Capitalism, energy and climate change

An article appeared on Tuesday, somewhat ironically as the London climate camp was still in progress, suggesting that the UK faces serious power cuts in years to come, for the first time since the 1970’s. According to the government’s own predictions, this will not be due to strike action by workers (but you never know…), but because the demand for electricity from homes and

Do not rely on capital and the state to do it!
Do not rely on capital and the state to do it!

businesses is set to exceed the available supply within eight years. Apparently this is largely due to the UK’s inability to replace in time its ageing generating capacity, which is in main due to the unresolved debate over nuclear versus renewables versus fossil fuel. It is also due of course to the fact that, despite growing concerns over climate change, the gobbling up of resources to ensure the growth needed by capital (present dip excepted) continues apace.

There are many who argue, quite correctly, that the economic growth (and profit) required by capital is unsustainable. There are others, not least the capitalists, and not just those who’ve buried their heads in the sand to ignore climate change/peak oil reality, who argue capitalism itself can resolve the apparent contradictions of achieving growth & profits whilst reducing the burn of fossil fuels and production of CO2.

So given the prediction that capitalism in the UK will not be able to sustain enough generating capacity over the next 10 or more years, does this mean capitalism is failing in its first duty of profit accumulation? Or is it in some way correcting itself, purely out of its own self-interest, not out of concern for the planet or those who inhabit it? And what about its challenge to reduce CO2 in the long term? A timely moment to reproduce this article ‘Can capitalism stop Climate Change?’, by Will Brown. Will is a south Bristol activist and self-taught economics commentator, not averse to donning a polar bear suit to highlight the melting ice caps and loss of natural habitat. This article first appeared on this blog, and is reproduced in full here. Whilst anarchists may disagree with some parts of it, including no doubt Will’s unfortunate use of the term anarchy when ‘chaos’ would have been more appropriate, it is an interesting and informative piece. You can catch Will running an economics workshop at the anarchist bookfair on 12 September from 5-6pm, titled ‘Will China save the world economy?‘. Now read on….

Can Capitalism stop Climate Change?

A few months ago the new eco film ‘The Age of Stupid’ opened at Bristol’s smart harbour-side arts centre, the Watershed. It included a brief, forthright explanation that capitalism was to blame for climate change and had to be abandoned if we were to save the world. When the film ended, the well heeled full house burst into sustained applause. A similar view is put forward by the climate campers. They are diverse and impressive, not simply the middle class do-gooders sneered at in the media. Many have a strong commitment to anti-capitalism as a necessary part of the struggle to save the eco system. But does this make sense? Do we have to overthrow capitalism to save the environment? Or is this the argument of a hopeful coalition of people with fundamentally different interests?

The environmental case against capital is strong. Capitalism is a system based on greed and fear with no over-arching framework that protects the eco-system. Since its birth in the 17th century, it has generated an ever more powerful economic machine, devouring the earth’s resources and devastating eco systems. The same economic system has supported a remarkable and accelerating climb in world population, from 300 million in 1650 to 6 billion today. Two profound and related imperatives define capitalism in all its variants: an eternal increase in the output of use values, in turn stimulated by the relentless drive of capitalists to accumulate capital. These drives now spell disaster. To save the world from climate change we have quickly to cut the use of fossil fuels (which are running out anyhow). This requires international coordinated action which capitalism has never witnessed. Further, burning less fossil fuel requires reduced output. Either goods are more equally distributed within societies and between rich and poor countries – or, in short, the poor starve. The struggle for a sustainable world absolutely requires a new political and economic order: more equitable, with greater international planning and with the maintenance of the global ecosystem at its heart. To pretend otherwise is deceitful and dangerous.

There was a time however, when many Marxists – indeed Marx himself – argued that capitalism ultimately would prove a limit or fetter on human output – because of its anarchy, its bitter internal divisions and periodic crises. Socialism was proposed as a way of humanity becoming ever more productive, ending for good the spectre of want. Once, working class demands for higher pay allowing workers to buy more stuff didn’t seem to be part of the problem of capitalism but a threat to it. Now socialists have to square the need to end poverty with the need to stop climate change.

Over the last few weeks the Financial Times has surveyed key economic sectors where climate change issues are being addressed. This gives us some chance to judge whether capitalism can respond to the challenge of global warming. We can then begin to see, if, to save the world, we need to overthrow the ruling class. Wind-power is the most established source of sustainable energy. Global installed wind-power is now 120 giga watts. It has been growing at about 30% a year for 5 years. Early world leaders Spain and Germany have now been overtaken by China and the ultra capitalist USA. For a gauge of the installed power, the giant 4 giga watt Drax power station, Europe’s largest coal fired station, generates 7% of the UK’s electricity. So world wind-power is equivalent to 30 Drax stations. Wind-power has been spurred by the combination of two related stimulants: the price of oil reaching $147 a barrel and vigorous state support across much of the world.

Impending US federal legislation is anticipated to require power generators to include 15 % – 20% renewables in their generation portfolios. This is driving power utilities to invest heavily in wind and solar. A similar trend is seen in Germany, Japan and Spain. California has been pushing utilities to generate 20% from renewables by 2010. Schwarzenegger (in California) plans 1 million solar panel roof tops by 2018. Several companies are renting industrial roofs and covering them in solar panels to sell the power to local utilities.

China has dramatically increased public spending to counter the economic crisis and some of this money has been directed at green technology. China is the world’s largest producer of solar panels – 90% of which are exported. The Chinese government has announced it will ramp up domestic use of alternative energy in coming years. The official target for solar generating capacity was raised 15 fold for 2011, to 2 GW, and for 2020 from 1.8GW to 20 GW. The combined generating capacity of all the UK’s power stations is 74 GW.

China is also promising to lead the way in electric car production. The deep crisis in the car industry has prompted a big push into electric cars supported by heavy government subsidies – especially in the US, UK, Japan, Australia and China. China became the largest car market for the first time in 2008. The Chinese government is saying it will invest heavily in electric cars leading some to suggest China might jump ahead in electric car technology. Warren Buffet – legendary US investor and tycoon – has bought 10% of BYD – a Chinese electric car company he hopes will lead the Chinese electric car revolution. With 38 million cars against 260 million in the USA, China appears to be considering an electric car future.

In a recent article in the Financial Times (Hans-Werner Sinn, Aug 27th) a German academic argued bitterly that all these green energy initiatives only make fossil fuel companies produce faster, fearful that green energy will render their resources worthless in the future. He claims that European efforts to cut fossil fuel consumption have simply allowed the USA and China to burn more. And he says that the volume of CO2 generated by burning coal and oil means carbon capture has only a limited role, there aren’t holes big enough to put the CO2 in. Global action to limit fossil fuel output is, he claims, the only answer.

On December the 7th the United Nations Climate Change Conference may be crucial for the future of the eco system. How far and fast can capitalism cut CO2 emissions? Will the ruling classes risk runaway climate change rather than contemplate radical action? Will the political changes required to cut CO2 emissions lead to dramatic social change? Will popular international pressure force change before it is too late? At the second climate camp the protestors marched on Heathrow brandishing scientific reports beneath a banner saying ‘We are armed only with peer reviewed science’. Will this prove enough?

Links provided with the article: List of UK power stations (pdf) / global wind energy council / Financial Times articles surveying the green economy / a guide to power output (note 1 GW 1 giga-watt is 1,000,000,000 watts. 1 MW 1 mega watt is 1,000,000 watts. A 1 bar electric fire is 1 kilo watt or 1,000 watts)

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