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Universal basic services: the road to a just transition

Man getting on bus
As with public transport, investment in universal basic services can be a simultaneous, social and ecological, win-win (AstroStar/hutterstock.com)

Meeting social needs within planetary boundaries is the alternative to the religion of growth and the populist backlash.

The tractors have left the European Union’s capital cities for now but mass protests against climate-mitigation measures are bound to recur. Too many people are feeling anxious, insecure, powerless and distrustful of their governments. The ‘polycrisis’—ecological catastrophe, war in Ukraine, soaring living costs, widening inequalities and social polarisation—shows no sign of abating.

Reducing EU greenhouse-gas emissions by 55 per cent (from 1990 levels) by 2030 and by 90 per cent by 2040 will present uncomfortable new challenges to populations across the continent. There is no hope of reaching ‘net zero’ by 2050 without changing everyday lifestyles and patterns of consumption and production.

The challenge for those in positions of power is how to pursue the green transition while ensuring vulnerable groups are not left shouldering a disproportionate burden. Policy-makers need to prioritise meeting basic human needs and put this at the heart of the ‘fit for 55’ agenda—they must stop treating the economy as an all-powerful god demanding human sacrifice, with per capita gross domestic product its totem.

Too many of our democratic leaders put growth before human or planetary wellbeing. Prosperity depends on the sustainable use of natural resources and a healthy, well-educated, cared-for population whose basic needs are met.

Intrinsically satiable

The concept of universal basic services (UBS) combines both factors—the aim is to meet everyone’s needs within planetary boundaries. There is broad agreement on what those needs are: a home to live in, nourishing food, education, people to care for us when we cannot look after ourselves, healthcare, clean air, water and energy, transport, digital access and quality employment. Unlike wants and preferences, needs are intrinsically satiable. Through proper public investment governments can meet them and guarantee an adequate standard of living.

We can buy some of life’s essentials on our own but none of us (not even the rich) can meet all our needs without collective provision. Primarily, this means public services backed by investment of public funds and regulation in the public interest. UBS is shorthand for the range of collective measures that enable needs to be met universally and sufficiently. The term ‘basic’ is intended to convey what is essential for everyone to enjoy decent living standards and live a fulfilling life—not a minimal safety net only for the ‘left behind’.

The concept is based on a strong body of academic literature, with many case studies across Europe showing what it means in practice. These range from public housing in Vienna, Helsinki and Amsterdam to transport in Luxembourg and London, childcare in Sweden and Norway—and plenty more.

Cult of individualism

The commitment to collective action—pooling resources and working together through our democratic institutions—is an antidote to the cult of individualism which has dominated politics for so long. This has failed to address poverty and inequality or mitigate the negative social consequences of the green transition. It is time to reclaim the collective ideal that shaped the postwar settlement—not out of nostalgia but because a collective, needs-based approach is the only way to escape the ‘polycrisis’ and achieve a just transition.

UBS offers a value-based framework to ensure everyone’s (different) needs can be met. Accordingly, access to life’s essentials should be a right—not a privilege or concession. Ecological sustainability should be built into service design and delivery, while service workers should enjoy fair pay and conditions.

The framework favours a ‘mixed economy’, with services delivered by a range of state and non-state organisations but with all bound by public-interest obligations. Public ownership of services is sometimes the best option. Still, the main role of the state is to act as an enabler, using its powers of investment and regulation to ensure equal access and to set and enforce quality standards across the board.

Huge influence

Putting this approach at the heart of policy could make a substantial contribution to meeting Europe’s social and environmental goals. Public services can exert a huge influence over the cost of living and redistribute resources between income groups. Services that deliver life’s essentials, such as childcare and transport, can transform how much disposable income households need to reach decent living standards.

The European Green Deal has so far been driven by the necessity to cut carbon emissions but without due regard for the social consequences of those measures—and, in particular, the impact on vulnerable groups. As a result, public services and other social-protection measures have been an afterthought to compensate for the regressive effects of climate action.

Investment in UBS facilitates a just transition, not only by creating secure foundations for everyone and reducing inequalities but also by directly helping decarbonise the economy. For example, service providers can influence their networks of employees, users and suppliers to co-ordinate sustainable practices: active travel, resource efficiency in the construction and maintenance of buildings, local food procurement.

A decent public-transport system will help reduce reliance on private cars. High-quality investment in social housing can result in more affordable homes and sustainable living. Hospitals and schools can serve sustainably produced food and reduce or even eliminate meat. Care and education are vital for the functioning of our economic systems and the green transition—and they help to equip future generations with the knowledge and tools to fight the climate crisis.

Meanwhile, UBS would bring new jobs at all skill levels to all corners of Europe. Crucially, most would be low-carbon, because so many services depend on people and relationships rather than on energy-intensive hardware. Services make it possible for people to enter and stay in paid work, for example by maintaining health, relieving informal caring responsibilities and helping with travel and digital access.

Gift to the populists

So UBS is not a ‘nice to have’ but central to achieving Europe’s social and environmental ambitions. As we enter a year of elections across the EU, as well as the United Kingdom and the United States, the main issues occupying voters are falling living standards, rising costs and a growing sense of powerlessness. Governments seem incapable of offering a vision that can tackle both the climate crises and inequality. The European Green Deal is currently failing to reduce emissions at the speed required or to ensure a fair transition. This failure is a gift to extreme, anti-establishment, populist leaders already mopping up voters frustrated with the status quo.

Public investment in UBS can ensure we meet human needs collectively , with three key effects. First, people will feel more secure and more inclined to trust governments to be on their side—less likely to fear they will bear the brunt of government actions to meet climate goals. Secondly, this approach can actively support people to live more sustainably. And, thirdly, it will help generate a prosperous, sustainable economy.

All this will only happen, however, if policy-makers stop digging into the neoliberal hole we have been stuck in for so long, and start putting people and the planet before profit and growth.

Robbie Stakelum and Katy Wiese
Robbie Stakelum and Katy Wiese
  Robbie Stakelum is the head of policy and advocacy with Social Platform and leads its work on just transition and social services. Katy Wiese is an ecofeminist who works for the European Environmental Bureau as policy manager for economic transition and gender equality.
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