August 31, 2023
|        WORKING PAPER #
Sean Sweeney

Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, calls for a GGND and a commitment to GPGs intensified. In July 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared, “The global political and economic system is not delivering on critical global public goods: public health, climate action, sustainable development, peace…we need a New Global Deal to ensure that power, wealth and opportunities are shared more broadly and fairly at the international level.” 

Authored by TUED Coordinator Sean Sweeney, the paper argues that a GGND of the left must distinguish itself from green “recovery economics.” Many North-based progressives are comfortable talking about the need for “more public investment,” and the need for “ambitious climate action” but many continue to be vague or agnostic on questions of public ownership and control. 

The paper argues that an undiscerning approach to public investment weakens the case for a GGND. It shows how the current emphasis on “de-risking” private investment means that public money is used to make profitable what would not otherwise be profitable. Obama’s stimulus package of 2008, to the more recent Green Deal for Europe, and the Biden Administration’s Inflation Recovery Act that commits $369 billion of public spending to secure long-term revenue streams and profits for mostly private investors and developers. The more recent “Just Energy Transition Partnerships'' and the emphasis on “blended finance” are an extension of this approach. 

Taking a deep dive into the roots of neoliberal climate policy, Beyond Recovery shows how a “recovery” narrative has helped both conceal and perpetuate the failures of the current investor-focused approach to energy transition and climate protection. For more than three decades, this approach has shown itself to be ineffective in terms of reducing economy-wide emissions. Sweeney describes the policy as a resilient failure, the extent of which is not always fully grasped. 

Energy: The Means of Production

The paper argues that a left GGND must view public investment as a means to extend public ownership, with energy systems and critical supply chains being a priority target. 

Public ownership of energy gives governments the power to pivot away from the highly commodified “energy for profit” regime. More than any single policy option, control over energy will ensure that governments are better positioned to advance an economy-wide energy transition in ways that can control and then reduce emissions while also addressing joblessness, inequality, and other social problems. It can set the stage for the kind of sweeping interventions in the political economy that are needed to address climate change, confront the political power of fossil fuel interests, and intercept the dynamics of “endless growth” capitalism. 

What’s in the paper: 

Part One summarizes the case for public ownership of energy, and why an undiscerning approach to investment cannot deliver climate- and energy-related GPGs.

Part Two draws further attention to a common feature of discussions on a left GGND and the lack of attention to public ownership. 

Part Three explains how the idea of the “private provision of public goods” took hold in the early 1990s. During this period, the investor-focused approach to climate change of the neoliberals came to dominate the UN negotiations around the Kyoto Protocols and the adoption of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 

Part Four reviews some of the changes that have taken place in the multilateral system since the financial crisis of 2007. It consists of three subsections:  

* The first subsection explains how neoliberal climate policy became closely associated with a green recovery agenda during the Great Recession that followed the 2007 financial crash. Although sometimes packaged as a GGND, the recovery agenda was, in fact, a continuation of the pro-market approach that had been in place since the Kyoto Treaty was negotiated in the 1990s. The recovery packages following the crisis of 2007 helped conceal the failures of neoliberal climate and energy transition policy in ways that are highly relevant to today’s discussions.

* The second subsection documents the corporate takeover of UN institutions from 2008 to the present. This has led to a situation where public institutions cannot, or will not, question the designs and priorities of private corporations and financial interests. 

* The third subsection highlights some of the developments since the onset of the pandemic and the return of recovery economics. It documents the deepening crisis of the current policy framework and the problems with the investment regime built around blended finance. 

The paper was supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung–New York Office. 

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