CLICK HERE TO LISTEN. On one hand climate scientists point out that the use of methane gas must be phased out; on the other, millions of people are suffering from rising gas prices. How does Russia’s war on Ukraine, and Germany’s suspension of the NordStream 2 pipeline from Russia, change this terrain? And is it possible to transition away from gas without an explosion in energy poverty – or a planned decrease in energy use? Simon Pirani (who writes this blog) and Oliver Bugge Hunt, who is researching the politics of pipelines at the University of Copenhagen, talked about this on an Earthcare fieldcast. 25 May 2022. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN.
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.
In this guest post, PETER SOMERVILLE examines the UK government’s “energy security strategy”
The UK government’s energy security strategy avoids bold measures to decarbonise the economy. Its claimed aims are to “build a British energy system that is much more self-sufficient” (page 6), and specifically to “reduce our dependence on imported oil and gas” (page 5) – but it will not even do that effectively, either.
Firstly, the strategy provides insufficient support for the development of renewable energy, given the urgency of the climate and energy crisis.
In comparison, its support for so-called “low carbon” development looks both disproportionate and less certain of achieving the immediate progress that is now required. Taken together with its support for new gas projects, this is difficult to explain except in terms of the power of the nuclear and fossil fuel lobbies, which effectively remains unchallenged. The strategy doesn’t even begin to get to grips with nature-based solutions.
Secondly, the strategy has very little to say about reducing energy demand, e.g. from retrofitting, by reducing car use, by stopping airport expansion, and so on. It doesn’t mention increasing carbon tax on industry as one means to encourage a shift towards using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.
Even that would not be enough, however. More radical ways forward need to be considered, such as new forms of public and community ownership; rapid, binding targets for phasing down and phasing out fossil fuels, cap and share schemes, and much more.
Energy rationing may sound drastic but it would be a clear way forward and may well become necessary in time. In the meantime, a windfall tax on the big energy companies and a wealth tax would be useful for meeting people’s immediate needs.
Thirdly, the strategy has nothing to say about how the impending climate crisis will affect energy security, e.g. droughts and floods affecting energy generation and supply.
This article by ROB CALLENDER of Jubilee Climate has been discussed widely among Extinction Rebellion (XR) members. It starts with a message responding to a facebook post by Roger Hallam, one of the founders of XR. It is published here with Rob’s permission. Answers to the question at the end – “what do you think?” – are welcome.
Dear Roger, Just stop using white power narratives and white power tactics with a white power vision of how to tackle a crisis that was made by white power. It will fail. Again. We can’t afford to keep failing. It is likely to make things worse for many many people, if not for you, and that is horrifying to have on your hands. Yes, your hands. We need to do the hard work. You’re distracting and dividing people. Hang up your ego and get involved. Love, Rob
WHITE POWER FORGETS
Many within environmental movements like Extinction Rebellion are unconscious of how white power has characterised these movements’ tactics and strategies. It is why we are failing, and why we will continue to fail unless we learn and evolve.
If oil is stopped, then what? The climate crisis will not have gone away. We are struggling against a monstrous hydra with many many vicious heads, all destroying ecosystems and the liveable climate. We need to strike at the root, the heart of the monster, not at one single element. Greenpeace has had many campaigns, some daring and with success. But Greenpeace is now 50 years old. We don’t have 50 more years. After oil, then what?
After every action, movement and rebellion, some fill the pause with strategising. Every time a single conversation that dominates others has gone something like this: “we haven’t got the narrative right, it’s not appealing to ‘the people’, because we’re using leftist jargon and talking about ‘justice’. We need to have a vision of what the future will look like for ordinary people – a nation they can buy into and want to build – it needs a sense of let’s all come together now to fix the climate for our children and grandchildren”. Sound good?
This is white power. People shaped by white power live in a loop in which they believe that their vision, this time, must succeed, if only everyone got behind it. Their conviction comes from the privileged lived experience of whiteness which brings them closer to the establishment and a reformist mindset (despite what they say and the vehemence of the tactics they employ) and farther from communities outside of the establishment. The powerful conviction coming from the individual person creates obliviousness, forgetfulness – amnesia.
Sarah, a member of Extinction Rebellion Greenwich, was found guilty in court last week of offences under Section 14 of the Public Order Act. This came as a result of her arrest during XR’s rebellion in August last year. XR blocked a road junction in London with a big pink table, with an open invitation for all to “come to the table” for crisis talks on action to prevent climate breakdown. This is the mitigating statement Sarah read out in court.
In the statement of my arresting officer there is a hysterical-sounding quote from me about not wanting the world to burn. At the time of my arrest, there were huge wildfires burning out of control in Algeria, France, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Canada.
In the US there were over 100 fires burning simultaneously, including the Dixie fire – the second largest ever recorded in the notoriously fire-prone state of California. Firefighters and park rangers were battling to save giant redwoods that had stood for over 2000 years. The most extensive fires on record were sweeping across Siberia.
The images of these fires were all I could think about, as the police walked alongst the protestors telling us we’d “made our point” and were being “too disruptive”.
People all over the world were losing their livelihoods, homes and lives. Wildlife was being decimated. Ecosystems were being destroyed. In central London, a few hundred protestors were blocking a junction to call on our government to take action to tackle climate breakdown – and this is the disruption we can’t accept.
I didn’t want to be arrested. I don’t want a criminal record. I’m worried about the my job, which is extremely important to me. I’ve worked in safeguarding for the last 16 years, trying to protect children at risk of harm in order to ensure take they have a future to look forward to.
But that will all be for nothing, because none of our children will have a future if we as a species don’t do something to change the trajectory we’re on. There has never been a bigger safeguarding risk than climate breakdown.
The sale came after the Joe Biden administration’s moratorium on new drilling was overturned in the courts. Earthjustice said the sale was a “climate bombshell”: if all that production goes ahead, an extra 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere.
On the plus side, the UK’s biggest new oil project, Cambo, suffered a blow, as Shell pulled out, after forceful mobilisation by climate campaigners. Siccar Point Energy, which owns 70% of the project, then said it is pausing work.
Cambo could still go ahead, though, and if it does, that will be thanks in part to the UK’s lavish tax breaks for North Sea producers. Siccar Point says the project is “not forecasted to pay taxes for many years”.
The company-friendly tax regime means that in 2020 the treasury collected a paltry £255 million from oil and gas producers, while handing rebates of £39 million to BP and £110 million to Shell.
These tax breaks are just one part of a multi-billion-dollar mountain of subsidies for fossil fuel producers from rich countries’ governments.
And those subsidies form the background to COP26’s failure to tackle global heating, and to the decisions made there, which Climate Action Tracker estimates will lead to 2.1-2.7 degrees of warming, far above the 1.5 degree target.
Larry Lohmann’s comments, “And if energy itself is unjust?”, about my article on energy commodification, are really welcome. There is much we agree on: that we have to question whether there is, was or could be such a thing as “energy” that was not commodified and is therefore somehow OK; that the relationship of thermodynamic energy and labour is somehow at the bottom of all this; and that there is much wrong with the way issues such as “energy democracy” and “energy justice” are framed on the “left”.
(Actually I don’t like the term “left”, either, (a) because it obscures the fact that, whatever it might be, it certainly isn’t the motive force of history in the way many of its adherents think, and (b) because it implies that I am part of some entity that doesn’t include most working people, but does include people who think Putin is doing fine in Ukraine and Bashar al-Assad is an “anti imperialist” hero. But I digress.)
One way to take our discussion forward is to focus on four parts of it, where we don’t see things in the same way, or haven’t understood each other. Here goes.
1. How do we define “energy”?
When I read Larry’s comments, I looked back at the introduction to my book Burning Up, where I first used the definition of energy he is questioning. In the introduction, I proposed to use the word “energy” in a way that does not include human labour, as “work done by physical or chemical resources, mobilised by people for that purpose”.
Part of the reason I went for this approach was to try to deal with an issue that Larry raises, that thermodynamic energy and capitalist labour (I’d say, labour under capitalism) are not the same, can not substitute for each other, and are not additive or mergeable as capital would have us think. I would have had to write the book very differently if I wanted not to use the word “energy” at all, or not to use other words, such as “democracy” and “socialism”, that can be inscribed with different, indeed opposite, meanings by people who use them.
It could be said that my definition missed out the way that the concept of “energy” has been imbued with meanings by the social process during which it was first used, i.e. the work of physicists, and the philosophers, economists and others whose work influenced them, at the heart of 19th century British empire-building. And that process has not stood still: the way that the term has been used in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century has added further layers, in particular in terms of “energy” as an extractivist process embedded in imperialist and neo-imperialist relationships. And Larry has said a great deal about the role of “energy” in the battles between capital and labour.
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.
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.
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.
In the run-up to the United Nations climate change conference (COP26) in the UK in November — the 26th session of the talks that were launched in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 — the governments of the world’s richest countries are making ever-louder claims that they are effectively confronting global warming.
Nothing could be more dangerous than for social, labour and environmental movements to take this rhetoric at face value and assume that political leaders have the situation under control.
There are three huge falsehoods running through these leaders’ narratives: that rich nations are supporting their poorer counterparts; that “net zero” targets will do what is needed; and that technology-focused “green growth” is the way to decarbonize.
First, wealthier countries claim to be supporting poorer nations — which are contributing least to global warming, and suffering most from its effects — to make the transition away from fossil fuels.
But at the G7 summit in June, the rich countries again failed to keep their own promise, made more than a decade ago, to provide $100 billion per year in climate finance for developing countries. Of the $60 billion per year they have actually come up with, more than half is bogus: analysis by Oxfam has shown that it is mostly loans and non-concessional finance, and that the amounts are often overstated.
Compare this degrading treatment of the global south with the mobilisation of many hundreds of billions for the post-pandemic recovery. Of $657 billion (public money alone) pledged by G20 nations to energy-producing or energy-consuming projects, $296 billion supports fossil fuels, nearly a third greater than the amount supporting clean energy ($228 billion).
Meanwhile, the impacts of climate change are magnified by poverty. This year’s floods, wildfires and record temperatures in Europe and north America have been frightful enough. The same phenomena cause far greater devastation outside the global north.
In 2020, “very extensive” flooding caused deaths, significant displacement of populations and further impacts from disease in 16 African countries, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) annual climate report recorded. India, China and parts of Southeast Asia suffered from record-breaking rainfall and flooding, too.
Climate and weather events had “major and diverse impacts on population movements, and on the vulnerability of people on the move,” the WMO reported. Cyclone Amphan displaced 2.5 million people in India and Bangladesh last May. Many could return soon, but 2.8 million homes were damaged, leading to prolonged displacement. Severe storms in Mozambique piled on dangers for tens of thousands of people displaced by the previous year’s floods and who had not been able to return home.
The political leaders’ second fiction is their pledge to attain “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (the U.S., U.K. and Europe) or 2060 (China).