The urgency of the climate change challenge has been visibly growing, dramatically illustrated by the bush fires that swept across much of Australia at the end of 2019. The emergence of the youth protest movement and the impact of David Attenborough’s TV documentaries show the increasing public recognition of the issues, across the age spectrum. The growing momentum behind the European Green Deal shows the broader forces coming together behind this agenda. The coronavirus pandemic has given renewed impetus to the climate change movement. Covid-19 has served as a stark warning of humanity’s fragile relationship to the planet. There might eventually be a vaccine for coronavirus but there is no magic bullet to cool the Earth. Only concerted, comprehensive action can do that.
After a chaotic start it has jolted EU politicians across the political spectrum into a recognition of the need to act collectively and at scale. The unprecedented €750 billion recovery programme prepared by the European Commission and eventually agreed at the full European Council meeting of prime ministers and presidents in July provides a focus on the key CO2 emission end uses of energy, buildings, mobility, food and industry and gives substantial resources to them. It represents a huge impetus to Green Deal politics.
At the same time, there are powerful voices in the UK urging the government to pursue a similar green recovery pathway, an issue given greater urgency by the fact that the UK will chair the next global climate change conference in autumn 2021 in Glasgow. As the Chancellor considers how to prevent the short-term, recessionary consequences of the pandemic sliding into a longer, deep depression the UK government’s policy ambition should be for a large-scale investment programme to foster economic recovery with the Green New Deal at its centre.
However, learning some lessons from the coronavirus pandemic and 21st century politics more generally, these transitions cannot be achieved top-down by centralised edicts. In all the key emissions areas, it needs concerted action by all stakeholders orchestrated at a local scale.
Addressing Key Shortcomings
Yet, to date, the green deals on offer whether in the US, the UK or EU suffer from two broad problems: a view of the economy bound by the past; and a view of politics focused on the national. A future oriented approach to a green economy has to shed these weaknesses. Instead of looking back to the Industrial Revolution and talking about ‘shovel-ready’ projects, the Green Deal needs to engage with the opportunities afforded by new technology and digital platforms. The potential of a mix of social innovation and digital revolution to transform ‘soft’ infrastructure is barely visible in green deal proposals. They are dominated by ‘hard’ infrastructure investment. Yet new tech opens new vistas. Cities from Manchester to Milan are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic by reconfiguring their urban systems. Digital platforms and applications offer simplified ticketing, real-time travel information, integrated transport options and cycle and car sharing schemes. They can be participative and democratically run to combine personal flexibility with secure employment. A focus limited to public financing of electric car ownership completely misses this. Joseph Chamberlain led the way with 19th century municipal socialism. Who will make their mark as the 21st century city mayor, who showed the potential of digital platform socialism?
A viable green politics needs to recognise the importance of place and scale. Sustainability transitions in consumption/production systems need a challenge-led approach. These would specify broad strategic directions but emphasise and encourage the importance of experimentation around a diversity of solutions. Big national projects find this very difficult. They favour national ‘rollout’. Central to the Green deal should be transition programmes in housing, energy, mobility, which set clear sustainability targets but are designed to promote and foster local experimentation. Devolved funding would enable decisions to be taken in cities and neighbourhoods after meaningful dialogue with community groups and through citizens’ assemblies. Shared knowledge platforms can map this diversity and facilitate wider social learning.
Green Deal politics failed to cut through after the 2008 financial crisis. Post Covid-19 offers a second chance. The ideological paradigm is more favourable. There is a greater consensus around the need for active government and public investment to help the economy, underpinned by the importance of equity to address issues of inequality and disadvantaged regions. This is moving politics onto traditional social democratic terrain, even when it is German Christian Democracy and French centrism that is taking it there. The politics of climate transition needs to be developed on a broad, cross-party basis. But it offers major opportunities to revive social democracy, if its politicians embrace a pluralist and environmentalist social democracy suited to the challenges of the 21st century. The policy framework is there. It remains to be seen, which parties or politicians can put them together into a viable politics.
Jon Bloomfield is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham and Policy Advisor to the EU’s Climate Knowledge Innovation Community programme. A longer paper developing these ideas will appear in a forthcoming issue of Political Quarterly.
 EU Commission, (2020) COM(2020) 456..Europe’s Moment: Repair and Prepare for the Next Generation. 27 May 2020
 Financial Times editorial. The virus fight opens up a climate opportunity. 15 May 2020; Sir John Gieve. Radio 4. Today programme 22 April 2020 on retrofitting 25 million homes; Uniting Business and Governments to Recover Better. Science Based Targets. Statement of 150 Chief Executives from Astra Zeneca to Zurich Insurance 19 May 2020.
 Moore, R, (2020) Will COVID 19 show us how to design better cities?, The Observer 24 May 2020
 Bloomfield, J (2020) How to tackle climate change as the world recovers from coronavirus. The Independent 7 June 2020
 Steward, F (2018) Action oriented perspectives on system innovation and transitions, EEA Report 25/2017 Perspectives on Transitions to Sustainability European Environment Agency ISSN 1977-8449 Ch 5 pp96-118