We need universal basic services to tackle the climate crisis

Through universal basic services we can ensure everyone has what they need and deliver it in a way that reduces our emissions

Universal basic services (UBS) can play a crucial role in tackling the climate emergency, says a report out today from NEF and the Berlin-based Hot or Cool Institute. UBS deliver secure social foundations by making sure everyone has access to life’s essentials and promote equity by meeting everybody’s needs, regardless of income or status. They can be designed to curb harmful emissions and safeguard natural resources. By putting human wellbeing and social justice centre-stage, they also help to build democratic support for climate action.

The term UBS’ is shorthand for a range of collective measures including services, investment and regulation. It describes a policy framework aimed at meeting human needs universally and sufficiently. Markets can deliver some necessities, but they can’t make sure everyone gets everything they really need, now or in future. That can only be achieved through collective action backed by public institutions – including services ranging from healthcare and education, to housing, utilities, transport and digital access.

Today’s report highlights UBS as an indispensable eco-social policy, vital to all efforts to build a sustainable economy and a Green New Deal, in the UK and across Europe. It does this in three ways: by influencing public attitudes and consumption patterns; by transforming provisioning systems; and by underpinning political programmes to bring about a green transformation. 

Influencing attitudes and consumption

Instead of free markets and unconstrained consumption, UBS promotes universal sufficiency: enough for all so that everyone can have enough. It involves pooling resources, sharing risks and working together to make sure everyone’s needs are met. It gives practical expression to the idea that we all depend on each other and share responsibility for each others’ wellbeing. This helps build broad support for limiting consumption and constraining excess (SUVs, frequent flying, meat-heavy diets, etc.) so that everyone can live a good life.

Discussions about sustainable consumption tend to focus on what individuals buy in markets – food, cars, clothes, holidays, household gadgets and so forth – and on how to change individual behaviour. UBS shifts the focus to public consumption outside markets, through services that are funded (partly or wholly) through taxation and democratically controlled. Collectively provided services have a smaller ecological footprint than privately funded alternatives. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) confirms that development targeted to basic needs and well-being for all entails less carbon-intensity than GDP-focused growth’.

Take transport, for example. Greenhouse gas emissions from cars and taxis are more than seven times higher than from buses. Accessible, co-ordinated public transport across a large urban area, even without free fares, has been found to reduce car traffic, improve air quality and lower carbon emissions. Free bus fares would accentuate that effect, especially if combined with measures to discourage private vehicles, such as congestion charging and parking fees. And frequent, well-connected and affordable train services would reduce short-haul flights, which are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Transforming provisioning systems

Where provisioning systems (the combined processes that deliver services) are democratically controlled and intended to serve the public interest, they are much more likely than market-based systems to protect the environment. The UBS agenda supports the development of social licensing’, through which state and non-state service providers are bound by a shared set of public interest obligations. This can be used to ensure decent pay and conditions for service workers, as well as limiting profit extraction, establishing quality standards, and coordinating sustainable practice through networks of employees, service users, and suppliers. This way, providers can promote active travel, resource-efficient buildings and local food procurement, avoid duplication and waste, minimise excessive demand and implement national strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, a well-regulated and securely funded childcare system would generate a substantial number of low-carbon jobs and help to prevent harms that would otherwise require resource-intensive interventions by a range of public agencies. Through social licensing, it could promote sustainable practice, for example, covering the way childcare centres are constructed, equipped and maintained; how much energy and non-renewable resources they use; and how children travel to and from home. Childcare can also encourage children from a very young age to value, enjoy and safeguard the natural environment.

Underpinning a green transition

UBS establishes secure foundations for everyone. It does this by providing services that are hugely valuable as in-kind benefits’ that don’t have to be paid for directly, and by helping to create jobs at all skills levels and in all corners of the country. Public services that deliver everyday necessities are worth much more to people on low incomes – who would lose a far bigger chunk of disposable cash if they had to pay for them directly. So UBS is highly redistributive and helps to ensure that the costs of climate mitigation are not loaded onto the poorest. Vitally, it puts social justice at the heart of climate action — the only way to secure electoral backing for a Green New Deal.

Read the report

If you value great public services, protecting the planet and reducing inequality, please support NEF today.

Make a one-off donation

£5 £10 £25 £50 £100

Make a monthly donation

£3 £5 £10 £25 £100