In his new book Burning Up, A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto Press), Simon Pirani notes that the world economy tripled in size between 1945 and 1973. And the world began to burn as much fossil fuel, every three years, as in the whole of the nineteenth century.
That depended on cheap oil, which averaged at around $1.80 per barrel during the 1960s. In Simon Pirani’s view, this period of “transition to an oil- and electricity-dominated system... was not directed at providing electricity access or improving lives; if we can speak of an aim or direction, it was to do with capital accumulation and the concentration of wealth and power”.
Then a number of OPEC* states took control over oil production from international oil companies operating in their territories, and negotiated price rises with the oil companies in 1973. They responded to western support for Israel in the 1973 war with the Arab states by cutting exports by 10%, and placing an embargo on sales to the US.
A barrel of oil rose to $11.65 in 1974, from $3.29 the previous year. Although (as Pirani notes) the US was relatively insulated through its domestic oil production, these events made a major turning point in world energy use. A second shock came with the Iranian revolution in 1979, featuring a two month oil workers’ strike, and a peak price per barrel at $36.83 the following year, which contributed to the recession of 1980-82.
Expensive oil stimulated a renaissance in coal, and an expansion of natural gas and (until 1979) of nuclear energy.
The oil shocks triggered structural changes in the composition of global industry, with a broad movement to “export energy-intensive processes to the Global South where labour was cheaper”, while the OECD** economies began to focus on more profitable fabrication and finishing.
The energy intensity of leading OECD states fell by 4% from 1973-1982, in part by efficiencies prompted by the crisis. But the efficiency innovations undertaken in heavy industries were not replicated in transport. Governments made significant interventions in attempt to keep petrol prices cheap – meaning consumption continued to grow overall post-1973, albeit at a relatively slower rate.
Capitalist states who went to great effort to facilitate capacity of existing forms of fossil fuel infrastructure (as they still do), easing the link, for example, of petrol-based transport to employment regimes through subsidies and cuts to fuel taxes (most generously in the US, but in fact across the OECD). Therefore consumption was “hardly dented”. Any efficiencies or technological transformations were outweighed by an increase in the volume of cars.
“The challenge,” writes Simon Pirani in Burning Up, A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption, “is to understand exactly how political, social and economic forces combined to produce a disaster of this magnitude.”
Pirani is a researcher at the Oxford Energy Institute, whose work on Russian politics led him to the matter of gas, energy and then climate change. The book is dedicated to the journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was assassinated in Kyiv in June 2016.
Following the second oil shock, the world market in which international oil companies were dominant gave way to a traded commodity market where barrels were increasingly sold on flexible contracts. In the US, efficiency gains of the 1973-83 period were reversed in the re-acceleration of 1983-98.
Research into renewables and conservation prompted by the oil crisis was cut by the Reagan administration. Environmental protections were generally lowered, with the restoration of profit criteria and the drive to deregulate, e.g. to enable easier offshore drilling, and reduce fuel standards. This built the base for powerful “climate scepticism” in the USA.
Huge subsidies paid out to energy companies — $230 billion per year, according to research by the World Bank in 1992. Natural gas was legalised for sale for electricity in US in 1987, and in the EU in 1991, supplied by a new pipeline linking Russian gas to Western Europe. Fossil fuel consumption remained highly concentrated: “In 1987, 90% of coal was consumed by 15 countries; 80% of petroleum products by 28 countries; and 91% of natural gas by 20 countries”.
Enormous inequalities are also evident in electricity provision in the developing world: “In the 1970s most of the world’s rural population had no electricity — including 96% of Africa’s, 85% of Asia’s and 77% of Latin America’s”. As recently as 2013, 237 of around 1250 million Indian people were still left without it.
The neoliberal turn of the 1980s launched a global wave of energy privatisations, with Chile as the prototype. Building on this, the “unbundling” of UK electricity generation, transmission and distribution in 1989 “became the standard model used in 1990s privatisations internationally.”
The breakup of generation assets was pursued by the IMF and World Bank, who aided multinational companies to negotiate deals that avoided “the long, arduous business of improving underfunded distribution systems,” and kept largest risk elements with the state.
In Nigeria, electrification had been attempted through the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) from 1972. In the 1990s entire Lagos neighbourhoods “could be left in complete darkness for months,” according to Ayodeji Olokuju. With the distribution network was in a state of neglect, and corruption widespread in NEPA; opening it up to the market was pushed as the solution.
Following several unsuccessful privatisation attempts, NEPA was broken up and sold from 2005. Of the 23 firms that had bought elements of the infrastructure, only one had done “anything tangible” three years later.
In Russia, the privatisation following the collapse of the Soviet regime had disastrous consequences. In 1975, combined heat and power generation — a way of recycling excess heat from electricity generation by directing it to industry and homes — was being used to heat 42% of urban housing. The privatisations overlooked this, and it was broken up and replaced with inefficient autonomous heating systems.
Industrial restructuring across the global economy led higher fossil fuel intensity in OECD consumption, embodied by the rise of freezers, dishwashers, microwaves, takeaways, fast-food, private transport, computers, and televisions; 80% of OECD households had central heating in 1990 compared to 35% 20 years earlier.
Industry’s share of fossil fuel consumption in the OECD fell from 40 to 31% between 1980 and 2015 while the non-OECD economies rose from 28 to 52%. In other words, “rich countries ‘tend to reduce their domestic portion of materials extraction through international trade, whereas the overall mass of material consumption generally increases’.” This forms a further obstacle to minimising climate change in the present, given that industrial globalisation positions energy intensive processes “‘out of sight, out of mind’ in policy terms” for the leading capitalist states.
Pirani emphasises that “obstructions to the future transition are political and social, more than technological”. His argument weighs strongly against consumer-choice-based explanations of climate change that dominate the discussion, such as feature in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Pirani is critical of the role technology has played in the twentieth century, citing a study by Joann Vanek which found that for women without paid work outside of the home, hours of housework were not significantly less in the 1970s than they were in the 1920s. This mirrors a trend in the workplace generally, whereby deep and complex integrations of technology into the labour process have produced no resultant reduction in overall work hours.
Readings of bubbles trapped in ice cores at the Soviet Vostok station in Antarctica, and data from new precise computer modelling which suggested a 0.2°C warming effect since the 1960s, moved a conference of scientists of 29 countries at Villach in October 1985 to agree that “‘significant’ global warming, caused by the greenhouse effect, was likely during the first half of the twenty-first century, and scientific-political cooperation was needed.”
This led to the formation of the IPCC in 1988, which remains central to the scientific-political discussion today. However the first major international agreement — in Rio, 1992 — aligned with the US agenda in stating the aim of stabilising greenhouse gas emissions, but with no targets or coordinated energy policies as scientists were hoping for. “The imperatives of capital accumulation trumped the need for collective state action articulated at Rio” By 2005, “world CO2 emissions would be not 20% lower than the 1988 level, but 35.3% higher.”
The continued growth of the world economy on a fossil fuel basis ran against the hopes of the IPCC scientists. While Europeans had attained the energy consumption levels of the postwar US in the 1970s, Chinese and Indian high-income households reached these levels in the 1980s and 90s respectively. Into the first decade of the new millennium, “global fossil fuel consumption grew at a faster rate than at any time in history.”
Expanding coal made up the majority of this growth, predominantly for extra-OECD industry and in particular steel production. China overtook the US in emissions terms in the mid-2000s. One feature of this was a rise in private car ownership from 2 million in 1994 to 8 million in 2001 and 73 million by 2011. Chinese coal consumption accounted for 48% of global coal consumption by 2010, paid for in 23,418 mining related deaths from 2001 to 2008.
The Kyoto Protocol (1997) was the first treaty to establish any concrete targets, aiming at 5% emissions reduction by 2008-12. This was met but mainly irrespective of the agreement, having more to do with the global economic crisis, Clean Development Mechanism swaps, the shifting of many industrial processes to developing economies, and emissions being measured from 1990, just before the major slump in the ex-USSR and Eastern Europe following the collapse of Stalinism.
In 1997 the US Senate voted unanimously against binding reduction commitments, and refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Some attempts at carbon trading were established such as the European Union Emissions Trading System (2005) based on permits to emit. It completely failed in its basic objective to set a price for carbon that was suitably profitable as to be attractive for trade. Too many permits were issued, there was blatant and widespread corruption, and instead of rising, which may have incentivised energy efficiencies, the permit price crashed repeatedly, meaning no market could operate.
In 2007, the European Commission set targets aimed at reducing emissions to 30% beneath the 1990 level by 2020, leading to (limited) institutional support for renewable energy technologies. In China the 11th, 12th and 13th Five Year Plans (spanning 2006-2020) contained “robust”energy efficiency measures, alongside a serious impetus to relocate and reduce coal (though due to urban air pollution rather than concern for global warming), and “substantial investment” in wind power. These measures were accompanied by a failure to agree any actions at the Copenhagen Conference of the Parties in 2009.
Pirani describes the 2010s as a time of extremes, as fossil fuels remain overwhelmingly dominant in global energy composition, and the transition towards renewable energy has hardly begun. The global financial crisis produced a momentary dip in emissions, after which they returned to growth.
There has been a relative decline in the speed of new coal, but it is still growing in overall volume through expansion in south-east Asia, India, Turkey and Ukraine — the latter two opting for coal in order to reduce dependence on Russian gas. “Between 1990 and 2015, renewables’ share of electricity generation worldwide rose from 1% to 5%”. Despite falling costs, in 2015 they made up just 7% of electricity generation across the OECD.
The COP21 agreement in Paris that same year signalled the end of international targets, as states were allowed to decide their own reductions to limit climate change to 2°C (with only an “aspiration” of limiting it to 1.5°C) through Nationally Determined Contributions. However climatologists have estimated that “if all the [Paris] pledges were kept, global average temperature will rise by 2.7°C, as opposed to the 1.5–2°C targets (and by 3.6°C if policies are unchanged)”. And since then the IPCC has upscaled the risks of a 1.5°C scenario.
The political perspective that Pirani states clearly and concisely at the end builds directly from the preceding scientific and historical research.
These are conclusions reasoned from studying the world economy’s dependence on fossil fuels and the failures to change course over the last 30 years. They are not easy answers, but the necessary, difficult, radical ones.
For Pirani, the question is not a technocratic one about the implementation of ‘the right technologies’, but of being capable to “beat the inertia of existing social and economic systems” that maintain and profit from the continuation of fossil fuel dominated production.
The transition to a sustainable energy system cannot be made in isolation from one towards a sustainable and egalitarian society. It is not just a question of how energy is produced, “but also the technological systems that consume it and the social and economic contexts in which they operate.”
Making this societal transition will require the resolve to break the resistance of groups that have an interest in keeping fossil fuels in circulation. It means a break with the idea that the elites who have failed to take an meaningful measures to climate change for 30 years are capable of addressing the problem at all.
Any progress to this point has come outside of the Rio/COP framework, from struggles from below that have forced concessions over the provision of energy, such as in India and South Africa. For example, when the apartheid system collapsed in 1994, just 40% of South Africans had electricity access. By 2006 this had risen to 73% because of the efforts of a township-organised protest movement which demanded and forced change from state authorities. They show a way forward.
Pirani is not wrong to suggest that civil society makes change: mass disobedience and direct action are playing a major role in the climate movement. Clearly a wide coalition is needed, and is to some extent starting to take shape. But I would add: that cannot compensate for the weakness of organised labour, the unique force with the potential of making systemic change in the struggle for climate justice. Our discussions of climate change must have an explicit working-class orientation, whatever the state of the workers’ movement at present.
Facing the present crisis practically, Pirani offers four proposals. “Remaking the relationship between cities and countryside, by making the divisions between them less extreme, and moving urban built infrastructure away from the currently dominant energy-intensive model”; transformation of urban transport infrastructure; fully integrated, decentralised electricity networks; and moving towards a sustainable consumption by technological change such as basic repairability of goods.
These must be combined with a vision of a future in which social change transforms not only property relations but also the labour process through which humans relate to nature ... such a vision offers the most compelling alternative to the dogma of economic growth and the assumed inevitability of exploitation, inequality, and worse that it implies.
Such a transformation would offer the best conditions for a transition away from fossil fuels.
* OPEC : Organisation of Oil-Exporting Countries
** OECD : Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [the advanced capitalist countries]
Rhineland protest against brown coalition
On Saturday 27 October, 6,500 people occupied a coalfield in Rhineland, Germany, in the biggest mass direct action against lignite mining to date.
Lignite or “brown coal” is a particularly polluting form of impure coal, producing about 400 kg of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour generated, compared to 340 for black coal and 200 for natural gas.
Germany tops global lignite mining, clearing large areas of forest for open cast mines and transporting lignite by train to nearby power stations.
Last year, supporters and friends of Workers’ Liberty participated in Ende Gelände’s camp, protests and direct action against these coal fields. We also distributed bilingual bulletins reporting on UK climate activism and arguing that we “must build and expand [a mass, direct action, climate] movement, but crucially we need to link with workers in the energy sector, including coal, to end coal and transition to a sustainable society.” This was generally received positively, but we still have a long way to go to build such links or a mass movement.
In the 27 October direct action, organised by Ende Gelände, thousands occupied the tracks of the coal trains for over 24 hours, with some activists chaining themselves to the tracks. Over 40 occupied a digger in a mine.
Spain closes down coal
Spain will close most of its coal mines by the end of 2018, following what has been described as a “just transition” deal between the government and unions.
The coalition government, formed this June and led by the centre-left PSOE, has previously abolished a tax on solar power, and will next month launch a national climate plan.
The government and unions agreed a deal in which €250m will be invested over the next decade in mining regions. The deal introduces early retirement schemes for miners over 48, re-skilling programmes for modern green industries, and environmental restoration work in mining areas.
According to the deal, by the end of 2018 ten pits will close. Over one thousand workers will lose their jobs, but around 60% will be eligible for early retirement, and around 600 will receive social aid. The mines in question are private mines, and the government is beginning negotiations on a similar deal with the remaining few hundred miners in state mines.
The European Trades Union Congress (ETUC) confederal secretary for Spain, Montserrat Mir, told the Guardian that “Spain can export this deal as an example of good practice… We have shown that it’s possible to follow the Paris agreement without [harming workers]. We don’t need to choose between a job and protecting the environment.”
Probably rank and file miners will see more limitations with the deal than does Mir, but it points towards what can be fought for elsewhere. These mines had only been kept open with state aid. Implementing transitions from projects which are still profitable will require significantly more pressure: from workers’ in the industry and from the labour movement on governments and on international bodies.
The climate crisis gives us an imperative to build movements to bring these changes about. With sufficient public funding, worker-led “just” transitions to environmentally sustainable alternatives to current technology are possible — as well as necessary — in all industries.