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.

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The ‘energy security’ strategy that promises more oil and gas

May 16, 2022

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.

Broadly, the strategy, published last month, fails in four ways:

Firstly, the strategy provides insufficient support for the development of renewable energy, given the urgency of the climate and energy crisis.

XR Scientists demonstrate at the Shell headquarters in London, 6 April

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,[1] 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.

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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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Jet Zero and the politics of the technofix

September 9, 2021

An investigation by GARETH DALE and JOSH MOOS of the UK government’s “Jet Zero” policy for aviation. It first appeared in the Ecologist, and is republished here with thanks  

In the brave new geography of heat domes, torrential floods and woodland infernos, old-style climate denialism is as good as dead. From the ashes, we see its resurrection in new, sustainable-branded forms.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the UK government’s Jet Zero consultation, due to conclude this month. The wager is that aviation can be massively expanded even as its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions taper to zero.

In researching this essay, we read the government’s Jet Zero documents and interviewed aviation industry insiders and spokespeople. We found that of the three key terms – jet, zero, and consultation – two are misleading to the point of outright deception.

What struck us first is the scope of the so-called consultation that informed the Jet Zero documents. It has centred on a wilfully naïve borrowing of promises from the aviation sector, in particular the industry organisation Sustainable Aviation, mediated through government-industry partnership bodies.

A protest against the expansion of Leipzig Halle Cargo Airport in Germany, by campaigners for action on climate change. Photo from Stay Grounded

Largely frozen out are climate scientists and the environmental groups and NGOs that seek to protect the interests of Earth and its inhabitants. The government has even ignored a key recommendation of its own advisory body, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), that continued expansion of the aviation industry is, under all scenarios of technological advance, incompatible with its 2050 net zero target.

The aviation industry’s principal goal, its own continued growth, has been adopted by the government as its own. Aviation expansion is fundamental to Britain’s future, declared the Aviation minister, Liz Sugg, in the 2018 report on The Future of UK Aviation. Airport expansion, stated a follow-up report in 2020, is indispensable to the government’s agenda of “global connectivity.”

The same document projects that by 2050, passenger miles flown will be twice the 2017 figure and six times the 1990 figure, while aviation GHG emissions in the period from 2017 to 2050 will remain constant.

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