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Elaine Graham Leigh weighs up the solutions and non-solutions on offer to deal with the climate emergency.

July 2021 was the hottest month globally on record; very possibly the hottest month in human history. The climate crisis is well and truly upon us. There is no shortage of proposals to deal with this, from freezing leftover bread to overthrowing the capitalist system, but how do we distinguish the useful demands from the mere gestures?

This guide to the different solutions, and non-solutions, to the climate crisis tries to categorise the various proposals on offer to steer a path through the potential confusion.

Climate deniers

The first division is, of course, between those of us who recognise that anthropogenic climate change is happening and those who don’t. The climate denier position has become less evident recently, as it has become clear that the climate crisis is a present reality not just a future possibility, but it is still important to acknowledge the existence of climate-change denial.

This doesn’t mean that we should spend time on people who are still trying to refute the irrefutable. Anyone still maintaining that there is any doubt about the climate crisis is either delusional or acting as a mouthpiece for Big Oil. Or both. There are, however, other, more subtle forms of climate-crisis denial, which may appear to accept the reality of the situation but find objections to any possible action in response.

Those who take the ‘what about China’ position, arguing that anything we do is pointless because Chinese emissions will cancel out our efforts, can reasonably be seen as indulging in a form of denial. The Sun’s editorial question in June 2021 ‘how will Sun readers ever afford £50,000 per household?’ to get to net zero by 2050 is another kind, implying that action on the climate crisis is unaffordable (and attempting to build a populist anti-climate action position while they’re at it). Arguably, kicking the can down the round to 2050 is another way of practising climate crisis denial without incurring the political consequences. If outright climate denial is waning, the position that dealing with the climate crisis is pointless or impossible is very much alive.

Emitting and mitigating

The next division on the climate crisis is between those who concentrate on mitigating the effect of emissions, either by removing already-emitted and future greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, or through other means, and those whose focus is on preventing those emissions in the first place.

Geo-engineering

One way of mitigating our greenhouse gas emissions could be through geo-engineering. There are range of potential geo-engineering solutions out there, although they tend to be at an early stage of development. Very broadly, there are two different types.

The first group of geo-engineering ideas looks to offset the heating caused by greenhouse gas emissions by introducing cooling mechanisms to the atmosphere. This can be by releasing sulphate particles into the atmosphere, mimicking the effects of volcanic eruptions like the Tambora eruption in 1815 which caused the ‘year without a summer’, or by erecting enormous mirrors to reflect the sun’s rays away from the earth.

The second group in contrast tries to remove the greenhouse gases, such as through carbon capture and storage, in which CO2 is extracted from the exhaust of coal and gas fired power stations and stored, rather than being emitted into the atmosphere. A similar mechanism could potentially be used to extract already-emitted CO2 from the air, in a process called direct air capture.

Some proponents of geo-engineering seem to believe that we won’t be able to reduce emissions significantly, so we need to find technical ways of mitigating the high-carbon world we have created. There are, of course, nuances within this position. Some appear to regard carbon capture and storage as a free pass to go on burning coal ad infinitum. This is pretty much where the Tory government is at now, approving or considering new gas-fired power stations, coal mines and oil fields on the assumption that carbon capture and storage will take care of their climate sins. Others take the more reasonable position that the technologies can be a one-off way of giving ourselves time to do the right thing: mitigating our past emissions to enable us to get on with reducing our future ones.

The problem is that none of these solutions represent tried and tested technologies[1] and the potential for harmful unintended consequences is significant. The year without a summer was after all a major natural disaster which caused widespread famines. The mechanism that caused it is not something we should be cavalier about copying. Carbon capture and storage has similar problems: removing the CO2 is all very well (assuming it turns out to be technically possible at scale) but how do we guarantee that it will never leak out of the storage?

We may find the situation becomes desperate enough for us to try to implement some geo-engineering, but they’re not Plan A. In general, if geo-engineering is the answer, we need to find ways of changing the question.

Carbon offsetting

Carbon offsetting is similar to geo-engineering solutions to the climate crisis in that rather than reducing the emissions from a particular activity, like taking a flight, it aims to mitigate the effects of those emissions, either by reducing emissions elsewhere or by employing natural methods to absorb the same amount of greenhouse gas emitted, somewhere else. This is usually by tree planting, so, for example, Airline A might offer you a chance to pay for trees to be planted to extract the same amount of CO2 from the atmosphere as will be caused by your share of the flight you’ve just booked.

If this sounds like an all too easy way for us to be able to continue with business as usual, that’s because it is. There are problems with the details of many carbon offsetting projects, not least that indiscriminate tree planting doesn’t always work and indeed, can sometimes be shown to do more environmental harm than good. The main problem though is that the emissions from the offset flight are still happening. They might be counteracted by those trees you paid to have planted, but if those trees were beneficial, then we should have been planting them anyway.

Carbon offsetting is the reason why climate targets talk about ‘net zero’ – it’s allowing for emissions to continue but to be offset. Unfortunately, the atmosphere isn’t fooled by accounting tricks, so we shouldn’t be fooled into backing calls for ‘net zero’. Our only way out of the climate crisis is to get emissions as close to actual zero as we possibly can.

Reducing emissions

We’ve now reached the solutions which do actually look at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but we haven’t reached the end of the divisions. The main theoretical difference on the climate crisis and how to solve it can be seen as being between those who see it as an individual problem and those who see it as structural. This fundamental divergence affects proposals for reducing emissions in various ways.

Population

The first we will look at is the view that climate crisis is essentially the result of population. This can perhaps be seen as an obvious endpoint for the view that emissions are the result of individual behaviour. If greenhouse gas emissions are created per head, then reducing the number of heads would naturally reduce the emissions. Allied to this is the view that immigration, in particular immigration from the Global South to the Global North, should be restricted on environmental grounds. Since countries in the Global South have lower emissions per head than Northern countries, the argument goes, individuals moving from the former to the latter would increase their per head emissions and therefore global emissions.

It is obvious from this how viewing the climate crisis as a population problem can be cover for racist views on immigration and indeed, the population issue often seems to be related to unpleasant views. Whether it’s forced sterilisation campaigns for the Global South or Paul Ehrlich’s famously racist statement of how a crowded street in India showed him ‘the feel of overpopulation’, overpopulation ideologues do keep showing their debt to Malthus as the originator of the theory that human civilisation was under threat from the increasing numbers of nasty, threatening poor people.

This isn’t however the only problem for the idea that the climate crisis is a population issue. Even without the racist overtones, the view that reducing population will reduce emissions is based on an assumption that emissions are caused by individuals. If we take the UK as an example, total greenhouse gas emissions for 2019 (the latest figures available) were a little over 450 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. The population was nearly 67 million, so that’s 6.7 tonnes per person. The population argument assumes that if the population was to decline to say, 50 million, then without any other action, the UK’s emissions would decline too (to 335 million tonnes in this example). This is an assumption based in the flawed understanding that emissions are driven by individual behaviour, so scale up or down according to population. We’ll discuss this further later on.

Individual versus structural action

Even within the broad group of arguments that see the climate crisis as a problem of individuals and their choices, a notable difference between the population people and the others is that the most ardent populationists don’t tend to be interested in other greenhouse gas reduction strategies, regarding reducing population as the most important, if not the only suitable action.

Those who don’t view the population issue as central, however, see a range of sectors as key contributors to the climate crisis. These are ‘the usual suspects’: coal and gas-fired electricity generation; domestic gas use for heating; cars, lorries and planes; meat and dairy production. This is not of course an exhaustive list, but these are the big ones when it comes to working out what we need to do about the climate crisis.  

There will be differences in emphasis between different viewpoints and campaigns. In the UK, according to government figures, the single largest sector for greenhouse gas emissions is transport, so some see that as most important. Others argue that dietary changes are the single most significant changes people can make for the climate. This can sometimes be a question of how you calculate emissions (if your transport is transporting milk to the supermarket, do you put that in transport or dairy, for example?) or be about what is perceived to be most achievable. Interestingly, though, there isn’t very much fundamental difference in the list produced by the individualists as opposed to that from those who see the climate crisis as a structural issue. The divisions here are not so much in what we need to do as they are about how we get there.

The view that the key task is to change individuals’ behaviour is based in the idea that you can reduce pretty much any greenhouse gas-emitting production to consumption by an individual person or company. Electricity generation? For use in private houses or workplaces. Gas supply? Ditto. Meat production? For individual consumption. And so on. Even emissions that seem more industrial, like those from concrete or steel production, can in this view ultimately be traced to individual decisions, whether that’s the construction company sourcing their materials or an individual choosing which house to buy.

This is essentially the view that as far as the climate crisis is concerned, there’s no such thing as society, only individuals and families. The crisis is the product of millions of people making individual lifestyle choices, so the solution is to change those choices. The question, of course, is how.

Market mechanisms

The major sub-division in the individualist camp is between those who see the task as a question of stimulating consumer demand for products and services with lower emissions and those who think that adjusting the market is the only way to go.

Ironically for what we might see as the most capitalist of the options here, the market mechanisms start from the assumption that changing production through consumer, or indeed corporate demand won’t get it done. In other words, that the market does not work as capitalist theory tells us it should by responding to consumer demand. As a result, in this view, the way forward is to find other ways than demand to encourage producers to make their activities carbon neutral. The only way to do that is to make it more expensive for those producers to carry on emitting greenhouse gases by putting a price on carbon emissions. If higher-carbon production is more expensive, the existing consumer demand for lower prices will then push the market into providing lower-carbon options.

This has been tried through carbon trading schemes, such as the EU’s scheme, in which companies buy and sell emissions quotas. The theory is that if companies cut their emissions, they can trade their unused quota and therefore make money. Companies or sectors which do not change their ways would be stuck with higher costs and would therefore lose out in the market to their more forward-thinking competitors.

It sounds plausible in theory, according to capitalist logic in any case, but the EU version was a horrible failure, not least because many companies were given huge free allowances at the start of the scheme. The problem is that the market runs on the profits; repurposing it to deliver socially useful goals like reducing emissions is always going to be secondary.

Demand-side changes

If you can’t price carbon-intensive products out of the market, then the theory is that you can nevertheless move the same companies who were not moved by carbon trading schemes to decarbonise their production. Contrary to the market mechanisms view, these ideas are based on the view that the market will respond to individual consumer demand. If consumers demand low-carbon domestic heating, for example, or low-carbon transport, the market will provide. The debate therefore becomes a matter of how you create that demand.

Methods to create demand

Pricing and compulsion

Some proposals for creating demand for low-carbon products and services focus on monetary or legal means to make people make different choices. Ideas like carbon budgets, for example, would stimulate demand for products with low emissions by giving people a personal carbon footprint which they would have to pay to exceed. This has not actually been tried anywhere (quite aside from the civil-liberties issues, how on earth would you track everyone’s carbon emissions? The implications are mind-boggling), but carbon taxes do exist in a limited way in things like fuel duty and congestion charges.

The problem here is that this sort of carbon tax penalises those who are least likely to be able to take steps to avoid them, such as by replacing an old car with an electric vehicle. They also create a perverse incentive for governments to want people to carry on with the tax-generating behaviour. When the central London congestion charge was introduced in 2004, studies showed that a charge of £10 a day would virtually eliminate central London traffic. That however would not have raised enough revenue, so the charge was set at £5.[2] In other words, the charge was set at a level that meant that more people would carry on driving, and paying the charge, in order to generate the revenue. The government is currently facing a similar issue with fuel duty, where phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles is projected to have a catastrophic effect on the government budgets which have come to rely on it.

An alternative to using financial incentives to create demand is of course simply to ban the products or behaviours we want people to abandon. Sometimes this is seen as a matter for government, such as the ban on incandescent light bulbs or the Tory government’s proposed ban on new domestic gas boilers. In other contexts, it’s a demand made of companies, like the campaign to get companies like McDonalds and Arla to go fully plant-based. The theory here is that people can’t eat meat and dairy if they can’t get hold of it. This has the merit of simplicity, but it is difficult to see how at scale these sorts of proposals could be part of a fair transition to a low-carbon society, or could work without causing genuine hardship to large numbers of people. Even in the limited example of domestic heating, it remains to be seen whether, when it comes to it, the government will stick to a ban if significant numbers of households have not yet switched.  

Nudging and Persuading

Those who don’t favour either pricing people out of high-carbon choices, or simply removing those choices entirely, as a main method of getting people to change their behaviour, have to fall back onto various methods of persuasion. These can include financial incentives, as with various green homes grants in the past, or nudge strategies to make undesirable behaviour less appealing. Low traffic neighbourhoods are an example here of a nudge strategy, the idea being that if you make using the car more inconvenient, people will be less likely to do so and more likely to investigate alternatives.

This is often coupled with the position that the task of getting individual changes is a matter of education. If people understood the issues, and were motivated sufficiently, then they would make the changes necessary. This presupposes that there are acceptable alternatives, or that the only thing holding back those alternatives is the lack of consumer demand. The assumption is essentially that the only structural barriers to the adoption of green alternatives are in peoples’ heads: if mindsets can be nudged into change, then everything else will follow.

This can of course come over as incredibly condescending, the sort of position which gets green campaigns seen as middle-class and out of touch with the realities of life for ordinary people. It also fails, as nudge strategies tend to do, because it doesn’t look at the genuinely structural reasons why people are acting rationally in making the choices they do. It often isn’t as simple as just persuading people to give a bike a try, but seeing the climate crisis through the lens of individual behaviour makes it axiomatic that it is.

Structural action

The fundamental point of difference between those who believe that the climate crisis can be addressed through changing individual behaviour, and those who see structural changes as key, is in whether or not we believe the market functions as we’re told it does.

This may seem counter-intuitive, since proposals for individual actions often come from quarters not associated with free-market capitalism. Whether we’re aware of it or not, however, if we’re arguing that individuals making changes in their own lives will drive changes at scale, within the current system, that’s an argument for the efficacy of the market. Consumers have a demand, and what is produced and how it is produced adapts to fulfil that demand.

This is capitalist theory, but while we’re supposed to believe that this is how the market works, in fact it doesn’t. Demand does not lead supply, it’s the other way around. There are many examples of how current consumption patterns have been created not by people wanting particular products, but by producers creating the markets for what they wanted to produce.[3]

We can see that a perception of a consumer demand for greener products and company behaviour can produce a fair amount of greenwashing from companies wanting to use our concerns about the climate to get ahead of their competition. Whether this leads to real changes in corporate activity is however less clear. It is easy, for example, to find a power company with green logos all over their electricity and gas deals for new customers. Establishing the actual carbon impact of the power you’d be buying is much less straightforward.

There is also, of course, the question of sectors like freight, concrete and steel production etc where it is difficult to see how consumer demand could operate to change their practices. It is sometimes noted that the famed awfulness of pretty much all the major delivery firms is because the end users who have to put up with the ‘we delivered your parcel to your bin’ shenanigans are not the customers. If consumer choice can’t do something basic like punish delivery companies for their failures, how is it going to create a market pressure for companies to move from road to rail freight?

Another issue is that even if consumer demand were sufficient to change all the carbon-emitting sectors, solutions created through the market are not necessarily the best ones to enable change on the scale required. Domestic heating is arguably an example here. The initial market for retrofitting low-carbon home heating solutions was houseowners with money to spare, who would tend to be people who owned houses with plenty of space. What has been developed are solutions – ground and air source heat pumps – which need plenty of space. They fit the needs of that initial market but don’t provide such an obvious solution for, to pluck an example at random, flats in Edwardian terraced houses where such space is not available (ask me how I know). Because the low-carbon heating options have developed as private enterprise, they only have to fill the needs of their target consumers, which isn’t what we need to do to ensure that all our domestic heating moves away from fossil fuels.

The same dynamic can be seen in transport, with increasing stress on individuals adopting individual low-carbon transport options like walking or cycling, rather than collective solutions like better public transport. Even where infrastructure is clearly needed for alternative transport choices, like segregated cycle lines or charging arrangements for electric vehicles, much of the discussion can tend to treat these as optional extras, as if individual uptake has to come first and then the market will provide. Of course, the initial market for electric cars would have been those who could afford to pay more than for a petrol or diesel car, who might be thought to be disproportionately likely to also have a house with its own off-street parking for charging. Again, the market is not the best mechanism to produce the infrastructure change required for mass change.

The reality is that carbon emissions aren’t driven by individual behaviours but by the infrastructure of our societies; how power is generated, food is produced, buildings are heated, people and goods moved around. We participate in this activity, of course, but most of us have very little control over how these things are done for us, let alone for everyone else as well. These are the result of structural decisions, so it makes sense that decarbonising should also be done on a structural basis. Not one consumer at a time, but as infrastructure projects.

As discussed, the types of solutions aren’t very different from what those who concentrate on individual action want to see, the primary difference is how we achieve them. Rather than decarbonising electricity generation by having every consumer independently to track down a genuinely 100% renewable electricity tariff, we should just get on with creating the renewable infrastructure to deliver renewable energy to everyone. Rather than concentrating on making car use inconvenient, we should be making significant increases in public transport so that it can rival the car for convenience. And so on.

Within this, there are differences of emphasis: I would for example see only a limited role for private electric vehicles, preferring significant improvements in public transport. There is also of course the debate between those who believe that we can generate all our electricity from renewable sources and those who think we will still need nuclear power in the mix. This is however a choice between the types of infrastructure we would create, rather than in how we would get to it.

In short, what we need are a series of huge, public infrastructure projects, undertaken not by private companies but organised and funded by government. These would ensure that everyone can benefit from the changes to power, heating, transport etc, rather than creating a two-tier system where those who can afford to buy themselves a low-carbon solution benefit at the expense of those who cannot.

This would also enable the sort of planning which would avoid those working in jobs and sectors which need to change to reduce emissions (off-shore oil workers, lorry drivers and so on) from being throw on the scrap heap as their jobs disappear. A market-led turn away from fossil fuels could devastate communities in the same way that the destruction of the coal mines did after the Miners’ Strike. We need the turn away from fossil fuels, but this cannot be at the expense of working people. A structural approach is the only hope for achieving this.

This raises the question of how we get the government action that such a structural approach requires.  

Can we deal with the climate crisis within capitalism?

There is an argument that it is not possible to achieve the infrastructure changes required within capitalism; that the response required to the climate crisis is the revolution. This is true in the sense that we won’t see an end to environmental destruction under capitalism, but it is important here to separate proximate, partial responses to the climate crisis from permanent solutions.

Capitalism is inherently destructive of the environment. Capitalist production inescapably creates metabolic rifts. This, added to the requirement for growth and the way in which the mobility of capital enables capitalists to ignore the environmental damage from which they profit, gives capitalism a tendency for ecological damage on a different scale from that of any previous system. Recognising that capitalism damages the environment not as an accidental externality but because of the fundamentals of the system is important, as it enables us to see that it cannot be made green in a meaningful sense simply by persuading individuals or companies to behave responsibly. Capitalism’s ecological record is not the result of the decisions or characters of individual capitalists, but of the nature of the system.

Capitalism has been creating environmental crises for the whole of its history. Even early capitalist production, before the Industrial Revolution, can be seen to have been destructive of its local environment. The climate crisis is just one of a series of interlocking environmental disasters caused by capitalism, neither the first nor the last. In fact, we already have some intimations of the next crisis in the dramatic decline of insect populations. In order to stop this chain of ecological destruction, we do indeed need to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a system run collectively and democratically for the benefit of people and the planet, rather than profit.

Recognising this overarching need though is not the same as concluding that because we will face environmental crisis after environmental crisis until we get rid of capitalism, there is nothing we can do now about the current crisis. There are options available now, from renewable energy to public transport, which would enable our current, capitalist society to make dramatic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, getting if not quite to actual zero, within sufficient distance of it to give us at least a shot of avoiding the most catastrophic global heating scenarios.[4]

That the Tory government has not successfully implemented such a programme is not because it would be actually impossible within capitalism, but because of the neoliberal ideology which holds that you must avoid public spending in favour of action through private companies and the market. This is not an approach that actually works effectively when it comes to major infrastructure projects, as seen for example in Crossrail, HS2, the list of delayed nuclear projects, and so on. The solutions to the climate crisis offered within this framework will be partial and liable themselves to create other environmental problems. They will also come with socially unjust outcomes, as those who work in high-carbon industries, or can’t retrofit their homes, are exposed to flood risks, can’t afford an electric car, and so on, are simply abandoned to face the consequences of the climate crisis on their own.

This means that as well as recognising that the ultimate source of the problem is capitalism, we also have a fight within capitalism against the privatisation and austerity agenda. It is this which is the main obstacle to the proximate responses which would make a difference to the climate crisis, even if they would not be a full and permanent solution to capitalism’s environmental destruction.

Mobilising for climate action

This will not be an easy fight. The public spending policies that some thought the Tories would have to adopt after the 2019 election, to keep their new voters in Red Wall seats happy, have not manifested themselves. The only change seems to be that Tory speeches now say ‘levelling up’ a lot. However, the succession of failures in privatised markets, from rail and bus to energy, are an effective demonstration that the neoliberal model does not actually deliver anything except wealth for some company owners. This has for example put the question of renationalisation back on the agenda in a way that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. More than half of the UK public would now support renationalisation of energy, for example, while renationalising the railways is also widely popular.

Achieving action on the climate crisis means a mass movement which mobilises everyone who sees the multifaceted crisis we’re in and is prepared to fight for a better way. We need specific demands (Counterfire’s seven demands for the climate crisis are here) and a range of tactics, but we need to be able to engage people well beyond the ranks of the existing green movement.

Tory policy seems to be to try to drive a wedge between working people and the green movement, presenting themselves as the ones who will deal with climate change ‘whilst maintaining people’s freedom of choice, including on their diet.’ In response, we must stress that the responses we are calling for are collective responses; answers to specific problems which would make everyone’s lives better. A mass movement of ordinary people, not against ordinary people, is the only way we will have a chance to force the government to take the immediate actions necessary to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This in turn would give us time to fight to end the cycle of capitalist destruction once and for all.


[1] Carbon capture and storage comes the closest here, but even it has not been proven to work on a large scale.

[2] Jonathan Neale, Fight the Fire. Green New Deals and Green Climate Jobs, (Resistance Books, London 2021), p.193.

[3] For a further discussion of this point, see my Marx and the Climate Crisis, (Counterfire 2020), pp.26-8.

[4] Neale’s Fight the Fire is a good, recent explanation of what needs to be done.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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