Winning the green new deal
by Greg Kaser
Campaigning for the Green New Deal is an opportunity for progressives to channel the passion to ‘save the planet’ into targeted campaigns nationally, locally and industrially.
With more and more evidence that climate change is well and truly upon us, progressives have rallied around a solution: the Green New Deal. In America, the Green New Deal is being championed by socialists inside and outside the Democratic Party; in Europe, the movement for democratising the EU, DiEM25, founded by Yanis Varoufakis, is pushing a continental version; and in Britain the 2019 Labour Party Conference adopted a policy advocating it. All versions have one thing in common: a just transition to a net zero carbon emitting society by the 2030s.
The ambition is feasible but its achievement faces numerous obstacles, technical, political and economic. Changing to more responsible lifestyles will play a part, but a modern society relies on energy for almost every activity. Setting climate goals is insufficient unless these are developed democratically and supported by a realistic plan. It will involve a shift away from letting market forces inflict yet more damage in the direction of a general plan for the country. Indeed, this is one reason why the Green New Deal encounters neoliberal opposition, even from those concerned about climate change. Financial Times economics commentator Martin Wolf warned his readers against the Green New Deal as many of its supporters “view climate [change] as a justification for the planned economy”. (1)
MARKET FAILURE ON GLOBAL EMISSIONS
The alarm over global warming from greenhouse gases (GHGs) was raised in 1968 when the American Petroleum Institute was told by scientists that CO2 emissions could raise the Earth’s temperature over the next thirty years. (2) Ten years later, governments established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and then held an international conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 that agreed to halt global warming. In practice little has been achieved with atmospheric CO2 rising from 322 parts per million to 407 over the 50 years between 1968 and 2018 according to the World Meteorological Organisation. This lack of results has come about for two reasons.
Firstly, companies have continued to operate on the basis of business as usual. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, speaking to the Treasury Select Committee of the House of Commons on 15 October 2019, said that global capital markets were "pricing the transition" away from carbon on a pathway to "probably north of 4 degrees” in terms of global warming. “Policy” he continued, “is not yet consistent with stabilising temperatures below 2°C”. With 95 percent of world energy production based on burning fossil fuels and other combustibles, there is a myriad of vested interests with a stake in the existing business model. As long as it remains legal and profitable to burn stuff, companies are not going to change from what they are already doing.
The second reason for the dearth of results lies in the neoliberal approach taken by governments. The Rio Earth Summit took place at the same time as the USSR and its economic model were discarded and supplanted by rapacious capitalism. The remedies enacted to reduce GHG emissions were designed to be market-friendly. Emissions were to be limited gradually through the price mechanism by establishing markets to trade permits to pollute. The exchange between buyers and sellers of pollution permits would set a price for carbon and so consumers of fossil fuels would face an increase in their energy costs and be encouraged to switch to less polluting alternatives. But, as the gilets jaunes protests in France demonstrated, as did the earlier Europe-wide truckers’ and farmers’ protests of 2000, consumers are very sensitive to energy price changes. Governments calculated that the political risks were too high to warrant a major hike in energy prices.
Governments instead subsidised renewable energy to diminish the usage of fossil fuels. The major oil and gas companies had no objection to this policy because the intermittency of sunshine and wind meant there was always a gap in energy supply that had to be filled. Gas-fired power plants thus accompanied the expansion of renewable energy.
The debate over how to address global warming has not been helped by the emphasis on renewable energy as the principal solution by the environmental movement. Many supporters of environmental responsibility are also opposed to nuclear energy and this bias has skewed their analysis.
It’s not that we are addicted to fossil fuels as some say; it’s just that we want energy supplied when we want it: to be able to switch on the light or start the car as necessary. We are not ready as a society to change our way of life to one where we use energy only at the times when Mother Nature chooses to supply it. The fossil fuel suppliers are actually selling us convenience and mobility, not simply energy, which is why they are content with a transition strategy focused on renewables because these are not always the dispatchable sources that give us energy whenever we want it. So, while it is great to be able to make use of the air, water and sunshine, which are resources that no one owns, there is a disconnect between consumers who want around-the-clock power and the intermittency or seasonality of those sources. Anyone who favours renewable energy must also explain how they would address the supply gap. And if you reject nuclear energy you have to propose something else.
Among the answers promoted by energy supply companies and campaigners alike is ‘demand response’. This means that, as a consumer, you would have an electricity supply contract that links the price you pay to the wholesale power market. When, say, the wind is blowing, the electricity price would be very low but on windless days the price would be much higher. With smart meters installed, you could set a cap on the price you pay. When the wholesale market price of electricity goes beyond the cap you have set, then your power is cut off. If you have installed battery storage in your home, you could ride out the interruption of supply as long as it is a brief one. In theory, with continent-wide inter-connectivity, the absence of wind one day in Britain could be offset by power from hydroelectric plants in Norway, wind power from the Black Sea coast or from concentrated solar power plants in the Sahara. These long-distance supplies of electricity (or energy transmitted by hydrogen gas through a modified but existing gas pipeline infrastructure) would, of course, be more expensive than more locally-supplied wind generation.
Decentralised energy systems are also touted as a solution, whereby households share surplus electricity they have generated from their solar panels or wind turbines. Although battery technology is developing rapidly, the period during which storage can be relied upon is relatively short and insufficient to match lengthier windless periods or overcast weather. Thus the most controversial aspect of the energy transition involves the cost of the necessary but complementary dispatchable energy supply to cover the periods that intermittent renewable sources are out of action. The attempt, therefore, to accomplish the energy transition principally through intermittent renewable sources and the market mechanisms will inevitably involve hiking up the cost of energy and/or cutting off supplies if consumers find the higher cost to be unaffordable.
LABOUR'S GREEN NEW DEAL
The Labour Party has adopted a Green New Deal policy to “work towards a path to net zero carbon emissions by 2030, guaranteeing … a just transition for workers.” It agreed to formulate “a comprehensive plan that leads the world in bold climate targets […] in collaboration with the trade unions and the scientific community.” The party’s conference did not wholeheartedly endorse a target date of 2030, which many experts considered unrealistic and could leave the party exposed to alarmist criticisms.
In parallel, a report from a group of energy experts proposed thirty recommendations by 2030 to put the UK on the fastest path to a low-carbon energy system. (3) Their key recommendations were to:
- Reduce demand for heat by 20%;
- Increase the supply of heat from low-carbon sources to 50% plus gas 50%;
- Reduce demand for electricity by 11%;
- Increase supply of low-carbon electricity (including 15% from nuclear energy) to 92% with 8% gas-fired generation for demand/supply balancing;
- Trial Carbon Capture & Storage projects;
- Raise the proportion of electric vehicles on the road to 60%.
They estimated that these measures would see GHG emissions fall by 77% by 2030. Whether this is feasible is another matter, since it is hard to reconcile the ambition to switch to electric vehicles at the same time as cutting electricity consumption. Nevertheless, the report provides much useful information that supplements the more conservative assessment from the Tory-led Committee on Climate Change, which recommends a net zero GHG target date of 2050. The ‘30 by 2030’ report formed the basis for the Labour Party’s manifesto pledges. (4) The party’s failure to win the December general election must not deter us from advancing this agenda!
The quicker the transition to a low-carbon society is made, the greater is the chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. But this entails relying on today’s proven technologies. Delaying the transition in the hope that less developed technologies, such as using hydrogen or grid-scale battery storage, will mature over the period to offer alternative solutions carries a higher risk of failure.
Based on existing proven and possible technologies, the UK could make a massive stride over the next decades to reduce reliance on GHG emitting fuels:
- Electricity sector: Massive investment in additional generating capacity (renewables and nuclear energy) and storage.
- Road and rail transport: Electrify and/or use hydrogen cells (without producing hydrogen from natural gas but only through electrolysis from water).
- Heating of buildings: Solar PV panels, heat pumps and district heating using small modular nuclear reactors and/or hydrogen.
- Industrial process heat sources: Mini transportable high temperature nuclear batteries and/or hydrogen.
- Steel-making: No substitute yet for metallurgical coal (coke) although hydrogen is a possible candidate.
- Shipping: Nuclear or hydrogen-powered vessels.
- Aviation: Technology not yet available so emissions from flights must be off-set through afforestation.
A JUST TRANSITION
These steps could be controversial so it is critical that a democratic and participatory process is adopted to plan the transition, as the Labour policy requires. The Labour Party, the TUC and the co-operative movement should form a joint commission to come up with solutions and make an input into the local authority planning and licensing processes, to, for example, fast-track a switch to electric vehicles.
The climate action network Extinction Rebellion favours the holding of citizens’ assemblies but a better procedure would be to use the local planning system. Campaigning for a change in government policy and the convening of a citizens’ assembly is no substitute for locally and industrially targeted drives to push for prompt action. Local authorities should be pressured to formulate plans to put the Green New Deal into effect, borough by borough, county by county. If a critical mass of councils agreed to do this, they would probably establish a country-wide coordinating mechanism to address common issues. Such a bottom-up process should engage people through questionnaires, social media and parish hall meetings.
Local governments may lack the powers that exist at national level but they can work together to draw up realistic local plans for heating homes and commercial premises, for restricting town centre parking to low emission vehicles and in forcing petrol stations to offer electric vehicle recharging points. They can also contribute to greening employment and training.
Trade unions see the Green New Deal as a programme to avoid the social costs that came with the forced closure of Britain’s coal mines in the 1980s and 1990s. Although the likely new jobs in wind and solar energy of between 85,000 and 135,000 would not equal the number of jobs to be lost in oil and gas extraction and coal mining (165,000), the impact on the economy from the massive investment needed would far outweigh the redundancies. Energy workers from the GMB, Prospect, Unison and Unite agreed in 2018 to demand a just transition to a balanced low-carbon energy system. (5)
The senior management at energy companies realise that change is coming, but until ‘it happens’ they will carry on doing business as usual. Complacency leaves the workforce highly vulnerable to a repeat of the situation the miners found themselves in when the National Coal Board was restructured to be ready for privatisation. Financial considerations will ultimately drive the closure of the fossil fuel industries because greenhouse gas emissions are an unquantifiable liability. Energy workers have therefore prepared a set of demands for adaptation, re-training and re-location, with no communities ‘left behind’, as was the case in the coalfields. The four energy unions recognise the importance of securing a long-term plan to secure a sustainable future.
Until there is a plan on how to achieve the target of net zero GHG emissions, the date and cost is unknown. The UK Committee on Climate Change has calculated an annual resource cost of up to 1-2% of GDP to 2050, which implies a cost of at least £1 trillion (or 12 times the cost of the high speed rail link from London to the North of England (HS2)). (6)
It is only through an open planning process that controversial aspects such as the expansion of nuclear energy or the adoption of hydrogen as an energy carrier can be resolved. Opinions regarding the merits of nuclear energy are changing. Nuclear energy is a proven technology that can generate a huge amount of power from a compact site whereas the other well-developed sources of low-carbon energy occupy a much larger area in order to generate the same amount of electricity. The IPCC defined nuclear energy a low-carbon energy source in a special report last year. The health risks and environmental impacts from nuclear energy are accepted by the world science community as low if managed properly. (6) There are risks associated with the use of hydrogen but it is an option for electricity storage and for transportation, although it is not yet deployable at scale. (7)
WE CAN'T WAIT
The Green New Deal involves exchanging 14 million gas-fired condensing boilers for other forms of home heating; electrifying 10,100 km of railway; replacing 33 million cars, four million vans, 530,000 HGVs and 160,000 buses and coaches with electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles; and closing the six remaining coal-fired power plants and most of the 45 large gas-fired power plants. There also needs to be a plan to deal with emissions from agriculture and investment in reforestation to absorb the residual emissions from other activities. These plans will need government investment but waiting until the next general election is not an option. The British labour movement can start the just transition by targeted local initiatives and through trade union pressure on energy companies to address their business risks as the Earth heats. Pushing forward on the Green New Deal will channel the enthusiasm generated by the Fridays for the Planet movement among school pupils and Extinction Rebellion. Winning support for a just transition could show the world how a country can leave the fossil fuel economy behind and utilise the planet’s natural resources sustainably and sparingly.
(1) Martin Wolf, There is one way forward on climate, Financial Times, 6 November 2019.
(2) Jonathan Watts, Warnings given to the oil industry from the 1950s still ignored, The Guardian, 10 October 2019.
(3) Tom Bailey and others, 2019, Thirty Recommendations by 2030: Expert briefing for the Labour Party, London, at <https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/ThirtyBy2030report.pdf>.
(4) Labour Party, 2019, It’s Time for Real Change: For the Many not the Few, The Labour Party Manifesto 2019, London: pp. 12 and 14-15.
(5) Prospect, GMB, Unite the Union, Unison, 18 December 2018, Demanding a Just Transition for Energy Workers at <https://unitetheunion.org/media/2254/002-just-transition-leaflet.pdf>.
(6) UK Committee on Climate Change, 2019, Net zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming, London: pp. 8, 12, 180, 213, 220 and 228.
(7) IPCC, 2018, Global warming of 1.5°C, Special Report, Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: pp. 17, 130-132, 461, 466, 485 and 500-507.
(8) IPCC, 2018, Global warming of 1.5°C, Special Report, Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: pp. 140, 320, 326, 333, 335, 460 and 504.