Two enemies, one fight: climate disaster and frightful energy bills

May 16, 2022

Two clouds darken the sky. A close-up one: gas and electricity bills have shot up since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and millions of families are struggling to pay. And a bigger, darker, higher one: the climate disaster, and politicians’ refusal to tackle it.

Ultimately, both these threats have a single cause: fossil fuels and the systems of wealth and power that depend on them. We need social movements to link the fight to protect families from unaffordable bills with the fight to move beyond fossil fuels, and in that way turn back global warming.

Here I suggest ways to develop such a movement in the UK, starting by demanding action on home heating.

Two linked crises

Since the government lifted the price cap on energy bills on 1 April, the average energy bill for 18 million households on standard tariffs rose to £1971 per year, from £1277. Another 4.5 million households on pre-payment schemes are paying an average of £2017 per year. And in October, bills could well rise above £3000.

There are now 6.3 million UK households (including 2.5 million with children) in fuel poverty, meaning that they are unable to heat their home to an adequate temperature. The End Fuel Poverty Coalition says that could rise to 8.5 million by the end of this year.

The main fuels for UK homes are gas, and electricity produced from gas and nuclear power. Retail prices have been driven up by a rise in gas, oil and coal prices on world markets – which started rising last year, as economies recovered from the pandemic, but shot upwards faster from March, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The war, and sanctions on Russia by western powers, could keep fossil fuel prices high for years. They have also driven global food prices upwards. This is the biggest bout of inflation worldwide since the 1970s.

Read the rest of this entry »

Climate mitigation and adaptation will require incremental energy from renewables

February 17, 2022

As part of a discussion about energy and social justice, DAVID SCHWARTZMAN responds to points made by Larry Lohmann in his article The class struggle inside energy, also published today. And you can read the whole discussion, which started on People & Nature last year, in a free pamphlet, Roads to an Energy Commons, downloadable here.

On the use of metaphor, I said in my post Thermodynamics: a metaphor or a science?, that Larry is now responding to:

While entropy as a metaphor has its positive value, in Lohmann’s case highlighting the destruction accompanying the creation of renewable energy supplies, and likewise for Robert Biel’s The Entropy of Capitalism (2011), not going beyond this metaphor with an analysis relying on the science of thermodynamics will not make clear the critical implications of the second law to a renewable energy transition.

Metals recycling is part of the answer

Yes, of course I recognize the essential role of metaphors in the generation of scientific theories, as well as their use in more general discourse (for another example see the section “Other Uses of Entropy”  in my 2009 paper “Ecosocialism or Ecocatastrophe?”).  

I am puzzled by Larry’s claim that I defended by implication an unrestrained capital-driven renewable energy transition.  I clearly advocated that this energy transition should be informed by an ecosocialist agenda, not relying on “green” capital to deliver a just process, rather strongly supporting the goals of decommodification and a global solar commons.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fossil fuel systems and how to change them

January 20, 2022

An on-line talk (35 minutes) by Simon Pirani, hosted by Endgames / RS21, on 17 January 2022.

“Most politicians pretend that by (i) substituting renewable electricity generation for coal- and gas-fired generation, (ii) introducing technofixes such as electric cars, and (iii) ‘reducing consumption’ by final users (a little), they are doing something about climate change. These are delusions. To combat delusions, and work out which technologies are compatible with tackling climate change and social injustice, society as a whole needs to develop its understanding of these technological systems and of alternatives.” (The slides for the talk are here.)


Liverpool: Stop the electronic war fair

August 13, 2021

RITCHIE HUNTER writes about Liverpool City Council and the electronic arms fair due to take place at the Exhibition Centre in Liverpool in October

Slave-branding in England, 1853. Photo from wikimedia commons / New York Public Library

During the slave trade, Liverpool Council spent thousands of pounds fighting the abolition movement and conferred the freedom of the borough on those who were the ‘spin doctors’ of the day. 

This was in a city where thumbscrews, branding irons, and fetters for use on slaves, with devices for opening their mouths when they refused to eat, could all be seen for sale in ships chandlers’ windows.

Fast forward to today and Liverpool City Council have decided not to cancel the arms fair planned for October, even though they own the venue.

This is the resolution passed by the Council on 21 July 2021:

Read the rest of this entry »

Luddism for the age of robotics

May 5, 2021

Review by Simon Pirani of Breaking Things At Work: the Luddites were right about why you hate your job, by Gavin Mueller (Verso, 2021)

Are the technologies developed by giant capitalist corporations – Walmart’s logistics or Elon Musk’s driverless cars – the foundation on which a post-capitalist society can be built? No way, argues Gavin Mueller.

He challenges “Marxist theoreticians” who see “the capitalist development of technology as the means for creating both abundance and leisure”, to be “realised once the masses finally [take] the reins of government and industry” (page 127).

Against these technocratic illusions, Mueller proposes “a decelerationist politics: of slowing down change, undermining technological progress, and limiting capital’s rapacity, while developing organisation and cultivating militancy”.

Alfa Romeo strikers march in January 1972. The placard reads “the Working Class Goes to Heaven”. From Libcom

Allowing Walmart or Amazon to “swallow the globe” would entrench “exploitative models of production and distribution”, and channel resources to reactionary billionaires, he writes:

Letting technology take its course will lead not to egalitarian outcomes, but authoritarian ones, as the ultra-wealthy expend their resources on shielding themselves from any accountability to the rest of us: postapocalyptic bunkers, militarised yachts, private islands and even escapes to outer space (page 128.)

Given the persistence – in trade union hierarchies and even among leftist writers – of technocratic dogma (fantasies about electric cars or geoengineering, for example), Mueller’s book is very welcome.

He grounds his “decelerationism” not only in texts, but in workers’ struggles to confront, confound or control technologies in the workplace – starting with the Luddites in early 19th century England, who smashed machines that were used by employers to cut pay and tighten labour discipline.   

Read the rest of this entry »

The hydrogen hoax

December 18, 2020

“Low carbon?” Its emissions are more than twice the UK economy’s

All of a sudden, hydrogen is (supposedly) a weapon to fight global warming. Governments are bigging it up in their “net zero” plans; oil companies say they are investing in it; union leaders say it will create jobs.

But no-one talks about the really existing hydrogen industry, that each year produces about 70 million tonnes of pure hydrogen, and another 45 million tonnes of hydrogen in other chemical products … and pours 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Yes, you read that right. 830 million tonnes of CO2 per year. 2% of total global total greenhouse gas emissions. Equal to about four-fifths of the emissions from aviation; more than twice the entire UK economy’s emissions. (See Endnote 1 about the numbers.)

Of that 115 million tonnes of hydrogen output, more than 99% is “grey” hydrogen – which means it is extracted from natural gas, coal or oil, and the carbon dioxide left over ends up in the air.

It’s fashionable to talk about “blue” hydrogen (made from fossil fuels, but with the carbon captured and stored, instead of being emitted) and “green” hydrogen (produced by electrolysis of water, using gigantic quantities of electricity). But these techniques are used only in a tiny handful of businesses. “Grey” hydrogen is completely dominant.

Companies and governments are promising to expand “blue” and “green” hydrogen production. They claim it will replace natural gas to heat people’s homes, and petrol for cars, and that it will cut carbon emissions.

But before expanding hydrogen production, what about decarbonising existing output?

That would be a big cut in the world’s carbon emissions. Nearly as big a cut as if aviation stopped. More than twice as big a cut as if the UK went to zero.

It would also mean a big shake-up of some of the world’s most polluting industries – oil refining and petrochemicals production – where the hydrogen is produced and used.

There is little mention of hydrogen’s gigantic carbon footprint in the glossy reports, press releases and “net zero” policies of the companies that produce it. But a report Read the rest of this entry »


Hydrogen for homes is a terrible idea. We should fight it

October 30, 2020

A plan to pipe hydrogen, instead of natural gas, to millions of UK households is being pushed hard by the fossil fuel industry. It sounds “green” – but could wreck efforts to make homes truly zero carbon, using insulation and electric heat pumps.

Oil and gas companies support switching the gas grid to hydrogen, as a survival option in case of decarbonisation, as hydrogen is usually fabricated from gas.

But the hydrogen strategy cuts across the approach recommended for years by housing

The gas grid: better to replace it with heat pumps. Photo by Ran-Allen / Creative Commons

policy wonks and architects: to use insulation to slash the amount of heat needed, and install electric pumps (which work like fridges in reverse).

Leeds Trades Union Council (TUC) last month launched a campaign in favour of retrofitting homes with high-quality insulation and heat pumps.

It’s an issue many people can unite around – those fighting for better housing and tenants’ rights, campaigners against fuel poverty, trades unionists fighting building industry cuts, and all of us who want to tackle climate change.

And there’s a choice to be made we cannot avoid.

If the gas grid is switched to hydrogen, that will block for good the electrification-and insulation approach, that heats homes better, more cheaply, with technology that we know works, and is truly zero-carbon. We cannot have it both ways.

We will be locked into extra dependency on fossil fuels, instead of speeding the shift away from them.

That gas-to-hydrogen switch is being planned in north-east England by Northern Gas Networks (NGN): its H21 project would convert 3.7 million homes and businesses by Read the rest of this entry »


Leeds trades unionists: zero-carbon homes can help tackle climate change

September 2, 2020

Leeds Trades Union Council has issued a call for large-scale investment to insulate homes and install electric heat pumps, to cut carbon emissions and help tackle global warming.

Such a drive to retrofit and electrify homes would be an alternative to a multi-billion-pound scheme, supported by oil and gas companies, to turn the gas network over to hydrogen.

That scheme, Northern Gas Networks’ H21 project, could tie up billions of pounds of

Thermal imaging shows heat escaping from a house without insulation (right). From the Open Eco Homes web site

government money in risky carbon capture and storage technology, which is not proven to work at the scale required – but would help to prolong the oil and gas industry’s life by decades.

This is a test for social and labour movements all over the UK.

The demand for retrofitting and electrification should be taken up, and fossil-fuel-linked technofixes rejected. Otherwise, talk of “climate and ecological emergency” is empty words.

“Our most important and urgent action is to halt the flow of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere”, says a draft document that the Leeds TUC published last week. “This means radical changes to the way we use energy for work, travel and to heat our homes.”

In setting out a plan for Leeds, the TUC there hopes to “offer a model that will be taken up by other towns, cities and regions”, where it can form the basis for collaboration between local authorities, and a focus for trade unions and community campaigners.

The case for super-insulation and heat pumps

“There can be no realistic pathway to zero carbon which relies solely on changes in the way we produce energy”, says the TUC document. “Continuing to extract and burn carbon- Read the rest of this entry »


Public health: workers and communities organise, Tory ministers undermine

May 29, 2020

In Downing Street, the prime minister has trashed the UK public health strategy, with his repulsive defence of his senior adviser making up his own rules. Elsewhere, health workers, teachers and communities are organising to protect people from the coronavirus more effectively. Here PHIL EDWARDS, Joint Secretary of Newham Save Our NHS, writing in a personal capacity, reflects on how the virus is changing the politics of health.

The Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz, has announced that along with the London boroughs of Camden, Barnet and Hackney, our borough will be part of a local test and track (or trace) initiative.

The government in turn announced that local areas were to submit plans for carrying out local test track initiatives across the country. The Newham initiative, on 22 May, was the result of

Newham Save Our NHS on a national demonstration against cuts, July 2018

weeks of pressure nationally from public health experts, local authorities, medical practitioners, and of campaigns like our own.

This came days after the release of evidence that the national test and track scheme launched by the health secretary Matt Hancock’s friends in Serco, the private contractor, and recruitment agencies sub-contracted to contact people using the government-approved mobile app, was collapsing in disarray.

As the Newham Health and Wellbeing Board met this week, to respond to questions on the local test trace scheme from local residents, it was pointed out that the government would finally launch its app this week after several false starts.

We have to approach this “victory” with some careful qualifications. It is not yet clear what the relationship is between these “local” tests and the national effort run by Serco. The scheme in Sheffield (see “Testing times” below) is run and operated by local health professionals. In Read the rest of this entry »


Coronavirus: Doctors advise. The government does not listen

March 17, 2020

The UK government yesterday announced stronger “social distancing” measures to combat coronavirus – but its overall strategy is still unclear to medical specialists.

They have called for more transparency, as well as speedier implementation of “social distancing” and testing.

Until the end of last week, officials were suggesting that the government’s strategy aimed to allow the virus to spread through healthy sections of the population in order to build up “herd

China: infection rates are now falling

immunity”. This was roundly denounced by epidemiologists – and on Sunday that produced some backpedalling by Matthew Hancock, the health secretary.

But still, today, the logic is opaque. Scientists’ requests to see the government’s data have fallen on deaf ears. And the UK’s “social distancing” measures are still far behind the Scottish and Irish governments, sports governing bodies and most of Europe.

Here I will try to summarise the way the rift between doctors and the government has deepened since I posted about it on Friday. I have no medical training; I am just trying to clarify what is going on.

Along with many thousands of others, I have joined a local Coronavirus mutual aid group – and to take matters into our own hands effectively, we need accurate information. If you think I have got something wrong, please say so in the comments.

■ The government is not sharing information with the country’s epidemiologists and other specialists.

This was the main point made in a letter to the Times on Saturday by six senior epidemiologists and public health specialists, and supported by 630 others and counting. The UK’s response to Read the rest of this entry »


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