A letter to Andy Newman about gas

Submitted by AWL on 16 September, 2020 - 10:23 Author: Zack Muddle
Demo for CEE Bill

Comrade Andy Newman,

Like you, I have many criticism’s of Extinction Rebellion’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill (see here). But in your LabourList polemic against the Bill, writing as technical director of the “Gas Users Organisation” (GUO) and as a GMB and Labour Party activist, you come down squarely on the wrong side of the crucial issues.

You warn of “another culture war divide” over the twin needs of tackling climate change and “protecting well-paid, skilled jobs, and protecting the interests of families and households”.

Your answer?

Not radical socialist environmentalist policies, confronting climate change at the expense of the rich, and so dissolving that apparent divide. No: you take one side in that war, the side of not tackling climate change. You champion conservative and limited transitioning which, while not actually improving the lives of working-class people, seeks comfort in the status quo with some imagined technical tweaks.

You oppose electrification of domestic heating, moving it away from fossil gas, on the grounds of cost.

Comrade Newman, the image of electrification you argue against is a politically and technologically limited straw man. Socialist environmentalists don’t argue that all heating systems should be replaced with individual heat pumps, one per house, with the cost transferred to the tenants.

The costs of transition must be funded by taxing the rich and expropriating high finance, enabling social programmes to build and retrofit electric heating systems, heat pumps and solar thermal panels, insulation and passive heating designs, reduced bills — and larger integrated heating systems. We want electric generation from geothermal, concentrated solar, or nuclear power to be integrated into district heating systems.

Your “alternative: to maintain the gas grid[...] but to green the gas within it, perhaps to a blend of hydrogen and biomethane”.

Blowing smoke in the reader’s eyes, you assert that “[t]he viability of such a conversion is proven.” By the fact that there have been previous changes in the composition of gas? But that does not mean that your scheme would be technologically possible, environmentally sound, or economically viable.

Producing hydrogen by “splitting water, using electricity,” and then later burning it, remains a much less efficient way of transporting or storing energy than, for example, through electric wires and into batteries and heat reservoirs. So-called “biomethane”, like biomass and other biofuels, is not green. Gas systems invariably leak, and methane – whatever its source — is over seventy times as potent a greenhouse gas (over a twenty year period) as carbon dioxide.

To create biomethane on the scale you advocate would depend primarily on purpose-grown biomass, which would then be converted to biomethane through either anaerobic decomposition or, more likely, thermal gasification and methanation – followed by removal of any remaining carbon dioxide and monoxide by-products.

Burning biomass releases more CO2 per unit energy than burning coal. An intermediate step of conversion to methane adds inefficiencies and can only amplify this, when taking both conversion and combustion into account. Biofuel’s extravagant consumption of vegetation causes deforestation and soil degradation, releasing further CO2 and limiting the ability to grow new forest.

It does not take much digging to see that the GUO that you, Andy Newman, proudly direct is actually not primarily concerned with winning this imagined “green gas”. No, it is primarily concerned with championing “domestic gas”, and for the foreseeable future, “continued use of natural gas”, which “(methane) is the fossil fuel with the lowest carbon footprint.”

The motivation behind your other technological focus, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), becomes clearer in this context, Andy. Creative acounting with our carbon budget, speculative but not-yet-viable technological fixes, are a favourite Get Out of Jail Free card for many.

The CEE Bill aims to mandate the state, and the Committee on Climate Change, to draw up a plan to for the UK to reduce emissions in line with limiting global temperatures to 1.5°C. It requires use of reforestation and the like, rather than CCS technologies, in this road map.

CCS technologies are not yet workable, and achieving climate goals should not be premised on their use. Research, development and even deployment of CCS may be useful; but in planning a journey to catch the last train home, I should not rely on a shortcut that may not exist, even if I may take it if it becomes proven good.

Comrade Newman, your bizarre, unsubstantiated and untrue assertions that the proposed “natural climate solutions” could not “provide sufficient decarbonisation without an almost complete dismantling of our modern, urban way of life” are not a case for reliance on speculative CCS technologies.

The “Citizens’ Assembly” as proposed by XR is indeed undemocratic, and a bad idea ( bit.ly/xr-return). How would you, Andy, instead “involv[e] affected workers and trade unions in any just transition”? This is unclear.

A Citizens’ Assembly is indeed less democratic than parliament – there is no accountability – but I counterpose a democratic class-struggle environmentalist labour movement.

Class struggle does not feature in your article. Nor does it. obviously. on GUO’s website. Indeed, this website it gives the impression of class harmony and shared interests between bosses, workers and consumers – but not with environmentalists.

Without class struggle, we cannot win the environmental changes we need, we cannot safeguard or advance the economic interests of workers you claim to be concerned with, and we lack coherent democratic visions of how we can achieve any changes.

Andy, you warn against “what seems to be an elitist plan to bypass democracy, and to narrow down the technical options by which we can achieve our shared aims.”

Yet you simultaneously advocate a conservative plan, elitist insofar as it sees democracy as reducible to parliament, and narrowing down our political options.

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