UN Scientists Just Endorsed a Piece of the Green New Deal to Fight Global Inequality

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The United Nations released a new science-based report Wednesday that shows the ways climate change can reverse the progress the world has made to end inequality through the U.N.’s sustainable development goals. The international institution offers plenty of solutions to combat this disappointing reality, but among them is a key piece of a proper Green New Deal—and that’s a just transition, baby.

Plain and simple, a just transition works to ensure that as governments move away from their dependence on fossil fuels, the most vulnerable—former employees of that sector, the poor, communities of color—don’t bear any unintended negative consequences. If countries around the world are actually going to eradicate poverty and ensure human health and well-being—just a couple of the 17 international goals we’re supposed to meet in 10 years to help the world find “peace and prosperity,” as the UN puts it—we gotta solve the climate crisis. Doing so in a way that doesn’t worsen our global society’s already egregious inequality won’t be easy, but it’s possible.

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The authors of this UN report—15 independent scientists from around the globe—are clear about a few things: A growth-based economy can’t exist in a world where we aim to end climate change and inequality. In fact, the authors are clear that the world needs a “transformation” by 2030 if we’re gonna make it through this crisis and fix the inequality problem. Part of that transformation involves not only ending fossil fuel subsidies but ending our dependence on this dirty energy source altogether.

“It is indeed essential that the fossil-fuel sector workers are given the opportunity to acquire the new skills needed in the decarbonized and sustainable economy, as recognized by the Paris Agreement itself and in line with the Agenda 2030 motto of ‘leaving no one behind,’” said co-author Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a researcher with the Earth and Life Institute at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, in an email to Earther.

Here’s where an ideal Green New Deal can play a role (at least in the U.S.). The Green New Deal—under the vision that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has laid out—would transition the energy sector to renewable energy in 10 years. That’s in tandem with the timeline the UN has laid out for when to meet its sustainable development goals. The Green New Deal, however, is clear that this abandonment of fossil fuel energy will require formal policy to protect former fossil fuel employees, as well as disenfranchised groups. This UN report concluded that, indeed, such attention is necessary to prevent further inequality.

The report reads:

Governments can invest in support to workers who lose livelihoods from the phasing out of fossil fuels and consider compensating income transfers for those at risk of losing energy access or increasing poverty during the shift away from subsidized fossil fuels.

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By ending fossil fuel subsidies and pricing carbon, governments should have some available funds to invest their resources here. In an ideal Green New Deal, that may look like training to bring this labor force into the renewables market or energy efficiency market. That really depends on the policy that would come out of a Green New Deal—but its emphasis on bringing together social, environmental, and economic impacts makes it eerily similar to the UN’s sustainable development goals. No wonder this UN report makes many points that would exist in a Green New Deal.

“The Green New Deal and the way that it incorporates the social and environmental side of the economy is very similar to the sustainable development framework,” Amir Jina, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, told Earther. “We cannot and should not be separating these two aspects.”

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Granted, the Green New Deal as we know it is entirely U.S.-focused. What the UN is talking about in this report is the global economy—not just the U.S. economy. The recipe for every country will be different; the recipe for every town or state within those countries will be different. The report acknowledges this, but there are some throughlines as global leaders come together to solve the threat of the climate crisis, Jina said.

Just about every country will see climate change place a disproportionate burden on their poorest or most disenfranchised. What those groups look like may vary depending on where you look, but all governments need to operate with that reality in mind. For some, the pain may come from a rising cost of energy overall. For others, it may be that they lose a key source of local employment and income (such as from a coal plant, for example).

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Also, all of us experience the negative impacts of the fossil fuel infrastructure creating the mess that is climate change. Polluted air and waterways hurt our health, and eliminating some sources of that should improve health globally, a benefit people around the world can celebrate. It’s also a potential benefit that could free up some funds for individual governments to invest in whatever their chosen solutions to climate change may be.

The innovations that spring forth will look different for us all, but if we don’t want inequality to worsen under a warming world, a just transition—a major component of a Green New Deal in the U.S., at least—is key. Fossil fuels gotta go, but every step to make that happen correctly will require some planning. As this report reminds us, inequality is a collective choice we all make. And that means we all have the power to stop it, even in a world fucked by climate change.

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Update September 13, 2019, 8:15 a.m. ET: This story has been updated to add a comment from report author Jean-Pascal van Ypersele.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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