The government’s White Paper, “Low Carbon Transition Plan” sets out the first legally binding carbon targets and a plan for a transition to a low carbon economy. As 600 Vestas workers struggle to keep their factories open, the government has been embarrassed by its claim that 1.2 million workers will be in the green energy sector by 2020.
The paper was released in advance of international talks on these issues taking place in Copenhagen this December. The government is trying to position itself at the green end of the capitalist consensus that dominates establishment environmentalism. But remaining within the limits set by capitalism, involves a contradiction.
The plan sets out an 18% reduction of carbon emissions from 2008 levels by 2020, and an 80% reduction by 2050. It concentrates on five key sectors, Energy and Heavy Industry, Homes and Communities, Workplaces and Jobs, Transport, and Farming and Waste Management. It has developed five-year plans for carbon targets, which will come into force up until 2022.
The targets are to be set in law and there are various market mechanisms and reactionary taxes (that will disproportionately penalise the poorest in society) supposed to help achieve the targets. Any government money that is made available quickly finds its way into private hands, and the government’s role is creating a favourable market environment for green capital.
The targets are wholly inadequate. According to George Monbiot, the latest figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest the UK needs a 95.9% reduction in CO2 by 2050 if we are to avoid irreversible climate change.
The government’s plans rely on “clean coal” technology that hasn’t been fully developed and nuclear power stations with associated radioactive waste. It makes no mention of the Heathrow third runway project. Apart from some soft words about aviation, it has no proposals for dealing with that industry.
Again, Monbiot demonstrates from the government’s own projections that aviation alone will account for 184% of our carbon quota in 2050. The targets ignore the science in order to accommodate the demands of capital.
The report leaves room for 50% of the “reduction” to be achieved via the EU carbon emission trading schemes (ETS). Here a company can continue to produce emissions but must buy some “carbon credits” from another company that is making carbon savings. Governments are responsible for dishing out the initial credits and they also trade in their own right.
The scheme effectively involves the commodification of the atmosphere and has been proved useless in reducing CO2 emissions. In Germany, for example, the new wind turbines and solar cells haven’t prohibited the emission of even a single gram of CO2. Germany has just sold its carbon credits to Poland, Slovakia and other heavy polluters who have been able to increase their output. So the UK can maintain high levels of CO2 emissions and still meet its targets by playing the carbon emissions market.
In this scheme, climate change is seen as a great “business opportunity” and the government’s role is to subsidise capital investment and create favourable markets. As the Vestas dispute continues, the government binds itself to this doctrine and refuses to answer the calls for nationalisation.
In the government’s world, the 400,000 jobs that will be created in the green energy sector will come into being through the dynamics of the free market.
Yet, at a time when we need to massively expand green technology, the free market is imposing a regime of forced idleness on nearly three million people.
On the green jobs issue, the government has again fiddled the figures. An investigation by The Times revealed that the 880,000 “green sector jobs” currently in existence included petrol station attendants, people who make wooden pallets, carpet manufacturers and long list of random jobs which will do nothing to saving the planet. Another 400,000 jobs like these would make no difference to the climate.
The government substitutes its responsibility for the development of a green energy sector for blind faith in markets. For New Labour, state intervention amounts to nothing but an opportunity to hand over money to capitalists. This is exactly what was going on when Miliband offered Vestas bosses £6 million on 28 July. If the free market fails, their main concern is to keep the bosses sweet with bribes, perks and cash payments. Even when billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is used to bailout the banks, still the profit and control remain in private hands.
Another example. The White Paper sets out to invest £405 million in Research and Development projects, but the direction of these projects will be determined by private enterprise. It is hoped that the government will be able to “facilitate access” to £4 billion in new capital from the European Investment Bank. Much of this R&D will be done at our universities, with companies funding and controlling the research of academics.
Over the past 15 years, higher education has been slowly privatised so that most research and development has been determined by the interests of private profit. Most universities will have engineering departments that are given over to developing weapons systems for arms manufacturers or researching extraction techniques for Big Oil. In this time of global crisis, we have enormous intellectual resources that are being misdirected into socially useless, environmentally destructive technology. A proper response to climate change would involve a publicly owned, democratically controlled university system, not a few ring-fenced handouts to private business.
From a trade union perspective, chapter five of the document may be of use in fighting for a greener workplace. It states that workplaces should cut their emissions by 13% from 2008 levels by 2020. It does not spell out a role for trade union reps, yet this is an area of direct interest. Union reps should demand their employer “open the books” on their carbon footprint and discuss emissions reductions with workers. They should ensure that the financial benefits from energy efficiency are not swallowed into profits and dividends, and that workers do not bear the costs of cutting emissions.
The White Paper claims the UK has reduced its CO2 output by 21% since 1990. There is significant disagreement about this figure; a previous government report claimed an 8.5% reduction in the period 1990-2007. But whatever the correct figure, the main cause of this reduction was the destruction of the British coal industry by the Thatcher government. Since 1990 there has been a massive shift from coal to gas-fired power stations. Simultaneously, Thatcher’s neo-liberal policies saw the collapse of British manufacturing. Globalised capital found cheaper labour markets in the global south where repressive regimes were able to keep trade union activity to a minimum.
The decline in British manufacturing corresponded with a massive increase in global trade and CO2 emissions from the rest of the world (especially China) while UK manufacturing emissions dropped slightly. The increase in global trade has also meant a massive increase in international shipping and aviation (which all governments keep off the carbon balance sheet). Oxford University economist and government adviser Dieter Helm has claimed that if global trade and aviation are taken into account, the UK’s CO2 emissions have actually risen by 19% in the period 1990-2007.
We live in a world where where commodities are transported all over the place for no other reason than short-term profiteering, exploiting global inequalities at great environmental cost.
As Ed Miliband celebrates this 21% reduction, he reveals the politics behind the White Paper. Any honest account shows that the last two decades have seen the exponential growth of both carbon emissions and economic inequality on a global scale. The UK’s drop in emissions is nothing but a by-product of a vicious class war initiated by the Tories and continued by New Labour.
Twenty-five years on, power over the world’s resources is ever more tightly concentrated in the hands of a few super-rich individuals driven solely by the desire for profit. It seems unlikely that the technological fixes, market mechanisms and regressive taxations will be sufficient to achieve the government’s new targets. But even if targets are met, they will not avert irreversible climate change.
The White Paper shows how capital’s influence has completely distorted the scientific reality of climate change. The government is stuck in a contradiction between what is objectively necessary to avert climate change and its desire to serve the capitalist class. In this struggle, capital wins every time.
As climate disaster gets closer, the contradictory aims, saving the planet and saving capitalism, will become ever more obvious. Our role is to resolve this contradiction — by building a working-class movement that can wrest control of the economy from the bourgeoisie and champion the needs of people and planet. Vestas is a good start in that fight.