“Build back better, blah blah blah. Green economy, blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050, blah blah blah… Climate neutral, blah blah blah.” This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises… They’ve now had 30 years of “blah blah blah” and where has that led us? Over 50% of all our CO2 emissions have occurred since 1990, and a third since 2005. — Greta Thunberg, 28 September 2021
After a summer of fires, floods, and freaky weather, the gap between widespread green rhetoric and the facts of fossil-fuel reboot is starkly inescapable.
The problem isn’t that the world is being “too slow” in reducing greenhouse emissions. It’s bloodcurdlingly worse: we’re moving in the wrong direction.
The changes forced by the Covid pandemic — a pandemic birthed, in part, by environmental destruction, and pursuit of profit before health — caused a temporary slight downturn in global emissions. Yet, already, 2021 seems set to be second only to the pre-pandemic 2019. Indeed, this spring, global emissions from power generation, industry and housing were already at least as high as the same period in 2019.
Worse is in the pipeline. Russia’s gas goliath, Gazprom, has increased its production and exports so far in 2021 to close to a historic high. This October, the Chinese state has ordered over 70 coal mines in Inner Mongolia alone to increase production by around one hundred million tonnes; their six-point plan for tackling the energy crisis centres on ramping up coal. Meanwhile, Qatar Gas Company is announcing a new project to ramp up natural gas extraction. In the UK, many have called for increased gas reserves.
Yet it is possible to rapidly turn off the industrial-quantity pumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, while keeping the lights on, avoiding energy crises like recently in the UK and China, and maintaining a high quality of life.
A rapid expansion of solar, wind, hydroelectric, nuclear, and geoengineering power, coupled with a phasing out of fossil energy, could meet our energy needs. This expansion and transition requires large upfront public investment in power generation. An artificial market in energy, with electricity transported and distributed using outdated technology, is inefficient, ineffective, and unjust. A more sophisticated and democratically co-ordinated energy grid than the current one is necessary to reduce energy waste and tackle energy poverty. This will be doubly so when more of energy production is weather-dependent, or scales up and down short-term less easily.
The interests and pursuits of powerful and profitable sections of the energy sector can no longer dominate. Their interests must be ignored: their activities actively suppressed. This all cuts against the forces and logic of the current economic regime.
Fossil carbon is also used directly for transportation of people and goods, for heating of buildings and water, for cooking, and for industrial heat. These processes can be electrified, the energy use reduced — and then powered by renewable and nuclear energy.
Quality of life and the environment would be helped by efficient electric low-cost long-distance rail and local public transport, and policies to support walking, cycling, and shorter necessary journeys. This applies to goods as well as people. Flights and fossil car use should be repressed. Halt airport expansion, phase out most short-haul flights, introduce a punitive frequent flyer tax or rationing. Immediately ban sale of new hydrocarbon powered cars, coupled with a car-scrappage or retrofitting scheme to make electric vehicles available where necessary.
This would require substantial public funding; overriding markets in transport, freight, and vehicle production; and tackling entrenched lucrative industries and companies — aviation, car production, even overpriced private railway companies — head on.
Johnson’s latest scheme on home heating provides a model of how not to approach the transition. The government will be offering £5,000 for homeowners to install “low carbon heating technologies like heat pumps… when the time comes to replace their old boiler.” An atomised house-by-house approach is necessarily much less energy efficient, requiring more electricity overall. Crucially, this scheme is far too slow and ineffective.
Most estimates place the installation of an air source heat pump at considerably above £5,000. Ground source higher still, and a boiler costs perhaps £400-£2,500.
Heat pumps typically last longer than a boiler, and will probably save energy bills, so overall may be cheaper. But that considerable upfront cost will be a barrier to most working-class homeowners and short-termist landlords. And with boilers typically lasting 10-15 years, the policy, even if universally adopted, implies many homes still heated by fossil gas well into the 2030s. Johnston’s article in The Sun gives us a flavour of this approach to transition.
There are plenty of resources and reservoirs of wealth available for these much needed and expensive transitions. Johnson’s scheme is committing a mere half billion. Labour’s “five demands to to ‘keep 1.5 degrees alive’” published 13 October call for a paltry “£28bn every year until 2030 to tackle the climate crisis”, up from Corbyn’s £25bn/year but with no mention of public ownership. The more ambitious “One Million Climate Jobs”, originally published one decade ago and supported by many unions, calls for £66bn/year.
Official figures of tax avoidance, fraud, and non-payment alone — likely a serious underestimate — put it at £35bn this year. Much of that will be avoidance by the rich: closing loopholes could more than cover Labour’s demands. That, in turn, is dwarfed by conventionally legal theft by the super-rich. In Spring 2021 the Sunday Times Rich List 2021 found that “annual rankings saw the wealth of each of the UK’s 250 richest people grow at an average rate of more than £1 million a day”. That is a total of £1bn every four days, or £91bn in a year. And this is before we consider hidden wealth, pre-existing wealth, or wealth of those multi-millionaires unlucky enough to not make the top 250.
Climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity: we must wield the resources currently stolen and hoarded by the rich to halt and reverse it, and accommodate to its unavoidable impacts.
We have seen, time and time again, the ruling class resist tooth and nail any attempts to regulate industries they control, if it will curb their profits. We cannot leave them in control — as Labour’s five demands propose — with the power, leverage, and desire to evade and fight back against even the most minimal measures necessary to start moving things in the right direction. We much confront their power head on.
Significant and powerful sections of and tendencies within the capitalist class will fight every major change that is necessary to stop climate catastrophe.
The rich’s economic power, and from that their political and ideological power, is created by workers in the workplace. Of the vast wealth we produce, they give us wages enough to survive by, and take the rest for themselves. It is here — where the shape of society, the wealth of humanity, the power of the rich, and the greenhouse pollutants, are largely produced — that these can be transformed, redistributed, tackled. Workers, organising at work, are the key to stopping climate change. We cannot look for environmental change to “businesses”, which are controlled, warlord-like, by our class enemies.
Nor can we look to “the state” as if it is a neutral body, which after this or that election can bring the changes we need. The state as it currently exists serves the interests of the ruling class, and its power rests upon institutions which are tied to that class. It is no coincidence that, around the world, governments have failed to take meaningful action. They will fail, once more, in COP26.
As workers, organised at work and in trade unions, we have the interest and power to change things. As a start: organise a stall, photoshoot, or workplace delegation to a local demonstration as part of the 5 November Youth Climate Strike and Workers’ Mobilisation Day. Get your union to organise a delegation to a 6 November demonstration as part of the “global day of action for climate justice”. Get in touch and join Workers’ Liberty’s delegation to Glasgow, 7-10 November.