Climate change is happening now. Globally, 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. The impacts of climate change are already being felt in the UK, and urgent action is required to address climate-related risks. How reckless then was Theresa May’s decision to abolish the energy and climate change department (DECC)? Just a few days earler the government ‘promised’ to deliver a 57% reduction in CO2 by 2030, as recommended by the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC). The analyst Euan Mearns argued that, at best, it would be difficult to meet this target – and that was before the move to scrap an entire government department. So now what? If government can’t be trusted to tackle the climate crisis, isn’t it time we did so? A time for energy democracy?
The climate change committee’s report says that carbon cuts are needed across society – in everything from greener energy and loft insulation to electric cars and steelmaking. From a trade union and community perspective, it’s plainly clear that there is no forum for people like us to be involved. Quite the opposite. Community energy? Dumped when the Tories scrapped most of the feet in tariff for smaller scale renewables. Banister House solar farm in Hackney was not the first but the only one of its kind. The Green Economy Council? This forum for unions, industry and government hasn’t met for three years.
As we contemplate the horrors of Brexit, it’s worth a look at how Germany has carried out a far more ambitious energy strategy, the so-called Energiewende (energy journey). A forthcoming report from the European TUC shows that trade unions were involved in preparing the state’s climate action plan, taking part in working groups, saying they were influencing decisions that combine climate protection with decent jobs. hey fought for the need to safeguard industries ‘within the framework of a socially sustainable and job-creating transition.’
Not here. The Brexit-voting strongholds in northern towns overlap with a map of industrial decline and public sector cuts. It’s not so much that many in communities were ‘left behind,’ so much as they were deliberately hit below the belt by Osborne’s austerity cuts to housing, education and health services. And the region is losing skilled, often unionised manufacturing jobs for want of a national industrial strategy – a decline that you can trace back to the heart of the last Labour government.
In regions like Yorkshire and the Humber, good well paying industrial jobs have been hollowed out, with tens of thousands of manufacturing, mining and power jobs replaced by short term or zero hours work, often in lower paying, non-union jobs. Small wonder that councils like Northumberland cheer the creation of a hundred jobs in the vast new Highthorn opencast coal mine, or that unions like the GMB get drawn into support fracking jobs. As the climate change committee’s report on fracking also also said this month, ‘Wide scale shale gas extraction cannot be compatible with UK carbon budgets.’
At the heart of the ambitious 2030 target to a lower carbon Britain there is the prospect of a new and sustainable prosperity if the change is well managed and inclusive. But it involves a judicious mix of public re-investment in key services with an Energy Journey for the UK that we can all own.
So how about an Energy Journey for the UK, with all of us on board? To create a democratically accountable action plan to deliver good paying jobs, new skills and training, and public led investment in new low carbon technologies. In Germany, for trade unions, the success of the low carbon transition rests heavily on industrial innovation and investment.
All the key elements are there in the CCC’s expert report. Energy supply is the key. A low carbon energy strategy for the 2030s means swapping most fossil fuels and nuclear for wind, wave, solar and tidal renewable energy, with much more community energy and at least some of the big energy companies back in common ownership, as is the norm across the EU. New investment plan for much greater energy efficiency in manufacturing processes, and some form of ‘carbon capture’ technology for heavy industries with huge energy bills, like steel, cement and chemicals. Battery storage, too. A massive home insulation programme led by local authorities. And transforming the UK’s motor industry to make a popular range of low cost, battery powered, rechargeable Citizen’s Electric Cars, a sort of voltswagen!
Some of the same northern towns and cities voting to leave the EU and suffering the deepest public service cuts and jobs losses were also overwhelmed by last winter’s floods. They were ‘left behind’ to face climate change impacts without flood defences. Faced with great risks from climate change ahead, our only real defence against climate change is an Energy Journey we can all own.
As Trade Unions for Energy Democracy argues, it’s ‘increasingly clear that the transition to an equitable, sustainable energy system can only occur if there is decisive shift in power towards workers, communities and the public.’