Despite my ambivalence about the demands of UK Extinction Rebellion I am really impressed by the way it has shot the climate emergency and bio-diversity collapse up the political agenda and into the public imagination. It’s a shame though that XR’s proposals to achieve a resolution of the crisis are either vague or would actually be destructive. It is only possible that Britain completely decarbonises by 2025 – their “second demand” – by a lot of people dying. In the links on the XR website there is an article about the rapidity with which countries like the USA adapted at the time of the oil shock of the 1970s. But if you look at the figures for that time energy consumption (mostly fossil fuel consumption) fell in the USA by about 20% over several years – not by 100%!
Leaving that aside, there is an issue of mechanisms to achieve decarbonisation. Again there are links on the XR website – mainly to the Green New Deal idea – but the thinking about the GND is shockingly inadequate when you look at it closely. It is in fact an expansionary programme – when to achieve decarbonisation we actualy need not expansion, but degrowth. We need an equitable contraction of economic activity.
Apart from for the very poorest we cannot promise a future of rising incomes – after all humanity is already overconsuming the planet’s resources. In global terms anyone earning over £25,000 is already in the global 1% of top income earners.
So, sorry – what we must promise is a society where people share and look after each other. What we must try to promise is not rising incomes but security. That’s a fundamental point and I don’t find it in the proposals for a Green New Deal which is all about creating “well paid jobs”. Since the consumption of our society is a major part of the problem, we have to wrestle with how we reduce our consumption and, at the same time, deal with the damage that austerity creates. That’s a tough problem but unless we address it and solve it what we are involved with is “Virtue Signaling”. My attempt to square that circle can be found here – in an article about austerity in Greece.
At the meeting in Derby two days ago Alan Simpson, sustainability adviser to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, presented his programme for decarbonisation in line with the kind of Green New Deal thinking that is currently fashionable among the London left. I wrote to Alan after the meeting. One of the points that I had made in the meeting was that, because of depletion, there are not the mineral resources available to complete an ambitious energy revolution.
For example, consider the idea of replacing petrol and diesel cars with electric vehicles charged up from renewables like wind turbines. There is simply not enough cobalt, lithium, copper and nickel. If you ramped up production of EVs two hundred times by 2030 – which is the EU target – then world cobalt resources would be exhausted in 8 months, lithium in 5 years, nickel un 4 months and copper in 5 months according to figures from the US Geological Service. This is crucial – so how exactly is decarbonisation to take place? XR don’t say either – but they have put the Green New Deal on their website and thus endorse it.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are some good ideas about energy saving in the GND but when it comes to rolling out a renewable based electrical technology it’s not going to happen on anything like the scale suggested. Simon Michaux, a scientist specialising in the economics and availability of minerals in Finland, puts it like this – “Most of the proposals to roll out a new electrical technology on a ubiquitous scale before 2030 [are] unlikely to go as planned”. What’s more, if this is the strategy, then, as Michaux puts it “the question of what mineral deposits are available is likely to be eclipsed by the question of “who gets acccess to those deposits.”
At the end of his presentation Alan Simpson talked about worrying trends in geo-politics. But in promoting and creating great expectations for a “clean tech” revolution, he and others like him are unwittingly creating the conditions for future geo-political tensions over minerals, not to mention the continued plunder of Africa and other places unlucky enough to suffer the dirty mining side of “clean tech”. How is this “sustainable”?
Alan responded to this with a reference to “the circular economy” – we are going to have the minerals because we will recycle and re-use. Well, good luck with that one Alan!
Firstly that will take a lot of energy and money to do – to collect, disassemble and process. Energy is what is lacking and becoming increasingly scarce. Secondly there is always a loss during recycling and reuse – in a few years and a few uses expensively recycled materials will run out just the same. That’s entropy for you. Thirdly, as Tim Watkins points out in a recent article – the headlong rush of a growing consumer economy that developed new batteries is already using the new batteries, and the scarce minerals, for a multitude of frivolous new applications, new “must have” toys – like battery powered lawn mowers – thus speeding up the depletion processs of dwindling reserves.
However you play it, the need to stop the growth process is primary – without it all the talk about Green New Deals will achieve nothing. I don’t think most of XR participants are even faintly aware of these predicaments – and Alan Simpson and most in the Labour Party isn’t either. (Since writing this I have a reply from Alan who is confident that things will turn out OK because of human ingenuity – the 250 year old faith that what humans could do when more and more fossil fuels were available can now be fixed in an environment when fossil fuels are running out and must be quickly reduced anyway. )
I’ll give another example. In his presentation Alan described a scheme to save household energy that he visited in Germany. He described how one of the visiting delegation of which he was a part described how such a scheme would not, or could not, be afforded in the UK. Then Alan approvingly quoted the response of a local German banker – that by saving money on energy for the residents that money not spent on energy went into circulation and came back in local taxes and expenditure. It boosted the economy.
But there’s a hitch here – when people spend the money that is not now going on their utility bills or consumer goods – they do indeed create further jobs and production. However, most new expenditure is going to involve new uses of energy. Boosting the local or national economy is also boosting carbon emissions and this can undo the good that the energy saving has achieved – in whole or in part. It’s called the Jevons effect.
These details matter. I’ve been told by an XR activist that the time for debate is over and now is the time for action. But if the action that you put in process is futile what exactly have you achieved?
None of these issues are as simple as they appear at first sight. For example, building an infrastructure of wind turbines and solar panels uses shed loads of fossil fuels. You have to use fossil fuels to make the steel and plastics. You have to use fossil fuels to transport infrastructure to operating locations. You have to use fossil fuels to maintain them. Lots.
As Tim Watkins argues, there is a view that things are not happening fast enough because of political indifference and/or intransigence and the power of the fossil fuel lobby. Mass action and militancy will sort it out.
Actually no. It is important to know what you are doing. Otherwise people are getting criminal records and you are no further forward.
Fortunately one of the “demands” of XR is that a citizens’ assembly will lead the process. Good idea – but why is this a “demand”? Why not take time and set one up? What is stopping XR?
I note that in late January XR activists in Scotland actually did set up what they called a Citizen’s Assembly when they occupied the building of the Scottish Parliament. Even more impressive to me, they discussed practical arrangements to actually implement decarbonisation. They discussed how this might be done. They talked about how to implement a policy called Cap and Share. Here is a description of what they did, from Justin Kenrick.
To conclude – the point about Cap and Share to supplement a Green New Deal is that it would need to be a properly enforced cap on fossil fuel suppliers that limits and reduces the fossil fuels that can enter an economy. I actually spoke in favour of that idea in a meeting in the Scottish Parliament Building a few years ago but I have despaired of ever seeing a strong enough movement that would be able to enforce it. Maybe XR is the beginning of a movement strong enough.
Making sure that what is permitted to come of the fuel depots falls every year is not at all a vague demand. It is very tangible. It’s no nonsense and the carbon elite would fight that idea like hell. There would be no point at all in fracking, or exploring for new fossil fuel sources, if you have to sell less fossil fuel every year because the permits to sell fuels are shrinking.
I would however NOT suggest that the permits to sell fossil fuels fall to zero by 2025 but at 6% per annum. That is the rate at which, in a few years, global oil production will fall anyway. Experience has shown that most oil fields in decline fall at 3% per annum for 5 years and then decline at 6% pa after that. So that will eventually be the global trend anyway – fossil fuel depletion is another issue that is not to be found on the XR website. Fracking was the oil and gas industry way of dealing with depleting oil and gas fields but it is now faltering in the USA and soon there will be a fuel crisis anyway.
But we don’t know how soon – so I think we want a policy that ensures fossil fuels permitted into the economy fall at 6% per annum. If that was instituted today – and enforced – then emissions from fossil fuels in the UK would be about 30% lower by 2025 and that would be a cracking pace. Its going to happen anyway, but we would be bringing it forward.
(Many climate activists are allergic to the idea of “cap”s because of the failure of cap and trade schemes like the European Unions Emissions Trading Scheme. However, the problem is not the cap – it is that caps are not tight enough, don’t reduce enough and are not properly enforced because of the power of the fossil fuel lobby in politics. Not widely known is the cap and trade scheme in Europe was actually designed by BP and it was known it wouldn’t work from the beginning. Now that people are waking up to the crisis the task is to impose and enforce the caps – not on fossil fuel users, but on the fossil fuel “pushers”, the suppliers. Make them buy a reducing number of permits and make sure the money goes to everyone equally.)
Featured image: Extinction Rebellion protest, London, November 17 2018. Author: Julia Hawkins. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Extinction_Rebellion-12.jpg
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Brian Davey trained as an economist but, aside from a brief spell working in eastern Germany showing how to do community development work, has spent most of his life working in the community and voluntary sector in Nottingham particularly in health promotion, mental health and environmental fields. He helped form Ecoworks, a community garden and environmental project for people with mental health problems. He is a member of Feasta Climate Working Group and former co-ordinator of the Cap and Share Campaign. He is editor of the Feasta book Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society, and the author of Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis.