Green No Deal?

Northern Ireland's Green New Deal has received much vocal support but little financial support from the Assembly. Can its proponents match their words with deeds?

The campaign for a Green New Deal for Northern Ireland was inspired by a paper produced by the New Economics Foundation in 2008. The principle behind it was that the triple crunch of recession, climate change, and rising energy costs could be tackled by a Government stimulus package similar to the New Deal that Franklin Roosevelt used to rescue the United States from depression in the 1930s.

A green army of construction workers would embark on a mass retrofit of public and private housing, simultaneously creating thousands of jobs in the beleaguered building trade and vastly reducing the energy bills of households throughout Northern Ireland. It would start by addressing the 50% of households who live in fuel poverty.

Meanwhile a whole new industrial revolution would grow out of the Belfast shipyards, building wind turbines and other renewable energy technology for use in Northern Ireland and for export. No longer would we be the end-of-the-pipeline economy, reliant on increasingly expensive imported energy. Instead we could become a net exporter of renewable energy, leapfrogging other European economies. This could be an engineering renaissance for Northern Ireland.

The vision of the Green New Deal is that business and the environment are not seen as enemies but intelligent partners coming together to bring about a mutually beneficial outcome of prosperity and sustainability. This strategy for economic recovery has been free of ideology, and based upon sound business planning and hard evidence.

Bridges have been built between sectors in civic society, trade unions and business, with support from organisations as diverse as Friends of the Earth and CBI. The message has been easy to digest in these difficult times. Yet those who support the initiative are now fighting for its very survival. Although it is an innovative and integrated scheme which has commanded enthusiastic support from all interested sectors, it has not received adequate backing from any political party in Stormont.

Our politicians pepper their speeches with the ‘fresh thinking’ inspired by the Green New Deal, but no MLA from the five ruling parties has stepped up as its champion, and thus it has remained nothing more than an aspiration. It doesn’t help that it is an initiative reliant on the buy-in of more than one Executive department in a system of government blighted by a silo mentality.

The Green New Deal has been in the Executive’s in-tray for so long that ‘pending’ has come to mean almost no spending. Only a tiny fraction of the money that its supporters estimate is needed to make the project viable was allocated to it in the last budget. Yet its supposed future implementation has been used as an excuse to cut existing carbon reduction initiatives like Green Rates Relief. Even more frustrating is the inappropriate raiding of £12m over the next four years from DOE’s core operating budget to cover this underfunding.

The countries with thriving economies, such as Sweden, South Korea and Germany have had the vision to target interventions (quality certification, R&D support, nurturing a strong skills base) to support new industries.

Why has the Stormont Executive not followed suit? Could it be that ideology has crept into the debate, with a belief in some parts of the Executive that only the market can respond to these issues?

The market has a key role in delivering the objectives of the Green New Deal, but without leadership and intervention by the Executive, leaving it to the market alone will mean failure.

The think tank Demos has recently stated:

“the role of government, in the most successful economies, has gone way beyond creating the right infrastructure and setting the rules. It is a leading agent in achieving the type of innovative breakthroughs that allow companies, and economies, to grow, not just by creating the ‘conditions’ that enable innovation. Rather the state can proactively create strategy around a new high growth area before the potential is understood by the business community.”

There are too few good ideas in Northern Ireland, especially ones that create 24,000 jobs whilst at the same time dealing with climate change. Without the right kind of Executive intervention now this golden opportunity to shape a secure and prosperous future for everyone will pass us by.