The UK government’s Net Zero Strategy just does not add up

November 29, 2021

The UK government claims, extravagantly, that it is aiming for “net zero”. But the devil is in the detail. Here, PETER SOMERVILLE goes through the government’s Net Zero Strategy with a fine-toothed comb – and shows how its promises are exaggerated and its numbers don’t add up. It falls to pieces in your hands

When government ministers published their Ten Point Plan a year ago, they recognised that it did not go far enough to fulfil their international commitment to reducing carbon emissions. One year on, their Net Zero Strategy (NZS) goes a little further, but still falls far short of what is required. The problems inherent in the original plan persist, namely:

  • A failure to recognise that the world is now experiencing a climate emergency, and therefore that more drastic action is required in the short term (before 2025) to reduce carbon emissions. The reductions up to 2025 are minimal (page 18, Fig 1, or p. 77, Fig 13. Note: all page numbers in this article refer to the Net Zero Strategy, unless stated otherwise.)
  • A continuing (and increasing) reliance on problematic technologies that do not currently exist at scale, particularly carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS), and direct air carbon capture.
  • A failure to explain clearly how expected future carbon savings have been calculated, particularly in industry, buildings and transport.
  • A neglect of issues relating to agriculture, food, land use and energy storage.
  • An emphasis on constructing new nuclear power plants, with a new (from 2022) Future Nuclear Enabling Fund of £120 million, but – as the UK FIRES commentary on the government’s plan shows – with no net increase in nuclear power capacity likely until after 2030. In the meantime, construction work adds significantly to carbon emissions.
  • An emphasis on GDP growth, despite the strong correlation between such growth and increasing carbon emissions.
  • A lack of clarity about how specific policies could achieve intended emission reductions, e.g. on hydrogen.
  • A failure to curb the expansion of aviation to 2030 and beyond (an expansion that is encouraged rather than hindered by the latest spending review’s decision to cut air passenger duty).
  • A failure to take account of other government programmes that increase rather than reduce emissions, e.g. increased spending on roads (£27 billion) and defence (£24 billion) up to 2024.
London demonstration, 6 November

The government has already committed to invest £25.5 billion for a Green Industrial Revolution (£12 billion under the Ten Point Plan, £9.7 billion for 18 deals at the Global Investment Summit in October 2021, and £5.8 billion on other sustainable projects since the Ten Point Plan). Together with £40 billion for the new UK Infrastructure Bank (p. 206), and leveraging £90 billion of private investment, this funding is expected to support 440,000 jobs in 2030 (pp. 16, 17 and 49).

The NZS describes three future scenarios, but arguably only Scenario 1 (high electrification) is really worth considering.

□ Even Scenario 1 has serious limitations. For example, as with the other scenarios, it takes no direct account of uncertainty about future technology costs and availability (p. 316). So much for the precautionary principle, one might argue.

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Let’s recognise care as a social good

November 23, 2021

The campaign for a National Care Service in Scotland: a contribution to a discussion. By HILARY HORROCKS (Edinburgh trades union council delegate)

Health is a devolved matter in the not-so-United Kingdom, and that has allowed successive Scottish governments to bring in progressive measures that are missing in England, such as abolition of prescription charges for everyone and free personal care for the elderly.

The Scottish National Party (SNP) government certainly sought to distance itself from Westminster during the first stages of the Covid pandemic, when it seemed to follow scientific advice more carefully, and kept the public better informed with daily briefings by the First Minister.

Care workers joined a lobby of Edinburgh Council in September against the closure of four care homes in the city. Photo by Craig Maclean

Between the first and second waves of Covid last year the virus was just about eliminated in Scotland – but like Westminster, the government at Holyrood failed to use the summer to bring in mitigating measures to reduce infection. So in the autumn, the return of schools and universities, coupled with the loosening of restrictions, led to a rise in cases similar to England’s.

Mask wearing has remained a legal requirement in Scotland, including for all secondary school pupils, and is generally well observed – but cases remain worryingly high, particularly in poorer areas.

Here, as in England and Wales, the terrible toll of deaths in care homes at the beginning of the pandemic brutally exposed the disastrous policy of freeing up NHS beds by transferring elderly hospital patients to care homes with no proper testing.

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Social care is up against the profiteers

November 23, 2021

By STUART CARTER (mental health worker and long-time union activist)

Three quarters of us will need some form of social care during our lifetime. In September the government claimed they were tackling the crisis in social care, by increasing National Insurance contributions by 1.25 % from 1 April 2022, thereby raising an extra £12 billion a year. They also made some changes to the thresholds for receiving free social care or having to make contributions to your social care.

Governments have been talking about social care reform for the past 20 years but have done next to nothing. The Dilnot report, commissioned by the coalition government in 2011, made some proposals similar to the present ones but more generous and far-reaching – but it was quietly ignored.

Successive governments have buried their heads in the sand.

Meanwhile cutbacks, especially in local authority budgets, have seen spending per person on social care drop 7.5% in real terms in the decade up to 2019/20. Progressive privatisation, that began in the 1970s, has resulted in 90% of social care now being delivered by the private and independent sector.

Increasingly, healthcare is viewed as a commodity to be bought and sold on the market, that is controlled by private companies seeking profit.

The graph shows the number of deaths of care home residents in England and Wales, each week between 14 March 2020 and 2 April 2021. The dark blue columns are deaths from Covid-19, the light blue, deaths from all other causes. The Office for National Statistics published the graph, and commented: “The sharpest rise in Covid-19 deaths occurred in wave one, but overall a higher proportion of deaths involved Covid-19 in wave two.” Please see the ONS web site for more details

Council-run care homes and council employed home helps are things of the past. However the COVID pandemic, which has killed 40,000 nursing and care home residents, has focused public attention on the state of social care.

Social care workers

One and a half million people work in the social care sector providing residential or home care. The average wage is £9.50 an hour and the majority of workers are on the minimum wage. There is no standardisation of training, terms and conditions are poor and there is a very low level of union organisation.

There is a great deal of instability, with many care homes going bust each year or being taken over by bigger companies. In home care, the workers are given limits on time they can spend with each client and many don’t get paid for their travel time between visits.

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Roads to an energy commons

November 18, 2021

Commodification matters, because it is one of the ways that capitalism shapes the technological and social systems that consume energy. A movement towards post-capitalism would, by destroying the social relations of which commodification is part, put an end to it, and pave the way to an energy commons.  

Such a movement would be by far the most effective way of tackling dangerous global warming, because it would enable society to use energy for need, and not for profit.

These arguments are made in a paper published today by People & Nature.  

To early 21st century city people, gas for a stove, electricity for a factory, or fuel for a vehicle, is presented as “energy”. People often refer to “energy” as something that is, or even must be, bought and sold. Actually, that buying and selling is very recent in historical terms, and even now is not ubiquitous.

London demonstration for climate action, 6 November

Marx’s concept of “commodity fetishism” is useful here. Marx believed that social relations between people, and the fruits of their collective labour, were presented to them in “the fantastic form of a relation between things”. This was truly weird, he thought; it reminded him of the “mist-enveloped regions of the religious world”. The contradiction between the commodity’s use value and its exchange value in markets was obscured.

This mystification persists today in energy research: the idea of “energy demand” elides the need for energy services (the need for a use value) with the economist’s concept of demand for a commodity.

For thousands of years, humans accessed types of energy – human or animal labour power, or mechanical energy from windmills or water wheels – directly from nature. Fuels became commodities only in the 18th and 19th centuries. As capitalism rose to dominance, it turned labour power into a commodity, and much else besides, including energy sources such as wood and coal.   

The energy carriers associated with the second industrial revolution – electricity and oil – were treated as commodities from the start.

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Looking back to the Russian revolution from the 21st century

November 5, 2021

By Simon Pirani. This article first appeared in Jangaran (Awakening), the multilingual humanist journal   

We are now separated from the Russian revolution by more than a century. The Soviet Union, which that revolution brought into existence, collapsed thirty years ago. But the revolution remains an inspiring example of mass popular action that brought about fundamental social and political change.

It is important to retain in our collective memory just how wide and deep that popular movement was.

The revolution began in St Petersburg (then named Petrograd) in the freezing winter of early 1917, two-and-a-half years into the first world war, in which hundreds of thousands of Russians had already died. Women, ground down by long days at factory jobs and ever-longer bread queues, started the revolt.

Women workers demonstrating in 1917. The banner says: “If woman is a slave, there will be no freedom. Long live the equality of women”

Women workers mounted pickets to make their better-paid male counterparts join their protest. Crowds flooded into the centre of St Petersburg to demonstrate. A key turning point was when the police force, unable to hold back the human tide, called in the army. The conscript soldiers – mostly young men from the countryside who didn’t want to fight for the Russian tsar (emperor) – joined the revolt. The three-hundred-year-old empire collapsed overnight.

After this first revolution in February, and the installation of a provisional government of liberal politicians who had opposed tsarism, the movement accelerated, coalescing around the demand for “bread, peace and land”. “Bread” meant solving the food supply crisis; “peace” meant stopping the war now, not later; and “land” meant justice as a hundred million peasants saw it – that land should belong to those who worked it, not to landlords, church or state.

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Ukraine 1917: socialism and nationalism in a world turned upside down

November 1, 2021

Review by Simon Pirani of The Workers’ Movement and the National Question in Ukraine, 1897-1918, by Marko Bojcun (Brill, 2021, 413 pages)

October 1917: the climax of the revolution we have always called “Russian”, but was so much more. In Petrograd, the old empire’s capital, the provisional government that had ruled since February collapsed and Bolshevik-led workers’ and soldiers’ soviets (councils) took control. In Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, power fell to the Tsentral’na Rada (central council) that had since the summer pressed for Ukrainian autonomy within the Russian state.

The Rada, like all the parliamentary institutions emerging in the empire’s ruins, sat atop a furious movement – in the army and the countryside as much as the towns – that was beyond its control. In Ukraine, this movement sought an autonomous national government, but in a soviet, not parliamentary form.

In the workers’ and soldiers’ councils, Marko Bojcun writes,

there grew a powerful tendency, cutting across party lines, to support the formation of a government of Ukraine as long as it was based on the councils locally and nationally, and on the condition it maintained solidarity with the Russian Soviet government. It was not a question of simply adapting the Russian experience, but of attempting to build with indigenous social forces on the basis of the institutions of popular representation that the revolution in Ukraine had so far created (page 206).

The councils had recognised the Rada – but on condition that it “recognised them as the local governments and agreed to its own re-election by them” (page 201). Such a reorganisation had been proposed in the Rada itself in June, at an all-Ukrainian congress of workers’ councils in July and a soldiers’ congress in October.

The left wings of the populist Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (UPSR) and the Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers’ Party had urged remaking the Rada as a soviet body during the summer. Then Ukrainian Bolsheviks – and organisations of mostly Russian-speaking workers dominated by them – joined the call: the council of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies in Kharkiv in September, and in Kyiv, Katerynoslav, Kremenchuk, Kherson and Odessa in November.

Ukrainian soldiers demonstrating in support of national autonomy, March 1917, St Petersburg

The Mykolaiv council resolved to “enter into constructive relations” with the Rada, the Luhansk council to support it on condition it upheld the decisions of the October soviet congress in Petrograd that had declared soviet power. By Bojcun’s count, “at least seven of the ten most populous cities of Ukraine” favoured sovietising the Rada – implying overwhelming support, since Russian and Jewish populations, who might have been more likely to question national autonomy, were concentrated in the larger cities.

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Why “net zero” is a fraud: science, technology and politics

September 29, 2021

Here’s a talk by Simon Pirani – “net zero” is a fraud: science, technology and politics – given at an on-line session earlier this month, hosted by the COP View group. That’s the first 20 minutes of the video; then comes a talk by Jonathan Fuller on media coverage of climate issues.

More to read on “net zero”

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Social and ecological crisis: it’s about living differently

September 21, 2021

Review by Simon Pirani of The Imperial Mode of Living: everyday life and the ecological crisis of capitalism (Verso, 2021), by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen

Download this book review as a PDF

Imagine, if you will, a British trade union branch that votes to oppose expansion of the local airport. After their meeting, some members head for the pub.

“That was a good decision. It’s not working class people flying in those planes”, says Tom.

“But working class people do fly”, says Richard. “My neighbour is a working class person. He goes to Portugal twice a year with his whole family. And he drives a BMW. We’ll never protect the environment if people like that don’t wake up.”

Harriet chips in. “Your neighbour is an exception. Most working class people will be lucky to get one holiday abroad during the year. And we’ll never win them to the cause of transition away from fossil fuels by asking them to make personal sacrifices. Why should they?”

For crying out loud, comrades. You haven’t even got the beer in yet, and you’re recycling stereotypes. You’re talking about individuals “waking up”, or about whether “we” (who?!) will ask them to sacrifice.  

Earth Day 1970: a student smells a magnolia through a gas mask in New York. Were the 1970s a missed opportunity?

At this point in the conversation – and believe me, I have sat through similar ones – I would be hoping for someone to remind us that it just isn’t that simple, to talk about the social and economic structures that underlie consumption … and to suggest that maybe it’s “our” thinking that needs to shift, towards better understanding these structures and the way they shape workers’ lives in rich countries.

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Defining the “imperial mode of living”

September 21, 2021

This excerpt is reproduced with thanks from The Imperial Mode of Living by Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen. Translation by Zachary Murphy King. It goes with a People & Nature review, here.

Defining the concept

The core idea of the concept is that everyday life in the capitalist centres is essentially made possible by shaping social relations and society–nature relations elsewhere, i.e. by means of (in principle) unlimited access to labour power, natural resources and sinks – ecosystems (such as rainforests and oceans in the case of CO2) that absorb more of a particular substance than they emit into their environment – on a global scale.[1]

The capitalist centres fundamentally depend on the the way in which societies elsewhere and their relation to nature are organised so that the transfer of the products of (often cheap) labour and elements of nature from the global South to the economies of the global North is guaranteed. Conversely, the imperial mode of living in the global North structures societies in other places in a decisively hierarchical way. We choose the vague expression “elsewhere” quite consciously. Many necessary everyday items are tied to a range of activities that are invisible during their purchase, consumption and use: the origin of raw materials used in household appliances, medical devices or transport; water and energy infrastructures; the working conditions under which these materials are extracted or textiles and food are produced; and the expenditure of energy required for these. “Cultural products”, such as print or digital media, are also part of this invisible economy.

The invisibility of the social and ecological conditions is precisely what enables us to experience the buying and use of these products as a natural given. “Food from nowhere” is what the agrarian sociologist Philip McMichael has called this strategy of obscuring the origins and production of foodstuffs, in which the spatio–temporal unlimited availability of the latter is normalised.[2] Examples include grapes from Chile offered in northern cafeterias in winter, tomatoes grown and picked by undocumented migrant workers in California for the North American market or by illegalised workers in Andalusia for the Northern European market, and shrimps for the global North that are farmed by destroying Thai or Ecuadorian mangrove forests. But it also includes the disastrous environmental conditions and cheap labour power of Romanian workers in German meat factories that ensure cheap meat in Germany and neighbouring countries.

Picking tomatoes in Mozambique. Photo by Bram Berkelmans / Wikimedia commons

The concept of the “imperial mode of living” points towards the norms of production, distribution and consumption built into the political, economic and cultural structures of everyday life for the populations of the global North.[3] And it works, increasingly, in the countries with “emerging economies” of the global South, as well. However, we mean not only material practices but also, and especially, the structural conditions and guiding social principles and discourses that make these practices possible. To put it pointedly: the standards of a “good” and “proper” life, which often consists of the imperial mode of living, are shaped by everyday life, even when they are a part of comprehensive societal relations, and especially of material and social infrastructures.[4]

In this respect, our concept of a “mode of living” stands in the tradition of Antonio Gramsci and regulation theory, as we assume that a contradictory social form such as capitalism can only reproduce itself if it is embedded in everyday practices and common sense, thereby becoming, so to speak, “natural”. With the adjective “imperial” we want to emphasise – now moving beyond Gramsci – the expanding global and ecological dimensions of this mode of living (again, also within the countries of the global North).

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Titanium mining in South Africa: communities face a “travesty of justice”

September 13, 2021

A guest post by HALI HEALY

A court in South Africa has found five men not guilty of an armed assault on people in a community that is resisting a titanium mining project.

The verdict, at the Mbizana District Court in the Eastern Cape on 31 August, was denounced as a “travesty of justice” by the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), which unites communities on the Wild Coast against open-cast mining.

The five men had been charged with attempted murder, assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, pointing and shooting of firearms, and theft, in the “Christmas shootings” case. The victims, a group of male residents of Mdatya village, were attacked on a December evening in 2015 as they walked home from a ceremony.

The attack was the culmination of a week-long campaign of intimidation, aimed at community members who since April 2015 had coordinated a blockade, preventing access by consultants trying to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment for the Xolobeni mineral sands project, which wants to mine a 22 kilometre stretch of the coast.

A petition being handed to Mbizana Court 13 January 2020, demanding an end to postponements of the “Christmas Shootings” case. Photo from Amadiba Crisis Committee facebook page

Given the stakes, tensions in the area have simmered for years. Episodes of violence are frequent, and opponents of the Xolobeni project often become victims of intimidation and assault. But most incidents go unreported out of fear of retribution, and the police are not trusted.

In 2016, ACC chairperson Sikhosiphi Bazooka Radebe was assassinated. Senior officers in the South African Police Service were accused of “intentionally impeding” the investigation.

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