The risk of catastrophic climate change, which could have a devastating impact on human and other life on earth, is growing.
In May 2013, the Manu Loa observatory in Hawaii, USA, recorded 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere for the first time. 400ppm is acknowledged by some climate experts as a key “tipping point”.
We need a rapid transition away from dependence on fossil-fuel-based energy sources, and towards renewable and sustainable sources. The market cannot be relied upon to oversee such a transition. Avoiding climate barbarism needs socialism — democratic working-class rule to plan a global transition away from fossil fuels.
The UK government is facing in precisely the opposite direction. There are now 19 hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) sites in the UK. This includes five sites extracting shale gas, and 14 extracting coal bed methane. Additionally, another six shale gas fracking sites have been approved, along with 30 coal bed methane sites. A further 11 sites are under consideration.
David Cameron has said his government is going “all out for shale”. A recently-announced policy will allow local councils to keep 100% of business rates raised from fracking sites, up from 50%. Environmental and community activists have described the policy as a bribe.
The expansion of fracking is part of the government’s wider energy policy announced in December 2012, that approved the building of 30 new gas-fired power stations by 2030. The policy, known as the “dash for gas”, would undo all government commitments on reducing emissions.
The 2008 Climate Change Act set a target of an 80% emissions cut by 2050, and the Government’s independent climate advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), have stated that the low carbon grid of 2030 should produce no more than 50g of CO2 for every kilowatt hour of electricity generated. However, gas produces 350g CO2 for every kilowatt hour at the point of generation. Although gas is generally cleaner than coal, the extra emissions generated by construction and transportation projects necessary to implement the dash for gas policy would significantly narrow the gap.
Fracking carries huge environmental risks. As Paul Verndasky wrote in Solidarity 295 (11 September 2013): “The Tyndall Centre [based at the University of Manchester] concluded that large-scale extraction of shale gas ‘cannot be reconciled’ with climate change commitments to limit global temperature increases to 2°C. In the UK context, shale gas could undermine the decarbonisation budgets proposed by the Committee on Climate Change.
“Shale gas advocates point to the US, where shale gas extraction has coincided with cheaper gas prices and falling emissions. US CO2 emissions from domestic energy have declined by 9% since a peak in 2005. But another Tyndall report […] estimates that between 35% and 50% of power sector emissions reductions may have been due to shale gas price effects, with the rest was due to renewable and nuclear power.
“Even if this is an improvement in the US, it is no argument globally. ‘Climate mitigation in one country’ is not progress if it simply displaces the emissions elsewhere.
“There has been a substantial increase in coal exports from the US over the same period and globally coal consumption continues to rise. More than half of the emissions avoided in the US power sector may have been exported as coal.”
Fracking also carried other risks, including water contamination and ground pollution.
The dash for gas has been accompanied by major changes to the way the government subsidises renewable energy sources. In December 2013, the government slashed the funding it provided for the construction of onshore wind farms. Funding for onshore solar energy was also cut. Danny Alexander, Lib Dem MP and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, called the policies “a rebalancing”. That’s putting it mildly; government policies massively tip the balance of onshore energy generation away from renewable sources and towards gas, extracted through a rapid expansion of fracking sites.
The dash for gas is a quick-fix, short-termist solution for a profound, epochal problem. Expanding fossil-fuel-power energy generation will make the reductions in emissions, vital to prevent catastrophic climate change, much harder. Renewable sources account for just 11.3% of the UK’s electricity generation. That percentage must increase dramatically, and fast.
The big winners from current government policy will be multinational energy companies and construction conglomerates. French energy giant Total recently became the first global oil firm to invest in shale gas extraction in Britain. More will undoubtedly follow.
Campaigns against fracking in Sussex and Lancashire have revived a flagging environmental movement. Activists have taken on companies like Cuadrilla and shown that multinationals cannot expect an easy ride. The labour movement needs to develop its own radical environmental politics and an alternative working-class plan for the energy industry.
Increasing subsidies to onshore renewable energy generation and ending the dash for gas is an immediate demand. But much more is needed.
A radical working-class plan for energy would start with demand for the expropriation of the energy companies and a reduction and freeze on fuel prices. The right to a heated home is fundamental and should not be in the gift of the market. Challenging market logic in the energy industry implies going beyond controls and planning of distribution, and democratically planning generation and production too. A working-class energy policy would involve an immediate moratorium on fracking and gas power station construction, with workers currently employed there being supported to develop plans to transition sites towards socially-necessary production (and, if that’s not possible, to be redeployed elsewhere where their skills are needed, or retrained if necessary). The current system of fluctuating subsidies to “green capitalists” in the renewables industry would be abolished, renewable energy generation taken into social control, and massively expanded through government investment funded by taxing the rich. The nuclear industry should also be expropriated and placed under social control, so the nuclear element of a low-carbon energy mix can be controlled and regulated by workers’ and community planning.
The questions of democracy and control are fundamental. We counterpose democratic control, of those working in the energy industry and in effected communities, to the control of the market.
Only a society responsive to the interests of human need, rather than the interests of profit, can steer a course away from climate chaos.