Alan Simpson, environmental adviser to John McDonnell, wrote rightly in Solidarity 497 about the hope we can draw from the international school climate walkouts, the next one of which is on 15 March. He rightly criticised almost all politicians, and most of the left, for failing to respond seriously to the climate emergency. However, I think the solutions he sketches also fall far short of what is needed.
Alan Simpson sees the key to tackling climate change as ″decarbonisation, decentralisation and democratisation″. He advocates local markets taking precedence over globalised ones, and using tax to direct markets. While implicitly critical of ″old-style nationalisation″ and preferring ″radical decentralisation″, he also implicitly advocates ″Green New Deal″ style politics of ″unlimited reconstruction finance.″ Taking the best reading we can, I think it′s fair to say that he′s broadly advocating large public investments in decentralised, locally and democratically-run and perhaps publicly-owned green energy sources. But to tackle climate change, we must tackle head-on the power of the section of the ruling class most directly tied up with fossil fuels.
To try to sidestep the power of the fossil fuel giants by going round them and financing local green energy production in itself is unworkable. We cannot compete fossil energy out of existence on the market by financing and subsidising alternatives. Even if that process were possible, it would not be at the necessary pace, and could not be democratically led by workers in the current or future energy sectors.
It certainly is not possible with the meagre funding that Labour′s Green Transformation document commits towards this transformation. Technically, decentralised energy systems are less efficient and therefore environmentally worse than unified, integrated energy systems. Energy production on large scales, not just big hydroelectric, tidal and nuclear, but also large scale wind and solar power, are significantly more efficient.
Integrated and centralised planning of production, transportation, storage and distribution of energy systems, using computation to predict and manage interactions between the parts, is much more efficient than decentralised systems. It′s often unclear what exactly is meant by decentralised energy. It is even less clear how this would apply to a large and dense population, such as for example London.
In developed countries, energy use per individual is considerably lower in such densely packed populations than in more dispersed populations, and therefore large, dense cities are greener. Local production and markets are also not necessarily greener than global production and markets. Of course transportation requires energy, and so currently contributes to climate change. This can be changed, but crucially it is not the only factor. Production on a large scale is often more efficient not just for the ruling class′s ability to extract wealth, but in terms of resources. In many cases, a smaller number of larger production sites for particular goods, necessarily requiring longer-distance transportation, might be more efficient.
Production of some commodities is also more energy and environmentally efficient in certain geographical locations than other. Growing certain plants in hotter more suitable climates and then transporting them to the UK sometimes produces less greenhouse gases than using greenhouses and other technologies to grow equivalent plants in the UK. The environmental impact of freight must be taking into account when considering the production and distribution of goods, but so must other environmental factors.
Tackling fossil capital through expropriating the major energy companies under workers’ control, and investing hugely in the fastest possible transition to green energy, is a much better aim. It would not only be much greener but much more democratic.