The fossil-fuelled reboot that we have long warned of in the wake of 2020’s Covid-19 lockdowns is on course to be record-shattering — and not in a good way. Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are set to see their second highest rise in human history.
No, not the second highest levels of atmospheric CO2, nor even the second highest emissions or rate of addition to these levels. In both levels and emissions, 2021 is heading towards first place. Emissions are predicted to rise by 1.5 billion tons, to 33 billion — 33 thousand million tons — over the year, and that 1.5 billion rise is the second highest figure ever. This comes as governments the world over are making green-sounding noises. What do these mean?
Maintaining the emptiness of its previous promises, “UK government [has] set in law world’s most ambitious climate change target, cutting emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels”. Once again, inadequately ambitious targets are not backed up by the kind of policies or action necessary to realise them, rendering the target largely meaningless, impotent beyond being perhaps a flimsy legal weapon for case-by-case fights.
As with Johnson’s “10 Point Plan” for a green industrial revolution, much of the green-washing hype concerns pre-existing commitments, carried forward as part of an updated package.
The so-called “North Sea Transition Deal” will likely do more harm than good. The deal pumps more cash into the fossil industry, and permits further exploration of oil and gas fields. This is in exchange for — at least partially voluntary — commitments to “decarbonisation” or reduction in emissions by the same polluters.
If someone knowingly sets fire to and is torching your home, you wouldn’t give them (more) money in exchange for promises to go easier on the flamethrower later on. We must not allow a similar approach with our planet: a radical transformation of the industry is required.
The proposed “decarbonisation” methods vindicate this scepticism. Central is “Carbon Capture, Utilisation, and Storage” (CCUS). Really Existing CCUS is much worse than useless: it is used to justify continued emissions while squeezing out even more crude oil than may be possible otherwise.
Their encouragement of the sector to expand “hydrogen production” is likewise, in practice, concerning. The production method in question would be steam-methane reforming, whereby methane from natural gas is reacted with water at a high temperature to form hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. The carbon monoxide may then be catalysed with more water to create more hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
This is an energy intensive way of converting one fossil fuel to a different form for storage, transportation and use in fuel cells. It is not a new source of energy. No less carbon dioxide is created overall, and, depending on the source of the additional energy required, more will be produced. Methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, perhaps other pollutants will leak in the process. Methane is over 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a twenty year time-frame.
Another component of the UK’s government’s commitments is their “Industrial Decarbonisation Strategy” (IDS). Key mechanisms for their “Decarbonisation” include market signalling, and enabling consumer action. These are woefully insufficient or actively harmful. CCUS and hydrogen production crop up again, plus another favourite greenwashing industry, bioenergy, which in some ways is worse than coal.
Even if their IDS was good, the £1 billion to fund it is a pittance. £1 billion, that is, which had already been allocated and was just repackaged!
We see a similar story with their “Energy White Paper”. More greenwashing than green in approach, and three quarters of the celebrated £12bn/year investment having already been allocated. The choice to leave the energy sector in private ownership means that insufficient money goes even less far. This is most starkly demonstrated with the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant: exorbitantly expensive not because it is nuclear powered, but because of privatisation.
The UK government’s expansion of hollow promises was prompted by Biden’s “Leaders Summit on Climate”. For this summit, Biden made much of a new target to cut USA’s emissions to 50% below 2005’s levels by 2030, up from around 38% previously.
The official press release has a much more progressive ring than the UK government’s statements. It speaks of “investment”, “equity”, plans to “create millions of good-paying, union jobs”, and the like. It would at least be a step in the right direction.
But it is scant on details of proposals or funding.
His Budget proposed to Congress committed only $1.2 billion to the UN’s “Green Climate Fund”, and $14 billion for initiatives to fight climate change in 2022, far short of his — inadequate — election pledge of $40 billion (£29bn) per year in “clean energy and innovation”. The ambition in his proposals leaves much to be desired, and the hinted-at details have numerous problems.
Crucially, it isn’t clear how any of it will actually happen: how the plan will be fleshed out with details, and whether Congress will approve the funding.
President Xi likewise kicked the can down the road, and failed to make specific, immediate commitments for China. “We will strictly limit the increase in coal consumption over the 14th five-year plan period (2021-2025) and phase it down in the 15th five-year plan period (2026-2030),” he said. This delay is critical, as China is by far the greatest burner of coal, and is expected to drive over half of the growth of demand for coal in 2021.
This fossil fuelled reboot comes despite solar power now offering arguably the “cheapest… electricity in history”, demonstrating the irrationality of capitalism even by neoliberalism’s own self-proclaimed standards, and the continued failure of the market in tackling climate change.
Yet the Covid-19 pandemic, and government responses, have made the need and possibilities for tackling climate crises more evident than ever. We can and must build a mass working-class environmental movement that can force the needed changes from our governments and employers; and take power to implement them ourselves.