By Bridget Robertson
This week the British Parliament will vote on the shape of our energy system for the next 40 years. The vote will lay bare the deep divisions in the British bourgeoisie between those who accept that urgent and transformational change is needed in order to keep the planet inhabitable for humanity, and those prepared in the face of overwhelming evidence of climate change to further bolster vested interests of carbon industries.
Britain is a world leader in formal government commitment to action on climate change. The Climate Change Act commits Britain to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 34 per cent by 2020 and at least 80 per cent by 2050 relative to 1990 levels. This is relatively ambitious compared to many other rich countries, yet even these carbon-cutting goals are timid in compared to the scale of the threat. The targets carry more than a 50 per cent risk of exceeding two degrees of global temperature rises – the tipping point at which scientists agree runaway climate change is likely to be unstoppable. Some developing countries say global temperature rises need to be limited to 1.5 degrees to avoid catastrophic impacts.
Tuesday’s vote is part of the struggle for the necessary action to be taken to meet even these inadequate carbon reduction targets. The independent Committee on Climate Change have made clear that Britain’s energy system must be almost entirely carbon free by 2030 – from an average of 500 grams of carbon per unit of electricity today, to 50 grams of carbon per unit in 2030. [i] This means that coal should no longer be used without carbon capture and storage technology, and only a small amount of gas is used to balance the electricity system.
Moving from a fossil fuel to a low carbon electricity system is the first and cheapest step to decarbonising the economy as a whole. Clean electricity can then be used to power other parts of the economy such as transport (e.g. electric vehicles) and heating. [ii]
In a ‘decarbonised’ and much more energy efficient economy it is possible to sustain economic activity without emitting vast amounts of carbon dioxide – all countries must move to carbon-free power as a crucial step in preventing runaway climate change. Switching to carbon-free power is also essential to reduce dependency on fossil fuels that continue to rise in price – leading to falling living standards, inflation, and global resource wars. Investing in green energy can also raise living standards in Britain by stabilizing energy bills and creating much-needed jobs and sustainable growth.
The British Government’s Energy Bill will determine whether the next generation of power stations built are predominately high-carbon emitting gas and coal plants, or whether there will be an increase in renewable sources like wind, tidal and solar farms, as well as investment in energy saving.
A third of Britain’s electricity system is old and needs to be replaced within this decade, which offers a real opportunity to shift to clean energy. The Energy Bill will introduce subsides which aim to stimulate the £200 billion investment needed to replace and modernise the system. Decisions made now as to where this subsidy is directed will determine what is built during this decade and therefore the source of Britain’s electricity for the next forty years.
The capitalist class is divided between those whose sectional interests compel them to vigorously resist taking the necessary corrective action to prevent catastrophic climate change – for example the US Republican Party, Tory right wing, and fossil fuel industries; and those who recognise the problem but are failing to advocate the necessary scale of action needed (US Democratic Party, British Labour Party, a growing number of business leaders).
The Tory leadership is proving wedded to vested interests in the fossil fuel industry and those in finance capital, which fund them. George Osborne is leading the charge for the Bill to, instead of support renewables and energy saving, give subsides to support a threefold increase the amount of gas-powered electricity between now and 2030. This would smash through Britain’s carbon targets.
Despite it being the official policy of the Liberal Democrat party to introduce a target for carbon-free power by 2030, they have conceded to the Conservative demand to not include one in the Energy Bill. They continue to prioritise their alliance with the Tories and the Coalition’s austerity project over all other issues.
Labour, which introduced the Climate Change Act in 2008 and subsidies for renewable energy, support the decarbonisation of the electricity system and oppose too much gas. However, Labour must also match their commitment for a target to decarbonise power with support for the policies to achieve it. The Labour Party, while supporting a target, are not yet supporting sufficient limits on carbon emitted from power stations or sufficient support for renewable energy and energy saving. They must also oppose the diversion of huge subsides to increasing expensive nuclear power, at the expense of renewables, and to unsustainable forms of biomass – such as burning whole trees – which not only emits more carbon than coal in the short term, but also often displaces peoples and food production in the global south.
There is strong industrial, investor, commercial and civil society support for decarbonisation of electricity because a dash for gas would leave the whole economy exposed to rising and increasingly volatile international gas prices. Tripling Britain’s dependence on gas power would cost households and businesses an estimated £45bn more than if electricity is decarbonised.[iii] There is a small but growing section of capital who hold interests or operate in the low carbon sector that also support a commitment to clean power. Growth in low carbon goods and services is now outstripping growth in the rest of the economy by a factor of four, and accounted for £122bn of UK GPD in 2011.[iv]
The fight to decarbonise power comes to a head this week. A cross-party amendment to include a ‘decarbonisation target’ for the power sector into the Energy Bill will be voted on this Tuesday. It is likely to see a significant rebellion, though not enough to overturn the Government’s majority, with some Conservative and Liberal Democrat backbench MPs expected to vote for the target alongside the Labour Party, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the Green Party, and Respect.
Following the vote, it will be possible to fight for improvements to the Bill when it reaches the House of Lords later in the summer. It is crucial that Labour is held to its commitment to introduce a decarbonisation target when it most likely gains office in 2015. In the meantime it is a key demand for Labour to commit to sufficient measures to achieve the decarbonisation of the power sector – not just the principle.
Whether billions in subsidy and investment in the rest of this decade is directed towards gas or renewable power is the central struggle of the environment movement in Britain. The working class also needs to fight for the cost of investing in clean energy sources and tackling climate change to be born by the class most able to pay. The widest possible alliance should be built, including making deeper links between the environment and labour movements, and ensuring action to tackle climate change is a central demand of a united left. This is necessary to counter the continuing right wing pressure on the Labour party to implement the Tories austerity agenda in 2015 rather than invest in measures that would raise living standards and progress humanity – of which measures to tackle climate change must become an increasingly central part.
Britain, despite accounting for just two per cent of the world’s population, has produced the second highest contribution of carbon emissions to the atmosphere on Earth since the industrial revolution – with the US achieving first place. [v] We have a responsibility to cut emissions first and fastest – to reduce emissions but also to demonstrate this is achievable for an industrialised western country and to increase pressure on others to follow suit.
[i] Next Steps on Electricity Market Reform, the Committee on Climate Change, May 2013 http://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/1720_EMR_report_web.pdf
[ii] Forth progress report to Parliament, Committee on Climate Change, June 2012 http://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/meeting-the-carbon-budgets-2012-progress-report-to-parliament/
[iv] The Colour of Growth, CBI, 2012 http://www.cbi.org.uk/campaigns/maximising-the-potential-of-green-business/