If Labour adopted Jeremy Corbyn’s discussion document Protecting our Planet as its environmental policy it would be the first serious attempt by a mainstream political party to face up to the challenge of climate change.
Protecting the Planet is a huge improvement on Tory and New Labour policies, which pay lip service to environmentalism whilst subsidising big energy capitalists and polluters. It is also out-greens the Green Party who combine reactionary Neo-Malthusian analysis with vague promises to tinker with the energy market.
The document states that the labour movement and environmental movement are natural allies, fighting for society to be run in the interests of people and planet. It identifies that the environmental crisis cannot be separated from the social crisis of gross inequality. It has a breadth of vision that is often lacking in environmental politics. For example, it is concerned that children are now growing up without contact with nature, that 29,000 people die as a result of air pollution each year and that we are ill-equipped to deal with the effects of climate change such as flooding.
Significantly, Corbyn rejects explanations of climate change based on overconsumption. He understands that a progressive future depends on our ability to produce an abundance. Abundance requires a clean energy source that is not going to fundamentally disrupt the world’s ecology. The switch to renewable energy needs to happen with great urgency.
The headline policy from the document is that Corbyn wants to “socialise the energy industry”. But by socialise he means following the German model where there are almost two million small energy generators, mostly households, farmers and communities. The big corporations only have a small market share. He plans to set up a statutory framework and a green investment bank that will empower “local authorities, communities, energy cooperatives and smart technology companies” to produce their own energy and sell the excess back to the grid. He wants to take the big six energy companies and the infrastructure into public ownership. The state will become the “guarantor of last resort... ensuring that Britain’s ‘lights never go out’”.
The precise way in which this works out is unclear. One interpretation is that the government would simply renationalise energy production and distribution, with or without compensation (City analysts estimate this could cost up to £185 billion). It would then implement the green investment bank and other measures to promote small renewable generation.
The problem with this scenario is that it would meet with considerable opposition. When Ed Miliband proposed to a modest cap on energy rate rises there was uproar. Already there is whispers of coup if Corbyn wins the election. Any attempt to nationalise the large capitalist corporations would be opposed by the full force of the national and international bourgeoisie, who have a long history of bloodshed in defence of their private property. That is not to say, that it could not or should not be done. But it would only be possible with a massive mobilisation of the working-class majority in defence of a radical anti-capitalist government.
If such a mobilisation took place and the energy sector was taken into public ownership and under democratic control, then it is unlikely that this movement would then stop and decide to create a framework so that every farmer, landowner and local authority could set themselves up as their own little energy capitalist. It is more likely that this future movement would take land and means of production into common ownership and democratically plan how to transform our productive forces to meet human and environmental needs.
An alternative interpretation of Corbyn’s proposals is that he first intends to subsidise and incentivise small renewable production in the hope this will undermine the profits of the Big Six and eventually force them out of the British energy market. At this point the government would step in to nationalise the power stations on the grounds that it cannot let the “lights go out”. The problem with this scenario is that it gives all power and agency to the capitalists, financiers and middle-class entrepreneurs and none to the workers who are actually producing the country’s energy.
Whichever reading we choose the documents limitations are due to a lack of a socialist, class struggle perspective on climate change. As any labour movement activist or any environmental activist will tell you, the single biggest obstacle to social and ecological justice is private ownership of the means of production.
Under capitalism, the world’s natural resources and productive forces (machines, factories etc.) are the private property of a small number of extremely rich human beings. These people employ the rest of us, we who have no independent means of subsistence, for a number of hours each week and set us to work on their property. We relinquish our time, follow the bosses orders and so transform the world. The wage we receive is a fraction of the wealth that we produce and our bosses pocket the difference.
Capitalism is an extraordinarily dynamic economic system. Under capitalism we have produced some wonderful innovations and an abundance of wealth. We can now resist and overcome many of the natural forces that preyed on our ancestors: cold, hunger, disease etc. But to produce anything useful out of the natural world requires both technical knowledge and energy.
The exponential rise in technological capacity and wealth under capitalism has been fuelled by the burning of carbon based fossils, which has resulted in global warming and extreme weather. Fossil fuels were, and remain, an extremely abundant, compact and cheap source of energy. However, the amount of solar energy that Earth receives in a day is hundreds of times our annual consumption. A transition to a zero-carbon economy is necessary and possible. But so long as fossil fuels continue to be cheap and abundant, the people who own and control energy production have no interest in developing renewable alternatives. In fact, competition between individual capitalists and between capitalist nation states forces capitalists down this destructive path.
But while the capitalists have the power, they themselves do no work. Nothing moves in our world unless it is set in motion by workers. Even heavily automated machines require superintendence and maintenance. The solution to the climate crisis is not to create a more diverse market place of little capitalists but for workers in their workplaces to refuse to follow the bosses orders. The working-class movement can tear up the bosses’ title deeds, take the world’s resources into common ownership and plan a transition to a carbon-free economy based on collective ownership and democratic control.
The transition to a zero-carbon economy will undoubtedly involve many workers in the energy and fossil fuel sectors losing their jobs. Corbyn has already said that he will guarantee the jobs of those working in the defence and nuclear weapons industries. He should make a similar commitment to workers in the environmentally destructive industries. However, this should be done with the full democratic input of the workers involved.
Often factories and machinery can be used for a socially useful purpose and the workers in those workplaces are experts in these matters. In the 1970s workers at Lucas Aerospace drafted detailed plans for how their factory, which made components for fighter jets, could be used for socially useful production. During their years of struggle for workers-control they made hundreds of dialysis machines for the NHS and plans and prototypes for scores of other socially useful, environmentally friendly technology. Their example should be an inspiration for us today as we imagine the transition from a carbon-dependent to a carbon-free economy.
The unremitting increase in carbon emissions is threatening the future sustainability of our civilisation. Human beings may survive global warming but it will mean the return to a much more brutal way of life, where we are once again haunted by scarcity. Our generation can and must act to find and develop alternative forms of energy production. But the greatest obstacle we face is that the world’s resources are privately owned and controlled for the enrichment of a few. A renewed working-class movement that is willing to defy these people is the hope for humanity.
Jeremy Corbyn’s trouncing of his neo-liberal opponents in the Labour leadership election was made possible by a mobilisation of working-class people sick of being managed, manipulated and pushed around by capitalist bosses, media barons and a heartless, bureaucratic state. It is a sign that a sizeable section of our class is no longer happy with the way they are ruled over at work; no longer trusting of the mainstream media and no longer willing to cede power to unaccountable ruling class. This movement should act swiftly and decisively to solve the environmental crisis lest capitalist rule returns us to a state of barbarism. Corbyn, McDonnell and the leaders of the labour movement should agitate for and support any action to this end.
The document envisages a phasing out of fossil fuel and nuclear power alongside a diversified energy market of small renewable generators. The state will take over big energy firms and their plants and run them on a much reduced scale. At a later stage Corbyn suggested that it may become economically viable to open up the South Wales coalfields and utilise clean coal energy. We think this is muddled.
There is nothing wrong with Corbyn’s suggestion that coal may still be mined and burnt in the future. Fossil fuels are an extremely useful and valuable resource. However most scientists agree that with current technology if we burn all the current reserves of fossil fuels then we will greatly exceed the target of two degrees global warming. For the foreseeable future the policy must be “Leave it in the ground”.
At the same time, a renewed effort should go to developing carbon capture and storage technologies. Just this week, Drax announced that it halting a £1 billion project into carbon capture technology after changes to the subsidy regime meant it no longer appeared profitable. Such decisions affect all of us and should not be made on the basis of whether it is going to enrich a few private individuals.
The document argues that nuclear proliferation, accident and waste rule out nuclear energy. However, third generation nuclear generators based on the abundant metal thorium appear to address all these issues. The reactors cannot be used to make nuclear weapons. They cannot go into “meltdown”. In fact, the reactors can safely run with virtually no human input. Moreover, these generators could theoretically be used to burn up a substantial part of our nuclear waste legacy, including old nuclear bombs. The first thorium power station will be opened in India next year. More research and development will be needed but as a stopgap measure nuclear technology seems the best low-carbon option for producing a baseload energy supply.
Even without this new development, the risks and problems associated with uranium reactors are overstated. Many countries in the world utilise nuclear power without building weapons of mass destruction. Deaths and health problems associated with fossil fuel production, far exceed those of the nuclear industry. Waste is a problem but as long as the waste is well managed it is likely that solutions will come about in the future.
Regardless of the fine details, there is an urgent need for the government to fund scientists and engineers to develop low-carbon technologies. For many years, university science and engineering departments have been funded and controlled by big corporations and academic freedoms have been curtailed as R&D has been tailored towards the search for profit. Resources should be made available so that our best minds can turn their attention towards solving the climate crisis.
A workers government in Britain, backed by a powerful and combative workers movement, could achieve great technological leaps forward in low-carbon technology and play a role internationally in halting the exponential growth of carbon emissions.