to natural resources.

“ Steering away from an extractivist model of development may have the effect of reducing conflict through less encroachment on other peoples’ territories and lands ”

Expansion of commodity extraction into new areas – fossil fuels, minerals etc.  is part of the normal economic growth strategy. But this is causing conflicts between governments, indigenous groups and others, as even a cursory glance at the Environmental Justice Atlas makes clear. This feeds broader forms of terrorism. Look at how the FARC in Colombia and Boko Haram in Nigeria are tied to the ability to extract revenues and protect rents. Steering away from an extractivist model of development may have the effect of reducing conflict through less encroachment on other peoples’ territories and lands.

Thus, the only escape route from our current toxic geopolitics is to break the connection between growth and violence and its links with the acquisition of ever more resources and labour from remote parts of the world. Unless you deal with the nature of growth and extractivism you can’t do that.”

If with fewer state resources one is less able to intervene internationally, how would one stand up to Putin and the like? What would be the green foreign policy for when a conflict flares up?

“One of the challenges I have written about in Global Green Politics is that of defence. Greens often want to be internationalists and express solidarity, but if you deliberately weaken the state, such that the state has fewer resources because of degrowth, this means that you are less able to perform those kind of international roles.

But the argument also flips around the other way. You might be required to intervene less around the world if you are generating fewer of those problems, such as stealing fewer resources from other economies and fuelling fewer resentments on the part of former colonies and populations displaced by ongoing extraction by the Global North. We need to build alliances with other governments and social movements to magnify collective pressure on reckless states and corporations, including as mentioned above by withdrawing economic support for them in the form of boycotts and the like.

This is about addressing the root causes of social inequality, unsustainability and war from a green perspective. For Greens, these reside in a growth-oriented economy which extracts wealth from humans and nature in an unsustainable way. If we were to live more sustainably, there would be less need for unrelenting extraction of resources around the world and the use of force to secure and protect those unjust flows of resources from poorer to richer groups and regions. This requires a rebalancing of power relations between states and citizens, capital and labour and the Global North and South. Without this, we will never have a peaceful world.”

You talk about Europe in relation to power. In between internationalism and localism we have Europe. How might that be designed to better support both?

“In Global Green Politics I talk about how Europe can combine supranational oversight and coordination across communities and regions with enabling decisions to be made as locally as possible: the principle of subsidiarity. This means the impulse should be to control as much as you can locally and only go up to national or EU levels when you need to. This would operate across different levels of nested authority co-existing rather than a top-down governance model.

“ The EU has a role in ‘supporting the local’ by amplifying the voice of smaller countries ”

There is potential to do this better in Europe through bodies such as the Committee of the Regions that can help to coordinate action to be more than the sum of a series of smaller regions or subnational units. There is also scope to use European funds, such as the Cohesion Fund, to lift up more deprived regions, encourage more social inclusion and invest in green infrastructures. The EU also has a role in ‘supporting the local’ by amplifying the voice of smaller countries against more global actors like UN institutions, the US, China and Russia.

So the EU does play an important intermediary role. That is not so say that it is an entirely benign actor. The EU’s guiding rationale was primarily about the Common Market and reducing trade barriers. It still exists largely for the benefit of economic interests and so there is a need for a reset of its notion of development and progress.

There will always be scepticism about how far the EU as a body will act to deliver a degrowth agenda. There is support for a more conventional green economy agenda such as the European Green Deal – using policy levers and being a bit more interventionist than the US. But the EU is essentially still promoting the interests of European companies such as through pushing trade and investment deals overseas. To challenge that would mean shifting the power relations between the different Directorate-Generals of the EU (as well as between ministries in the governments of individual countries): away from those dealing with finance and trade towards those dealing with environmental and social concerns. Such a rebalancing of power would require controls on corporate lobbying as a precursor to embedding an alternative vision.

To pursue a genuine degrowth pathway would require a rethinking of the overall purpose and mandate of the EU. There is almost a prior question: can the EU realistically do that? But this agenda could be pushed if one or two countries moved more in that direction, such as through the Greens gaining more power in Germany and elsewhere. Clearly the EU already has a more progressive vision of a green economy than the US, Canada, China or Russia, but it is still quite far from the radical vision of degrowth. Europe’s origins were firstly about peace and then about creating a common market through creation of the European Economic Community that preceded the European Union. It should have a longer-term vision defined around the really fundamental challenges of peace and sustainability.”

How can the relationships that the EU has with the Global South change, with degrowth? How can we move beyond the post-colonial legacies of extractivism?

“Unfair land acquisition and unfair colonial legislation continue to be used in many African and Asian countries to extract ever more resources. This remains a driver of conflict. A conscious shift to reign in companies that benefit from this could form part of a ‘solidarity economy’.  This would recognise how resources continue to be exploited to fuel our consumption in the Global North instead of supporting development in the Global South.

There is also a difficult conversation to be had around the colonial past and reparations. There are huge debts to be paid by those who have benefitted most from colonialism, just as there are by oil companies who have benefitted most from carbon emissions, which could be redirected towards those countries. But if we try to reduce the size of the state and state expenditure then it would be a challenge to determine where the resources for reparations come from.

“ Trickle-down economics does not work ”

Also, the nature of international development assistance would change. The global economy has expanded hugely since the Second World War. But we still have poverty, huge levels of malnutrition, social exclusion with so many non-functioning institutions and poor health outcomes. Clearly that money, that huge increase in wealth, is not being evenly spread. Trickle-down economics does not work. Yet the Sustainable Development Goals [which include a goal for continued economic growth] assume that tackling poverty and other goals are still contingent on whether an economy expands even further, which is ridiculous and contrary to most evidence.”

Would the transition to a lower carbon economy still lead to an increase in demand, replicating the neo-colonial extractivism of the past?

“The pursuit of a conventional green economy would lead to increased demand for some minerals and resources for renewable energy. An economy aiming at sufficiency and meeting basic needs would demand far fewer of those resources. So the answer to that conundrum has to be reducing demand, so that extractivism is minimised. Where materials are extracted – some of which inevitably will be – this has to be done in the most socially and environmentally responsible way possible, through appropriate standards and regulation.

The way resources flow around the world is currently serving geopolitical rather than developmental needs. Joan Martinez-Alier and others explore the uneven exchange of resources between countries and how this results in injustices, both ecological and social, within and between societies.

This links to the discussion around polluter elites and how to ‘shrink and share’ the economy globally given that the vast majority of resource production and consumption does not address the needs of the majority but rather fuels unsustainable consumption of richer groups. So there is plenty of scope to both reduce production and consumption by limiting overconsumption and directing production towards meeting genuine social and environmental needs.

“ Replacing petrol and diesel cars with loads of electric cars is already driving a huge unsustainable resource boom of extractivism ”

A degrowth approach goes beyond substitutability – the ‘plug and play’ approach of green growth. We are replacing petrol and diesel cars with loads of electric cars. It is like saying, ‘Everything else in the system is fine, we just need to make it all electric.’ This is already driving a huge unsustainable resource boom of extractivism. Degrowth would mean saying that, ‘We need fewer cars in the world.’ There has to be a shift in tackling the demand side. This is a big challenge in a growth-oriented capitalist economy. But it would potentially free up land and resources overseas that those countries might then use for their own populations, rather than for export to Europe. One of the other benefits of being slightly more delinked from the global economy is that it is possible to decide not to import products made in socially and environmentally undesirable ways. The exporting countries would have fewer powers of reciprocity to remove European products from their market.

In the meantime we must better regulate and clean up the mining as there are huge amounts of child labour involved and poor practices. There will be some ongoing demand – but products need to be designed to last longer with less new minerals needed in the first place and, as noted above, this needs to take place in the context of major shifts in production and consumption. This includes choice editing of products coming to market, restrictions on planned obsolescence and restrictions on advertising, which fuels unnecessary consumption.

Finally, if the UK and EU both chose a post-growth path, might this lead to greater possibilities for collaboration in the future?

“One of the main incentives for the UK to re-join the EU are the reduced trade barriers and improved economic cooperation with the UK’s nearest and most important economic block.  That would still be an important driver under a degrowth scenario. Closer collaboration would also be useful for coordinating regional and international responses to a range of threats – disasters, environmental or health issues – as well as for development cooperation. There is a potential for the UK to have a stronger voice in acting with the EU in global fora when it finally comes to terms with the end of empire (which it clearly hasn’t yet). These arguments might tip the balance in favour of re-engaging with Europe, even if core economic incentives are not the primary driver.”

Reactie toevoegen