Socialist Worker

Can we save the planet?

With Britain set to see its biggest ever demonstration over climate change, activists spoke to Socialist Worker about the prospects for averting environmental catastrophe

Issue No. 1979

Wind turbines off the British coast

Wind turbines off the British coast

Most scientists now agree that it is too late to prevent the emission of greenhouse gases having a significant impact on the climate in coming decades. The question is how great the impact will be, and whether it can be reversed.

Mark Lynas, author of High Tide: News From A Warming World, told Socialist Worker, “Projections are for a rise of between two and six degrees centigrade by the end of the century. This means anything from disaster to the outright end of civilisation.”

To avert this disaster, Mark argues, “the best thing would be to stop all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow — or yesterday in fact. We’re already going to drive the Earth’s climate into a new state.

“Politically, it’s probably best to start by demanding that we limit the change to below two degrees centigrade, which would mean a 40 percent cut to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in the next three decades. That would mean a major change to the way we all live.”

Market mechanisms

About 16 percent of Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions are from electricity generation. The solution is obvious and straightforward.

Elaine Graham-Leigh, who speaks for Respect on the environment, told Socialist Worker, “The central issue is a radical shift in energy production. It simply means that more investment is needed in cleaner, renewable technologies such as wind, wave, tidal and solar power.”

But without renationalising electricity generation — something that would run against the whole logic of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s commitment to neo-liberalism — we are left to rely on the dubious goodwill of the multinational corporations.

This means that even the government’s meagre 5 percent target for the amount of electricity to be generated from renewables has not been reached. Just 3.9 percent of electricity will have been generated from renewables this year.

Blair hoped to win praise from environmentalists with his announcement of a £6 billion investment in offshore wind farms, but this was not government money. It was money that the government hoped the private sector would deliver.

The same obstacles exist when it comes to reducing emissions from transport which, at 25 percent, make up the largest portion of greenhouse gas emissions in Britain.

Since Labour came to power in 1997, rail fares have risen an average of 7 percent and bus fares an average of 16 percent. Meanwhile the cost of motoring has actually fallen by 6 percent over the same period.

And airlines, one of the fastest growing sources of emissions, still pay no VAT on aviation fuel—effectively receiving a £9 billion tax break each year. The government has pressed ahead with a £30 billion road building scheme, rather than investing in public transport to get cars off the roads.

What holds in Britain is also true at the global level. The Kyoto Agreement, which 141 countries have signed up to, falls far short of the targets needed to make a significant impact on the problems of global warming.

And Blair accepts that the US, the largest producer of greenhouse gasses, will not accept the deal, and that China, whose economic boom is producing ever growing amounts of gases, will not honour its targets.

Finally, the Kyoto deal enshrines “emissions trading” in which countries effectively pay a “market price” to emit carbon dioxide.

Possible solutions

There is a myth that renewable electricity is too expensive and inefficient to solve the problems of global warming.

But, according to the government’s own predictions for the price of energy production in the year 2020, renewables are competitive. If a unit of electricity produced by a gas power station costs 2-2.3 pence, the cost of producing the same unit through renewables would be:

  • 1.5-2.5 pence for a windfarm built on land
  • 2-3 pence for an offshore windfarm
  • 3-6 pence for wave and tidal power

So windfarms could be cheaper than gas power stations, while wave and tidal power are only marginally more expensive.

And this follows decades of investment in non-renewable technologies, estimated by one study at £136 billion a year. Such an investment in renewables would make a huge difference to their efficiency.

Even the tiny investment in solar energy in the US saw its price drop by a factor of ten over the past 25 years.

The government itself estimates that wind power alone could provide at least double Britain’s peak electricity demand. The EU has estimated that a combination of wind and wave power could generate Britain’s electricity requirements three times over.

A viable solution would involve offshore windfarms in different locations around Britain’s coastlines, taking advantage of variations in wind speed across the country, combined with wave power.

Tidal power, which provides a regular and predictable supply of electricity four times a day (when tides go in and out) could be added to this package. A barrage across the Seven Estuary could provide one fifth of all current demand, at just 0.05 pence per unit — one fortieth of the cost of a gas fired power station.

All of this is possible without recourse to nuclear power, apparently Blair’s favourite option. Not only is nuclear unsafe and linked to weapons production, as Tony Juniper shows (see Say no to Labour’s nuclear nightmare), it is also relatively expensive.

Each unit costs about 3-4 pence, even after years of government subsidies and investment. And the costs of dealing with existing nuclear waste are estimated at about £60 billion.

It is not just a question of generating electricity with renewable means. Investment in housing design and insulation could cut energy use significantly. One study suggested that, globally, such changes to housing could cut gas emissions by up to 40 percent.

Limits of the system

It is possible even on the basis of existing technology to break the reliance on non-renewable sources of electricity.

But the system that we live under constantly undercuts any attempt to apply these methods. The use of fossil fuels is at the heart of capitalism. The multinational BP spends £4.5 billion on fossil fuel exploration and production. It spends just 1 percent of this on investigating renewables, despite rebanding itself as “Beyond Petroleum”.

Graham-Leigh told Socialist Worker, “A rational response to climate change must seek to reorganise society. This would mean moving away from the imperatives of accumulation and degradation of the natural environment.”

Emissions from transport are the most difficult to solve in a society based on the madness of the market. Graham-Leigh says, “It is crazy that Sainsbury’s are transporting lettuces across the world.

“And when I want to recycle my household waste it is sent to Wales in a truck, partially defeating the purpose. Recycled paper is often sent all the way to China.”

Getting to grips with the problem would require tackling the whole way that our towns and cities are organised. It would mean, for example, that good quality public services such as schools and hospitals, other social facilities and jobs are located near to housing.

“We need to set our sights high,” says Elaine Graham-Leigh. “Saving the environment means taking over the economy and reorganising it, using technology to meet people’s needs — including their need for a safer, cleaner world.

“This is not an individual problem that people can find individual solutions to. What we need is collective solutions based on collective action.

“Ultimately, addressing the threat of global warming will require us to, at the very least, hack away at the base of a system in which profit comes before all else.

“In particular it requires democratic planning, which is only really possible under a socialist society.”

Paul McGarr writes on Capitalism and Climate Change in International Socialism journal, issue 107. To order copies, phone 020 7819 1177, or read it online at

John Bellamy Foster writes on Organising Ecological Revolution in Monthly Review volume 57, number 5, available online at

John Bellamy Foster’s book, Marx’s Ecology, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Sat 3 Dec 2005, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1979
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.