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A programme to tackle the threat to the planet

This article is over 15 years, 2 months old
To deal with climate change, we must confront our rulers’ system, writes Joseph Choonara
Issue 2025
Pumping out pollution
Pumping out pollution

There is now near consensus among climate scientists that, without substantial reductions in emissions of gases that contribute to global warming, the future of the human race is threatened.

To avert this disaster Britain would need to cut emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main “greenhouse gas”, by as much as 90 percent in the next three decades, with similar cuts across the globe.

Such a cut is possible. But there are three big obstacles to achieving it.

The first is the opposition of a government that has sought to ingratiate itself to big business at every opportunity. The second is the commitment, shared by all the mainstream parties, to a wider set of economic policies – neoliberalism – that sees the market as the solution to every problem.

The third is the capitalist system in which profit is prioritised over all else, even the continued existence of human life.

Consider the changes that would have to be made in Britain. The main source of CO2 is the energy industry, responsible for 40 percent of emissions. Other industries emit up to about 20 percent, with transport contributing a similar amount. Residential emissions make up about 15 percent.

Emissions would have to be cut drastically in all of these areas. There are basic steps the government could take to start doing this.

The Respect Coalition has policies, including:

  • Emergency steps to reduce the use of fossil fuels, alongside massively increased investment in sustainable energy – including solar, biological, wind and wave power.
  • A cheap and integrated transport system as an alternative to car use.
  • Localised food production with a big reduction in food miles.
  • Sustainable city planning.
  • Tough action against corporate polluters.
  • Increased public investment to make homes energy efficient.

None of these steps are, in themselves, unthinkable. Some of the most basic steps could be won through concerted campaigning by climate protesters and political activists.

But making serious headway on these goals would mean a break with the neoliberal model – an ideology based on the quasi-religious worship of the free market and contempt for state planning.

Imagine if the money used for Labour’s £30 billion road building programme and the £9 billion tax break received by the airline industry were instead diverted into subsidised bus and train travel.

Doing this would mean renationalising public transport to force through the changes.

It would mean making sure the investment went into cutting fares and improving services, not into shareholders’ pockets.

Imagine if the coal, gas and oil used to generate electricity were replaced with wind, tidal and solar energy. According to one report, gas power stations can produce a unit of electricity for 2-2.3 pence. Wind power can produce the same unit for 1.5-3 pence, wave and tidal power for 3-6 pence.

These figures are not universally accepted. But what is certainly true is that if renewable sources of energy received the same levels of investment as non-renewable energy – over £130 billion a year – prices would plummet. And even if the cost of generation increased in the short term, this would be nothing compared to the human cost of climate change.

But reorganising energy production in this way, and organising the investment required, would again mean taking the industry out of the hands of private capitalists and driving through a democratic plan.

Investing in energy efficient buildings could reduce CO2 emissions by 40 percent globally.


Simple measures such as solar water heating and insulation could improve existing homes. But achieving this on a necessary scale would mean a reorganisation of the housing market.

Neoliberalism shapes the kind of solutions favoured by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and their co-thinkers around the globe.

Complex carbon trading and carbon quota schemes – in which rich countries or rich individuals get to pay for the privilege of polluting the environment – abound.

But the schemes Blair and Brown promote avoid the central question – how to drastically cut the amount of CO2 generated.

The connection between CO2 emissions and a system built around profit makes global warming a class issue. This is not simply because poor countries and poor people will bear the brunt of global warming.

Climate change is a class issue primarily because those at the top of society cannot break with capitalism. They are caught up in an endless struggle – to compete with each other for profits, to squeeze those of us at the bottom of society, to accumulate more wealth in their hands.

No company can risk falling behind in that struggle. No state is willing to let its capitalists’ profits suffer.

It is those at the bottom of society, whose labour fuels the system but who see little or none of its wealth, who can go furthest in challenging the priorities of the system.

Up to a point, this means forcing our leaders to change policies and introduce reforms. But ultimately heading off climate change will require revolutionary change.

This sort of world would be based on genuine democratic debate about the priorities of society, debate that would take into account the need for sustainable production.

But such debate is exactly what is unthinkable under capitalism.

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