A few weeks ago, a sentence written on a Hong Kong street went viral: ‘We can’t go back to normal because the normal we had was precisely the problem’. The aggravation of the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the relevance of this phrase to the global context in which we live. We have long invested in the wrong direction, ignoring warnings, pretending there is no other way out. The consequences are deeply unequal societies, fed by high-consuming and polluting economies.
Despite the pandemic’s warning, many governments and companies still insist that a return to the pre-crisis model, with the unbridled minimization of the State and the withdrawal of labour rights, is the only possible way to resume economic growth. Of course, the people most eager to return to this path are precisely those who benefited most from that status quo. But this would perpetuate social exclusion, low economic dynamism and environmental deterioration that led to our current crisis. So, it is already clear: we cannot go back to normal.
I propose we take advantage of this rare moment of global quarantine to reflect. Reflect on our relationship with others, with our community, with nature. Reflect on our patterns of production and consumption. Reflect on what we consider essential and what we consider superfluous. Reflect on what we saw as normal, and what may now seem so abnormal. This involuntary "pause" in the global socio-economic system allows us to think creatively about necessary structural changes that until weeks ago were thought of as impossible, utopian. We have expanded the horizon of possibilities for new doctrines and practices, including those not even yet imagined, while rescuing knowledge from the past that has been forgotten along the way.
This reflection is not comfortable at all. We are experiencing a chronic escalation of the public health crisis that is overwhelming social assistance and public health systems that have been continuously weakened in recent decades all around the world. Every day we see thousands of lives cut short by the lack of access to supplies, protective equipment, information, or respirators. The time has come to design an alternative future. And that future is not only possible, but urgent.
In 2018, after elections characterized by the mass dissemination of illegally financed propaganda by private groups, Brazil elected the most radical and extremist president in its history: Jair Bolsonaro. A few months after his inauguration, during a dinner in the United States, sitting between Steve Bannon and Olavo de Carvalho, Bolsonaro made it clear what he came for: "Brazil is not an open land where we intend to build things for our people. We have to deconstruct a lot of things". And so he does.
Since he took office, Bolsonaro has managed to dismantle the prestige and respectability of the Ministry of Foreign Relations, weakened the country's science and technology network, extinguished the Ministry of Culture, dismantled educational policies, dismantled the monitoring and enforcement structure linked to the Ministry of the Environment, approved 607 new agrotoxins, weakened workers' protections, annihilated the state's investment capacity, interfered with the Federal Police, outfitted regulatory and supervisory bodies for partisan ends, expanded access to weapons and ammunition on a massive scale, embraced climate denialism, and made clear both his sympathy for authoritarian regimes and his intention to promote a democratic rupture.
Considered one of the worst leaders in terms of response to the Covid-19 pandemic, he denied the seriousness of the situation, promoted suspect treatments without any scientific evidence and rejected the policy of social isolation adopted by other governments. Although Brazil registered its first death almost three months after China and one month after Italy, it is now the country with the second most deaths. The death curve is still in frank and uncontrolled rise. The Bolsonaro government is guided by contempt for the most vulnerable parts of society and by aggression toward any and all opponents.
Although Bolsonaro’s government is responsible for countless steps backward and the exacerbation of the climate, health and socioeconomic crises, Brazil was already in a critical situation even before he was elected. We live in a country characterized by profound inequalities, resulting from a deeply violent history of colonialism and slavery. Its scars are expressed spatially, socially, regionally and economically with clear racial and gender contrasts when it comes to inequality.
Today we are the world's second most unequal society: the richest 1% pocket almost a third of national wealth. This wealth is largely based on the export of raw materials without adding value, a model that concentrates income, employs few and harms the environment. While Brazil's GDP grew by 71% between 1995 and 2019, the mineral extraction industry grew by 148%. It is not surprising, therefore, that the frequency of environmental disasters in the sector — such as those related to mining activities in Mariana and Brumadinho, in the state of Minas Gerais — has grown. Agriculture also grew well above GDP, but agricultural census data shows that the countryside lost 1.5 million jobs between 2006 and 2017. And since Bolsonaro's inauguration, we have seen the widespread encouragement of mining and illegal deforestation, not only in the Amazon region, but also in the Cerrado and other biomes. In large cities, we see the accelerated growth of unemployment and informal work, while the housing deficit reaches almost 8 million units.
At the global scale, we have a society that considers it normal that the 22 richest men in the world have greater wealth than all the 325 million women in Africa combined. It is considered normal that 7 million people die every year due to air pollution, and that 1 in every 4 inhabitants of the planet lives without access to basic sanitation. It is considered normal that the world's largest economies continue to neglect the increasingly alarming reports of irreversible impacts of climate change in the coming years. As a global community, we can never accept this as normal.
Such an ‘obsolete normal’ is based on a culture that prizes exaggerated individualism and the cult of a supposed meritocracy, displaced concepts in a world in which starting conditions are far from equitable and where collective actions are clearly fundamental to social function. This obsolete normal is based in a prevailing vision that the State's objective is essentially to guarantee the greatest possible economic growth, measured by GDP, without consideration for the quality of that growth and its social and environmental externalities. Not even the promise of economic growth is being delivered, and the side effects caused, such as acute inequality, are worrying enough to rethink the model.
The global Covid-19 pandemic has contaminated our world and exposed us to the outdated status quo. But for the new normal to flourish, it must be nurtured.
Our climate "doomsday clock" is approaching midnight faster and faster. According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), if we continue on this current trend, we will increase the global temperature by at least 1.5ºC between 2030 and 2050. Some of the impacts may be lasting or even irreversible, such as the loss of entire ecosystems.
These impacts can manifest themselves as rising average ocean temperatures, extreme temperatures in populated regions, increased rainfall in some regions and droughts in others. This will also impact biodiversity, with species going extinct, causing ecosystems to fall out of balance. Studies already show that the deforestation of the Amazon, for example, may trigger new pandemics, given the seriousness of the climate instability in the largest reserve of microorganisms on earth.
Although the term "Green New Deal" is not exactly new, in the last two years there has been a revival of the concept both as a new public policy framework for a green transition and as an agenda for global mobilization towards climate and social justice.
In late 2018, young activists from the Sunrise Movement occupied the office of the newly elected Democratic majority leader in the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, demanding a more ambitious plan to deal with the climate crisis in the form of a Green New Deal (GND). Following that, newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey presented a resolution to the U.S. Congress to include the GND in its legislative agenda for the coming decades. Since then, the debate has grown to include Senator Bernie Sanders and other presidential primary candidates, until it became a key struggle of the Democratic party platform.
The debate surrounding policy for a green and just transition has also gained momentum in Europe, and more recently in South Korea and Chile, as well as in multilateral institutions such as UNEP, UNCTAD, and ECLAC.
In Brazil, however, the federal government shows no interest in reorienting its vision on how the country should grow. The insistence on tired and outdated responses is a stark contrast to sustainable development models beginning to gain more attention and traction. As a reaction to the climate denialist federal government, subnational entities have tried to advance the climate agenda. There is still no clear plan proposing coordinated actions, nor financial and institutional mechanisms. In the National Congress, the broad and powerful ruralist caucus, formed mostly by reactionary agribusiness interests, blocks projects that show greater concern for environmental issues.
Nevertheless, voices are beginning to emerge and come together. Over the past year, I have been working hard with economists, researchers and specialists to formulate this vision for Brazil. Our commitment at this time is to broaden the debate in society around this necessary green and just transition together with political forces while fighting to halt steps backward imposed by the federal government.
We urgently need to advance this debate!
It is worth mentioning that Brazil is in an advantageous position when it comes to implementing the green transition and achieving carbon neutrality. Despite its continental scale, our country has one of the cleanest energy matrices in the world: about 43% of its sources are renewable.
The most significant source of greenhouse gases is the agricultural sector, responsible for more than 70% of the Brazilian emissions (considering both indirect emissions, by burning and deforestation, and direct ones, by methane-producing enteric fermentation). Therefore, we have what it takes to drastically reduce our emissions in a cheap way that has little immediate impact on current production.
However, a Brazilian Green New Deal is not limited to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or addressing environmental problems. Besides the environmental aspect, it is crucial to redesign our economic system so that increasing productivity can be converted into improving quality of life and promoting social justice. It must represent a genuine Green Revolution that encompasses our infrastructure, our cities, our industries, our service sector and the public administration.
For its implementation, we need to organize a national and international effort towards a Green and Just Global Economy. This pathway includes massive investments in science and technology, the creation of higher quality and more productive jobs, income redistribution, regenerative and sustainable economic arrangements, guaranteed access to adequate public services, biodiversity conservation and greenhouse gas emissions neutrality by 2050.
It is worth mentioning that even progressive governments did not give the proper centrality to this agenda, and even kept policies and projects that antagonized it in the past.
We need to end illegal deforestation once and for all by 2025, introduce and spread sustainable practices in agricultural production, including restrictions on the use of nitrogen fertilizers. This requires a change in land use policy, valuing natural assets such as forests and water bodies.
We must progressively abandon our dependence on extractive industry, which implies revising the current incentives that benefit road transportation almost exclusively. It is crucial that we strategically reorganize the actions of our public banks and companies, such as the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES), which must turn its attention to decarbonization, and Petrobrás, which must embrace once and for all the agenda of new low emission energy sources.
We need to redirect our industrial policy, prioritizing innovation, favoring advanced science and technology to pollute less, combined with a purchasing policy approach that changes current trends of production and consumption. The taxation of exports with low added value should be discussed to help guide the economy toward incorporating new, more complex, and cost-effective steps in the productive chain.
We need a tax reform that tackles the two major problems of the Brazilian system: complexity and regressiveness. To this end, we need to reduce taxes on consumption and production, as they harm the poor and the most complex economic activities. We also must target taxes on income and wealth to unburden entrepreneurship and make the richest pay a larger share of revenue. The system must be simple, transparent, and fair. In this rethinking, it is also necessary to create a tax that considers the environmental and climate externalities of productive activities (instead of subsidizing them, as is done today).
We need an administrative reform of the State that reinforces its regulatory character, increases its efficiency in the management and provision of quality public services, and includes transparency and social engagement in a more structured way, especially when it comes to the populations excluded from the full exercise of citizenship. The defense of a relevant role for public power does not mean a defense of the present Brazilian State model, still captured by inefficiency, corporatism and patrimonialism. In order to fulfill its function, the public administration needs to modify its criteria for recruiting and promoting personnel to foster diversity and engagement, it needs to change its public purchasing procedures for efficiency and alignment with environmental guidelines, and it needs to review the relationship between the public and the private to promote healthy and well-designed partnerships in favor of the public interest, such as in research and infrastructure.
We need to focus on urban interventions in large and medium-sized cities, with resources dedicated to improving living conditions in favelas and peripheral communities and the construction of millions of adequate and inclusive housing units with nearby jobs, services, and non-polluting transport networks. Furthermore, urban mobility is an issue of major importance for the environment and for living quality, requiring the rethinking of urban planning through a new building code that incorporates net-zero emission regulations, demanding the revision of priorities historically given to different models of transport, creating green spaces and providing shared public equipment for coexistence.
We need to universalize access to sanitation, ensure sustainable solid waste management services, as well as water and air quality.
We need to reform museums, cultural centers, hospitals, schools and public offices with poor infrastructure by adapting them to their functional needs and upgrading them, meeting energy efficiency and accessibility criteria.
We need to electrify the public transport fleet, focusing on rail transportation, while progressively taxing the use and production of private fossil fuel vehicles.
We need to speed up the energy transition towards an entirely low-carbon matrix, with a bold but achievable deadline. To this end, the first step is to end direct and hidden subsidies to fossil fuels. We then need to expand the deployment of new renewables and make viable energy storage alternatives to cope with the intrinsic intermittency of wind and solar photovoltaic.
It is worth noting that all these actions generate quality employment and social inclusion. To the most vulnerable families, those most at risk from environmental and climate impacts, we shall guarantee not only the right to life and dignity, but also access to a permanent and adequate Minimum Income, as well as to education, healthcare and culture.
To this end, we need to invest heavily in science, technology, and innovation in Brazil. This is a core component of this transition from a low efficiency, agricultural export-based economy to a highly productive knowledge-based society, with social justice and better quality of life. We need to finance the development of new technologies for wind and solar power generation, biofuels, energy storage, robotics and artificial intelligence, the production of non-polluting vehicles, bio-economy and biotechnology, green cooperatives, and low-carbon agriculture, including family farming and small local producers. We need to regulate a social and environmental responsibility regime, with positive incentives for states, municipalities and companies that adhere to national sustainable criteria.
This horizon is not only possible; it is increasingly necessary and urgent. This requires cooperation and coordination between federal, state, and municipal governments, the private sector and civil society, using international articulation around a green and just transition plan — a global agreement pointing to a "new normal" with more quality of life, environmental balance, and social justice.
As for the cost of all this, the estimates vary. There is no reason to deny that the odds will be high. The catastrophic costs of inaction, however, are infinitely higher than the investment now in a national sustainable development project, especially in the face of the coming global recession.
Furthermore, these are investments that can be made with accountability and tangible returns for the population itself in terms of income generation, living standards and environmental protection. It is important to consider that income redistributive economic growth is much more effective in collecting taxes than the current model that benefits only a small part of the population.
The deployment of a Brazilian Green New Deal favors both Brazilians and all humanity, leading to a more prosperous reality with more quality jobs, income distribution, efficient public services, and the sustainable use of rich forest resources in the areas of food, pharmacy and cosmetics. All with the forest standing, of course. Brazil has the resources to create this new way of life. The time to act is now; together, for a different future.