Tuesday, September 20, 2016

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Let’s Take Corbyn’s Climate Proposals Seriously

Gabriel Levy writing in People And Nature calls for a much more serious debate around Jeremy Corbyn's proposals on climate.

Climate change is “the single most important issue facing humanity”, and politicians need to propose “real solutions” to it, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Wednesday as he launched a policy document on energy and the environment.

The document (downloadable here) proposes to produce 65% of the UK’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. It aims to make the UK a world leader in renewable technology, and create jobs in renewables equipment manufacture, with a £500 billion investment programme. Labour would set up 1000 local cooperative energy producers with a “right to supply” their local communities.

Anti-fracking protesters at parliament, 2012. Creative Commons licence.

A Corbyn-led Labour government would ban “fracking” (the controversial natural gas production technique the Tories love), and restore the Department for Energy and Climate Change (which Theresa May axed the moment she got to no. 10 Downing Street).

I can think of reasons not to take Corbyn seriously on this. His team has taken a year to come up with seven pages of policy proposals … which is slow, for “the single most important issue facing humanity”. There are gaps in the proposals – such as a stance on the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, into which May’s government is currently considering sinking several tens of billions of pounds. And with Corbyn fighting off a challenge from Owen Smith for the Labour leadership, cynics may see the document’s shortcomings as evidence that it has been thrown together for the election campaign.

But I think the proposals should be discussed widely.

It may have taken a year to come up with them, but then many political leaders in many countries have made no meaningful proposals, but instead spent the last twenty years doing their damndest to dress up their complete inaction on global warming as progress.

Leaving aside such important issues as whether there will ever be a Corbyn-led Labour government (I think there might not be), discussion and action around the energy and environment proposals in labour and social movements could only be a good thing. Here are a few initial thoughts; I would love to think they might provoke responses from others.

The Paris agreement. Corbyn’s document bigs up “the landmark Paris climate agreement aimed at keeping global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels”. Nowhere in the text, nor in an opinion piece in the Guardian, does Corbyn make the obvious point that the Paris agreement was disastrously inadequate in terms of reducing fossil fuel consumption. Precisely because climate change is the single most important issue, it would be a poor start to lose sight of that.

“Too often, environmental catastrophe is explained in the same terms as an asteroid hitting the earth”, Corbyn writes in the Guardian piece. “But the problems and the solutions are political – they are about the prioritisation of profit over the needs of people and, at the heart of it all, a lack of democracy in how decisions are made.” I agree with that, and I also think there is a connection between those issues and the Paris paralysis (see e.g. here). Could these points be the starting-point of wider discussion?

The renewables target and the “fracking” ban. Corbyn proposes that 65% of the UK’s electricity should be generated from renewables by 2030. There are few details about how this would be done, but an important precondition for such a technology shift – some serious state-led investment – is in the proposals.

Is it technologically feasible? Absolutely, particularly if improving the technology was a matter of government policy.

Is it out of line with other rich industrialised countries? Absolutely not. While Denmark (aiming for 100% renewables energy supply by 2050) is an outlier, other European countries such as Germany and Spain have substantial chunks of renewables generation now, and targets to match. (Germany’s government, hardly a bunch of eco-warriors, is aiming for 45% of electricity from renewables by 2030.)

Of course, UK governments have done pitifully little to promote renewables in the two decades during which Germany, Spain and Denmark have done so, making rapid change all the tougher to implement. But that’s not Corbyn’s fault.

Justin Bowden, national secretary of the GMB union that represents power station staff and other energy workers, has ripped into Corbyn for being “naïve and short sighted”. While the short-term purpose of his scaremongering outburst was obviously to support Owen Smith against Corbyn, it’s worth dissecting just how deceitful it is. Here are three points:
  1. Bowden says that “until there are technological breakthroughs in carbon capture or solar storage then gas and nuclear power are the only reliable, low-carbon shows in town” for the days when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. So what? There is no technological reason why the grid could not be supplied e.g. 65% by renewables and 35% by gas.
  2. Bowden implies that Corbyn’s proposal means “quadrupling the size of the electricity infrastructure and asking everyone with a gas boiler to rip it out and replace it with an electric one”. He has (I presume deliberately) mis-read Corbyn’s document. It did not suggest supplying 65% of the entire energy balance (i.e. including the energy provided via gas-fired boilers) from renewables. It’s about supplying 65% of the electricity balance. Bowden should know the difference.
  3. Bowden, a supporter of fracking and nuclear power, says that in the transition to cleaner energy, “we should not be having to depend on Russia, Qatar, Kuwait or some combination of these regimes to supply us with gas”. We won’t, Corbyn or no Corbyn – and these falsehoods, which sound absurd to anyone with a basic knowledge of energy markets, obstruct sensible discussion. While gas markets are not quite internationalised in the way that oil markets are, gas comes into Europe from a variety of suppliers (Norway, Holland, Algeria and soon the US, as well as Russia and Qatar), and the decisions about whose gas is bought are mainly made on price. Kuwait has never been a significant gas exporter, and has been importing the stuff since 2009. And even if any UK government really wanted to reduce dependence on imported gas, supporting fracking would not be the answer. As Bowden well knows, it is extremely doubtful that any substantial amount of gas will ever be produced with fracking techniques in the UK (for technical and efficiency reasons), even with the high level of government support it has now. At most, it could one day produce a small fraction of the amount of gas the UK imports.
It would be good to raise the level of conversation above this sort of bureaucratic mud-slinging.

Hinkley Point C.

Corbyn’s document doesn’t say whether he would sanction the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. He is personally on record opposing it, while a strong group of union leaders vociferously support it (some good reporting on that here) – and so Labour is split. To my mind this just underlines the importance of taking the discussion beyond the top of the Labour Party. Arguments against the project have been made for years, persuasively, by the Stop Hinkley campaign.

Community energy companies.

Corbyn proposes “the development of 1000 community energy cooperatives, with the right to sell energy directly the localities they serve”, supported by regional development banks, plus 200 “local energy companies”. The aim, says the document, is to make “public, not-for-profit companies and co-ops the centrepiece of a new energy economics”.

Noticeably, there is no call for nationalising the “big six” energy suppliers, in contrast to Corbyn’s stance on the railways.

How will these co-ops and not-for-profit companies stand up to, or interact with, big capital? Will this really be a “new energy economics” or a re-heated version of municipal socialism? I ask not to be dismissive, but because the socialist movement has plenty of experience of trying to create islands of economic equality within capitalism, much of it really bad experience, and we honestly need to take it into account.


The single paragraph of Corbyn’s document on “cleaning up our transport system” is particularly ill-thought-out. Where is the plan for big investment in sensible public transport and pro-bike schemes, and for confronting insane levels of egregious car usage?

Coal mining. Corbyn proposes to “phase out coal power stations by the early 2020s with support for workers into alternative, decent employment”. This is a significant break with labour movement tradition and a wrench for any trade unionist of Corbyn’s generation. In 1984-85, he actively supported the year-long strike to defend mining communities and against the pit closure programme. (I did too.) But the reality of global warming means that e.g. campaigns to revive the coal industry would be meaningless. What matters here, though, much more than what Corbyn thinks or what I think, is what the coal mining communities – who remain, 30 years after the strike, such a huge resource for social and political change – think. I’ve written about this before e.g. here.

I’d very much like to hear other views on all this, and to find ways of promoting a wider discussion.

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