Environmental activist and author, Elaine Graham-Leigh, highlights seven key demands the movement against climate change needs to be making
In 2017, UK greenhouse gas emissions were down 42% compared to what they were in 1990. This was largely because of the shift from coal-fired to gas-fired power stations for electricity generation, so represents less of a green success than the adoption of a somewhat less damaging fossil fuel. Use of renewable energy sources had increased though, with renewables making up 22% of electricity generated in 2017.
While UK emissions declined, world emissions were still rising. Globalisation has enabled Western corporations to export production to parts of the world where labour is cheaper and more easily exploitable. This has the effect of exporting the emissions that go along with the production; but just because they aren’t produced in the UK doesn’t mean they are nothing to do with us. So, the picture is a mixed one.
We have progress of a sort, but hardly the urgent, dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas necessary to avert the most catastrophic of our possible environmental futures. As young people around the world are striking for real action on climate change, now is the time to work out what would change the current reality of too little, too late.
The move to renewables so far has largely come about through individual action: consumers and businesses deciding to install some renewable generation like solar panels or moving to a renewable tariff with their electricity supplier. Government programmes to enable people to earn money from the renewable energy they generate but don’t use have helped drive this, hence domestic solar power levelled off when the Tories stopped the scheme. This model of progress through individual action is inherently limited. There are only going to be so many householders with both the resources to invest in solar panels and sole ownership of a suitable expanse of roof. Proposals to ensure Passivhaus standards for new build properties will help, but do not get to the older buildings which still make up the majority of people’s homes. Individuals signing up for renewable-only tariffs with electricity suppliers will similarly be limited by the vagaries of the market. Currently, only one of the ‘Big Six’ energy companies offers to supply domestic customers with 100% renewable electricity.
The first step has to be to remove our power infrastructure from the demands of the market. The power grid should certainly be nationalised, but so too should the power generation network. This should not preclude individual renewable installations and microgeneration projects where people and communities want to embark on them, but the scale of the shift we need from gas-fired power stations to renewable generation is only going to come from a government-led, publicly-funded green infrastructure creation programme.
Demand 1: Nationalise power distribution, transmission and generation
The needs of the market have also driven what sort of alternatives are available for low-carbon power and heat. Once we’ve sorted out the electricity, the next issue on the power front is domestic gas. Most households in the UK use gas for heating and hot water, and many for cooking as well. This makes up 15% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 24% for electricity generation, so it’s not insignificant. If you look up eco-alternatives, you’ll find plenty of companies offering ground or air source heat pumps and the like. What these solutions have in common is that they require not just considerable spare cash to install them, but plenty of space inside and outside the home. It’s as if the options have been developed to suit the sort of consumers who would be most likely to be able to buy them. If we are going to make every house and flat genuinely low carbon, we need publicly funded, democratically accountable research and development into solutions which fit every house and flat, not just the houses of the well-off.
Demand 2: Publicly-funded R&D for eco-solutions to fit actual current housing stock
That heat, light, power, water, and now broadband, are consumer goods, which people decide to buy and pay for according to use, seems so obvious that it hardly needs saying. It has been like this in the UK since merchant adventurers started selling piped water to Londoners who could afford it in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The fact that the Tudor and Stuart monarchies weren’t interested in providing public services shouldn’t mean, though, that we have to stick with this model for evermore. Utilities like electricity and running water are public goods. It is in everyone’s interest in any functioning society that everyone can be warm, can wash and do laundry, and can cook when they want to. Tory austerity is a timely reminder of how necessary access to these services are, as they are moved out of reach for increasing numbers of people. At the same time, ‘digital by default’ policies for Universal Credit and government services have made having an internet connection practically compulsory. The obvious question is therefore why we should require everyone to arrange and pay for these services individually.
We’re encouraged to accept the idea that we have to be billed according to use because otherwise we would engage in wasteful behaviours, but rationing by price is a terrible and unjust way of managing scarce resources. If utilities were genuine public services, provided at no cost to the end user but funded through general taxation, it would be easier to structure their provision in the most environmentally friendly way. We would also no longer see children going to school in dirty clothes or people dying from cold in homes they can't afford to heat.
Demand 3: No more utility bills, fund public utilities from general taxation
Transport issues have received comparatively little attention from greens in recent years, but the transport sector is now the biggest single source of UK greenhouse gas emissions, at 27% in 2017. It is widely recognised that privatising running the trains was always a terrible idea and should be reversed, but rail nationalisation is just the start. If we are going to create genuine alternatives to car travel for individuals and to road freight for goods, we need not just publicly owned trains, but a system planned not for the perceived needs of business but to make the trains usable for everyone. This means tackling the backlog of unglamorous but essential engineering projects all around the country, to increase capacity, relieve bottlenecks and tackle recurring issues. It means getting on with the electrification projects Grayling so idiotically cancelled, and taking them further, to finish off electrifying the entire rail network.
And it means listening to the rail workers when it comes to safety and comfort for passengers, for example about keeping the guards on the trains. Beyond this, we should be looking to reopen some of the key lines closed in the Beeching era and creating new lines where they will add genuine connectivity rather than shaving fifteen minutes off the trip from Birmingham to London. Getting freight off the roads and onto the railways also requires planning and potentially reopening old lines, but must be a priority given the safety issues as well as emissions of road freight.
Demand 4: Nationalise the railways and plan a rail network to provide real alternatives to cars and lorries
When it comes to road transport, there’s something of a campaign to make us think that self-driving cars are the answer to all our problems. They aren’t. Electric cars are of course superior in emissions terms to petrol and diesel cars, and electric vehicle technology is certainly a good option for public transport. Electric vehicles, however, still generate emissions in their manufacture and disposal, along with plenty of plastic and metal waste. They take up space on the roads which could be used for public transport, cycling, walking, children playing, cats sunning themselves, people enjoying their traffic-free street, and so on. Fleets of self-driving cars circling our neighbourhoods, waiting to be called for, aren’t a good vision for a future liberated from congestion, dangerous roads, greenhouse gases and pollution. A comprehensive network of electric buses, publicly run to give frequent, convenient services so that people genuinely don't need to drive, on the other hand, is.
Demand 5: Nationalise the buses and plan a bus network to provide a real alternative to the car
Reworking our power and transport infrastructure will create jobs, but it will also entail withdrawing from some polluting industries. This cannot be at the expense of the workers in those industries. We will need their skills in the new industries we will be building, but more than that, it is simple fairness that says that in transforming our society into a low-carbon one, we have to ensure that no workers lose out. We are seeing now what the move away from diesel cars is doing to the workers at Honda's Swindon plant. We will have to ensure that is not repeated by working closely with unions and workers in polluting industries to design a meaningful programme for them to transfer their skills or learn new skills without facing poverty in the meantime.
Demand 6: No transition unless it is a just transition; a job for every worker currently in a polluting industry
A world of unchecked climate change would undoubtedly be an even more violent world than today, in which imperialist wars would be waged to control ever scarcer resources. In trying to avoid this we cannot ignore the significant contribution that modern warfare has already made to climate change. Control of oil resources and therefore use of fossil fuels has been the basis of military success since the Second World War; US hegemony depends on it. On 9th February 2019, Donald Trump tweeted that the Democrats’ Green New Deal would permanently eliminate the military. Unusually for him, he was not totally wrong. While the Democrats’ Green New Deal doesn’t in fact say so, if we try to have a low-carbon economy at home while continuing oil-based wars around the world, we will fail. A green future means a future without military imperialism.
Demand 7: No more wars for oil
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 her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now.
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