Sign warning drivers that they are about to enter the Ultra Low Emission Zone and Congestion Charging Zone Sign warning drivers that they are about to enter the Ultra Low Emission Zone and Congestion Charging Zone. Photo: David Hawgood / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Britain’s bankrupt political consensus protects fossil-fuel profits, while cheaper renewable energy and public transport offer the left a clear platform, argues Kevin Crane

Even by the standards of recent years, the summer of 2023 has been plagued by near-constant reminders of the impact that climate change is having on our world, with terrible firestorms wreaking death and destruction across almost all continents, and turning traditional tourist idylls into nightmarish scenes of tragedy. All of which forms a superbly grotesque backdrop for Britain’s rotten political system to lurch in completely the wrong way on fossil-fuel policy.

The stories that have been making the headlines are bad enough: Rishi Sunak has seized on the Tories’ narrow win in Boris Johnson’s former seat by interpreting the controversy over the ‘Ultra Low Emissions Zone’ (ULEZ) as perfect cover to suddenly announce that he is going to issue oil and gas exploration and drilling licenses to ‘max out’ North Sea fossil-fuel output. Keir Starmer has, of course, said that a Labour government will ‘honour’ any such licenses, giving Britain a truly awful domestic consensus on reneging on commitments to reduce fossil-fuel output. We have not yet seen much of a backlash to this announcement, either at home or abroad, though the arrival of one does seem likely. The thing is that these announcements are not the whole of the story: the media has essentially not registered potentially more serious news that is being produced by significant climate-research organisations.

Last year, with considerable reluctance, the Tories agreed to place the so-called ‘windfall tax’ on companies such as BP and Shell, as their profits soared to new heights, while energy and heating bills for ordinary people leapt up in price, becoming key drivers for the cost-of-living crisis. The oil and gas companies have, of course, complained loudly that this will harm investment, with the distinct threat that this will push people’s bills up even further. A report has come from Corporate Watch and Queen Mary University’s Centre for Climate Change and Climate Justice, exposing this as total nonsense.

Prior to the windfall tax, BP and Shell had barely been paying taxes at all since 2015, since they were using a variety of expense claims to avoid it. Shell is so effective at this that it paid negative tax in 2021. What the new report shows is that during this long period of pleading poverty, both businesses have been funnelling around £131 billion to shareholders. So, while claiming millions of pounds in tax breaks (that is to say, your money), both businesses have been lavishing even larger sums upon themselves, while also falsely claiming to be investing in renewable energy. Put simply, BP and Shell’s shareholders are looting money out of the fossil-fuel sector as the sun sets upon it. That money is desperately needed to develop alternatives. To quote a co-author of the report:

‘The biggest shareholders in BP and Shell have tripled their earning power since the Paris Agreement. Media outlets need to stop giving column inches to their greenwash, because if there was ever any belief that they were making positive change for the climate, this report thoroughly dispels that.’

Fossil fuels cost more

So far, so bad. Is there any more bad news? Unfortunately, there is, and this comes from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU). Having taken a look at British government electricity policy, they have come to the startling conclusion that Tory policies are helping to keep electricity prices artificially high, through excessively restrictive rules around developing more offshore wind farms.

The ECIU has concluded that if the government had greenlit more windfarms in recent years, an additional five gigawatts of electricity could have been generated, and it would have been significantly cheaper than the electricity produced from gas power. This is to say nothing of the gains that could be made if onshore wind farms, the very cheapest means to produce electricity, were not effectively banned in England.

The British state’s energy policy makes rational sense from only one perspective: it is seeking to maximise profitability for private energy companies, at the direct expense of both the public and the environment. Giants like BP and Shell know perfectly well that their business model will end at some point in the future … well, either that or life on Earth might be so destructively impacted by climate change that it’s no longer relevant. Their focus is on acquiring as much wealth as they can while they still can. Their power and influence over politics means that our neoliberal politicians will help rather than hinder them in this. Privately owned and operated fossil fuels are, fundamentally, incompatible with the need to shift to net zero.

If Sunak is anything to go by, as the Tories descend further and further into deep political crisis due to the worsening economy, they will increasingly flirt more and more with climate-change denial and a pseudo-populist opposition to environmentalism. The ULEZ debacle in London seems to be setting the model: from 29 August, Sadiq Khan has imposed a regressive, individual charge on the most polluting vehicles driving through the city. The charge only actually effects about one in ten cars or vans, but with a fairly inadequate scrappage scheme, the high cost of electric vehicles and a focus on individual payment and cost, it is a classically failed piece of liberal environmentalism.

ULEZ has been a gift to reactionary agitators, who are using its perceived injustices to lobby against low-traffic zones and even speed limits. The truth is, of course, that the biggest long-term threat to most people being able to get around by car is not being asked to pay a road toll, and certainly not being instructed to drive at 20mph in a residential street. The long-term fact is that petrol and diesel are trending upwards in price and will continue to do so as we edge nearer and nearer to the fossil-fuel economy reaching its end.

We could, and can, have an actual left response to these issues. The reason why so many people are so car dependent in a place like Uxbridge is because public transport there isn’t sufficient, particularly after a decade or more of serious cuts to the regularity and density of bus routes. Liberal environmentalist arguments that you could walk, or cycle instead are hopelessly inadequate. People already use free transport as much as they possibly can, if they didn’t, petrol prices wouldn’t be so high. But bus workers have been fighting back against cuts, and managed to at least moderate some last year, in alliance with passenger groups. The real way forward should be very obvious; a socialist solution is to demand that public transport services enable people not to bother with cars. If anyone wants to ask where the money for that should come from, I can think of at least £131 billion that has been severely misallocated and that we should be getting back.

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