The workers are in occupation to defend 600 of the greenest jobs, making wind turbine parts, against the Vestas management, who want to close the plant.
Some of the mainstream press coverage of the demonstrations and meetings in solidarity with the Vestas workers gives the impression that the trade unionists and climate campaigners brought together in this fight have never encountered each other before. This of course isn’t entirely true, as anyone who went to the two Campaign against Climate Change trade union conferences, or the meetings at various climate camps involving the NUM, RMT etc would know. However, the dispute clearly marks a significant step forward for the climate movement, as a fight for real, existing green jobs brings the issue to the forefront in the run up to the global demonstrations during the climate talks in Copenhagen in December.
The Vestas workers are not only fighting to save their jobs but also to have a say in what happens to their industry. The bosses might assume that workers are only interested in their pay packets, but that clearly isn’t so. Just as the Visteon workers saw that their factory could move from van parts to greener production like electric cars or indeed, wind turbines, so the Vestas workers are exposing the parlous state of the renewables sector.
The coincidence of the Vestas occupation and the launch of the government’s Low Carbon Transition Plan should be hugely embarrassing for them. Ed Miliband, the Environment minister, has after all just proclaimed plans to get up to 30% of Britain’s electricity from renewables, particularly from wind power, by 2020 and predicted up to 1.2 new green jobs, 500,000 of them in renewable energy sector. The Renewable Energy Strategy is full of self-congratulatory talk of the ‘rapidly growing’ renewables sector, which in the light that the Vestas occupation has shone on the industry, seems hollow, to say the least.
Miliband has tried to defend himself by casting the Vestas closure as evidence of problems with which his Transition Plan was created to deal. The problem, apparently, is the planning system, with delays in approving wind farms, and the frequency of rejection for onshore installations, making the UK wind turbine market uneconomic. This echoes Vestas’ stance - their CEO commented that the UK is ‘one of the most difficult places in the world to get planning permission’. The Isle of Wight factory was actually making turbine blades for the US market, as the UK market was not profitable enough to enter.
Changes to the planning laws are supposed to make it easier to get projects like wind farms (and nuclear or coal-fired power stations) approved, and for some greens, this is a significant step forward. Mark Lynas, for example, recently argued that now that the government has provided what he views as a decent climate strategy, NIMBY objections to wind farms are all that are standing in the way of renewables. However, this argument misses the key lesson of the Vestas fight: that the market can’t provide the solutions to climate change.
The Low Carbon Transition Plan itself admits that the market has failed to provide renewable energy generation on the scale required. There is no inherent reason why we couldn’t get all our electricity from a mix of renewable sources. The government is aiming for a conservative 30% by 2020. The current figure is 5.5%, one of the lowest figures in Europe. The Transition Plan states proudly that this is a threefold increase, ignoring the fact that three times a tiny percentage is still a tiny percentage. The problem with the Transition Plan is that, having identified the problem with using the market to develop renewable energy generation, it then proceeds to rely completely on incentives for market mechanisms to develop renewable energy generation.
Even with a steamlined planning process, wind farms in this plan will still depend on the whim of private energy companies or landowners. They will still be more about generating profit than renewable energy. The Vestas workers are right to call for their factory to be nationalised, so that it can start producing turbines for UK wind energy generation. It is in fact the whole energy sector that needs to be nationalised, if we are to get a shift to renewable energy on the scale needed to bring down carbon emissions.
Defenders of the Transition Plan would no doubt point to the 2008 Climate Bill, in which the government, alone of all the governments in Europe, enshrined its emissions reductions targets in law. This is supposed to be a guarantee that, if energy companies’ need for profits are found to be standing in the way of renewables, the renewables will have to come first. Since so far, Ed Miliband’s action over Vestas has been limited to hand wringing and offering Vestas a handsome payment for R&D, this is less than convincing. After all, for an indication of this government’s respect for the law, we have only to remember Iraq.
Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade, focusing on issues of climate change and social justice. She speaks and writes widely on green issues and is a member of Counterfire. Her book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, will be published in April 2015 by Zero Books.
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