Socialism, capitalism and the transition away from fossil fuels

One obvious explanation for this failure is that all the most powerful governments were opposed from the start to setting binding targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Although this is often blamed on climate science deniers such as the presidents of the USA and Russia, the majority of political elites, such as the US Democrats and most European politicians, accepted the reality of climate science but also rejected binding targets. They pretended that market mechanisms, rather than regulation, could be used to curtail fossil fuel use and encourage so-called “green growth”.

This approach has been combined with the continued disbursement of subsidies to both fossil fuel production and fossil fuel consumption, running into tens and hundreds of billions of dollars over the years. In other words, a gigantic non-market mechanism has been used to shore up fossil fuels, while politicians talk about market mechanisms.

A final point about political inaction on climate change concerns China. The coal-fuelled industrial boom in China that started in 2002 after China joined the World Trade Organisation is one of the main drivers of increased global fossil fuel use over the last twenty years.

The boom resulted largely from the unprecedented expansion of China’s export-oriented industries – by China becoming the so-called workshop of the world, the supplier of manufactured goods, and energy-intensive semi-finished goods such as steel products and fertilisers, to the rich countries. This, and the urbanisation that has accompanied it, has driven up fossil fuel use.

It’s worth thinking about why a group of people calling themselves communists – the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party – decided during the 1990s, when in possession of all the information about climate change and other ecological damage done by industrial expansion, to take this path of development.

There were alternatives put forward not only by dissident ecologists but even by economists working at the highest levels of government. These alternatives were rejected.

To be clear: as a relatively comfortable citizen of the rich world, I am not suggesting that people in China and India can not have things I have, because the ecological burden is too great. The point is that China’s economic policy decisions were not primarily about providing things for people. They were about linking Chinese economic development to the further progress of unsustainable economic growth in rich countries.

The conclusion, in my view, is as follows: not only is capitalist economic growth unsustainable and leading to disastrous ruptures in humanity’s relationship with the natural world, but equally unsustainable is the path taken by the Chinese variant of Stalinism that has embraced the dominant economic logic of capitalism, just as it has embraced capitalist-type labour relations in Chinese industry.

The transition away from fossil fuels: social change and technological change

Despite the steady increase of fossil fuel use, the media and many politicians endlessly repeat exaggerated claims that the world economy is starting to decarbonise. In reality, progress is extremely modest.

The proportion of total commercial energy supplied by fossil fuels fell from around 94% in the 1960s to 87% in the 1980s, thanks mainly to hydro and nuclear power. In the 2010s it fell again to about 85%, thanks to renewables. Nevertheless, the total volumes of coal, oil and gas continued, and continue, to rise.

So while it is welcome that substantial investment is being put into renewable energy, and that even in electricity markets designed to favour incumbents it is competitive, this is not yet a qualitative or systemic change. Given what we all know about climate change, the question of how to move more rapidly away from fossil fuels is literally a matter of life and death.

This transition can only seriously be envisaged as one in which not only technological systems, but also social, political and economic systems, are transformed.

To start with, the choice of technologies is already a highly political issue. Take electric cars, for example, which are claimed to be a key to decarbonisation, but are largely a means of avoiding more fundamental change. Electric cars have real advantages. They reduce urban air pollution and, in an integrated energy system, could help supply battery capacity. But they are not, and probably never will be, much help in tackling global warming.

Roughly speaking, an electric engine is twice as efficient as a petrol engine. But if the electricity is supplied from a fossil-fuelled power station, that power station will almost certainly be less than 50% efficient, due to the laws of physics. So the energy content of the gas or coal going into the power station to produce the electricity will be about the same as the energy content of the oil from which the petrol is made.

The answer, say electric car enthusiasts, is to produce electricity from renewables. But in the real world, 66% of electricity is currently produced from fossil fuels and 23% from renewables including hydro.

If electric cars are built in large numbers, this will increase electricity demand. And the danger, obviously, is that while new renewable capacity supplies electric cars, fossil fuelled power stations continue to supply other users, and the total of fossil fuels burned will not fall.

Furthermore, replacing petrol cars with electric cars does nothing to reduce the mountains of fossil fuels used in building car-centred transport systems, and the cars themselves.

If politicians anywhere really want to reduce carbon emissions, they do what the city councils of Amsterdam, Barcelona and Tallinn do: discourage car use. But to do this on a large scale would mean challenging the political power of car manufacturers, and the cultural power of the car industry in capitalism. There is little sign of this.

Electric cars are a survival strategy for car manufacturing corporations, and not the way to combat global warming. There are other technologies, including supposedly “clean” or “green” fuels such as hydrogen, that are claimed to advance decarbonisation but may not.

Then there are geo-engineering technologies, popular among political elites, most of which are designed to take carbon out of the atmosphere, rather than disrupt the systems that put the carbon there in the first place.

While these technologies are hyped, the gigantic decarbonisation of other technologies remains unrealised, due to social and economic factors.

An example is the integration of urban energy systems, which, by knitting together electricity generation, residential heating, hot water and transport systems in a city, can take giant leaps towards total decarbonisation.

A recent briefing paper from Imperial College reviewed the substantial body of research showing how this could be done. In their conclusions, the authors noted that “market arrangements will need to be changed so that they reward new and different types of flexibility […] A whole systems approach, in which one single party has responsibility for optimising technical performance, may be required.”

In my view, it is clear that this “one single party” would be the state. Perhaps because they are engineers, and do not see it is as their job to comment on political issues, the authors do not spell that out.

Continuing that train of thought could focus on the way that capitalist economics and neoliberal politics obstruct the optimal technological solution. In my view, as long as electricity is traded as a commodity, public services are owned by private companies, and so on, the potential of integrated systems cannot be fully realised.

The relationship between technological change and social change is complex. It is not that no technological change can happen without social change. But it is universally true that social and economic forces play a powerful part in shaping technologies.

Systemic changes in future

What sort of changes could, or should, a transition away from fossil fuels involve? We could consider three types.

First: energy saving measures that are essentially adaptations of existing technological systems – electricity generation from renewables; energy conservation measures in buildings; and so on. Many such measures are included in the Green New Deal programmes under discussion in the Labour Party and the US Democratic party.

Second: changes that would supersede technological systems in their current form, such as the integrated urban infrastructure mentioned; completely new transport systems; changes to energy consumption technologies in industry; and reduction of waste and overproduction.

There is a grey area between adapting existing systems and completely transforming them. I make the distinction to stress that, without the deeper-going changes, many of the adaptations under discussion could produce reductions in fossil fuel use, only for these to be cancelled out by increases in other parts of the economy. There are already many examples of this.

Deep-going changes to technological systems would, in my view, inevitably involve the sharpest of confrontations with the powerful forces in society who benefit from things as they are.

I do not see how the necessary transformation of transport systems can be reconciled with the private interests of car manufacturers, construction companies and oil companies. Or how agriculture can be transformed, to move away from the fossil-fuel-intensive industrial agriculture model, without confrontation with the big agricultural and chemical multinationals. Or how markets in all sorts of consumer products can be transformed to reduce wasteful use of plastics without confronting petrochemicals companies.

One group of technological systems that will have to be largely dismantled is the system that produces oil, gas and coal. Extinction Rebellion supporters who occupied an oil rig in Dundee harbour last month should be congratulated for underlining the urgency of this issue.

This brings me to the third type of change: changes in social and economic systems. To my mind, the climate emergency can most effectively be addressed in the transition to a socialist society. That means, in my understanding of socialism, a society that produces for use, not profit. The nature of what is produced would completely change, and with it, the way that energy is used.

In such a society, neither material products, nor types of energy, would be treated as commodities, but rather as things that are useful to people, so that commodity markets and the financial system that underpins them would no longer exist in their current form. Wage labour as an activity controlled by the owners of wealth, would be superseded, and replaced by purposeful and creative activity that contributes to human welfare and happiness. This would also make possible huge changes in the way that energy is used.

Inevitably, this sounds abstract. It is speculation about the sort of future society that would provide the best conditions to move away from fossil fuels.

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