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Can the world go carbon free?

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Extinction Rebellion protests have highlighted the urgent danger posed by climate change. Sarah Bates looks at two of the group’s key demands—and asks how we can win them
Issue 2652
A vision of a better world - and the world we have now
A vision of a better world – and the world we have now

A key Extinction Rebellion (XR) demand is for the media and the government to “tell the truth” about the threat of climate change.

Why isn’t analysis of climate chaos filling the pages of every newspaper and featuring in every TV bulletin?

And why isn’t every MP acknowledging the threat and throwing their political weight behind making changes?

It’s not true to say that newspapers and TV don’t report some elements of a changing climate.

Extreme weather events such as 2018’s record-breaking heatwave or wildfires receive extensive coverage. The press sometimes quotes climate experts who explain that damage to the environment is due to human action.

And the International Rebellion, organised by XR, featured in many publications.

But the media don’t say that climate change is built into the wasteful and unsustainable system of capitalism.

And it often reports climate change in narrow terms. For example, the Daily Mail newspaper featured a double-page spread on “how climate change could damage your pension”.

The media accept the limits and priorities of the system, and this affects their coverage

The Financial Times newspaper carried analysis of how capitalists would have to change investments in the wake of climate chaos.

The mainstream media in general backs a bosses’ view of the world. That isn’t because of some conspiracy but because of how the media is run.

A handful of extremely rich people, who have an interest in defending the system, own the mainstream media. Rupert Murdoch, for instance, owns over 175 titles worldwide.

And media owners have a layer of well-paid managers and editors who often come from wealthy backgrounds and so tend to share their world view.

The media can include a variety of ideas—some mainstream papers are obviously more right wing than others, for instance. But all agree on which ideas are beyond the pale.

None of them argue for ­overthrowing capitalism and for running society in a radically different way.

They accept the limits and priorities of the system, and this affects their coverage. For instance media coverage of fracking has focused heavily on the stocks and shares of key fossil fuel companies.

A fall in the share price of key fracking company Ineos is presented as disastrous news.

Less space is devoted to ­explaining why fracking has been so deeply resisted.

How we can fight for a carbon-free society
How we can fight for a carbon-free society
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If mentioned at all, it’s presented as the moral beliefs of a few individuals.

More column inches are given to whether Jim Ratcliffe—Ineos CEO—will live abroad because he doesn’t want to pay tax.

MPs’ failure to acknowledge the reality of climate change reflects their role in society too. They largely come from relatively privileged ­backgrounds and, even if they don’t, their MPs’ position cuts them off from working class people.

Their big pay packets and benefits mean they can live very different lives to the vast majority of ordinary people. And all represent political parties that aim to manage the ­current system.

Many are on the boards of companies and regularly mix with bosses and other wealthy people. If that isn’t enough to ensure they don’t rock the boat too much, they are lobbied by bosses to push policies that benefit the rich.

Last month an InfluenceMap report revealed the largest five fossil fuel companies spent £153 million a year lobbying in the US. In the run-up to the US midterm elections in 2018, £1.5 million was spent on targeted social media adverts.

All of this affects what politicians see as important.

So in March, the House of Commons held its first debate on climate change in two years—to a mostly empty chamber. And just 90 MPs—out of 650—have signed a motion calling for the government to “declare a climate emergency”.

Focusing on small changes takes attention away from demanding a more fundamental shift in society

Rather than standing up to the fossil fuel companies that are polluting our world, the government grants them huge subsidies and tax breaks. And claims from bosses that they are becoming “greener” are lies.

Edward Collins, author of the InfluenceMap report, said these firms “publicly support climate action while lobbying against binding policy.

“They advocate low-carbon solutions but such investments are dwarfed by spending on their fossil fuel business.”

As climate change becomes more extreme, and resistance grows, it will increasingly rub up against the logic of the capitalist system.

That’s partly why politicians advocate solutions based on individual consumer choices. Tories such as Michael Gove are happy to throw their weight behind a ban on plastic straws.

Focusing on small changes takes attention away from demanding a more fundamental shift in society.

Politicians and the press don’t tell the truth because it exposes a system that is rigged against ordinary people and the planet.

We need urgent and radical change to stop catastrophic climate change—and capitalism can’t deliver it.

Extinction Rebellion protesters demand action
Extinction Rebellion protesters demand action (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Only a revolution can deliver the change needed to save the planet

A rapid reduction in greenhouse gases will be essential to fight climate change. These emissions are the biggest factor in the global temperature rise.

There is almost universal agreement that there must be a reduction in carbon emissions. But there are disagreements in how long it will take and how to achieve it.

The goal is to be “net zero”. This means a level where much lower emissions are offset by technology that captures carbon or by “carbon sinks”—a natural environment like a forest that can absorb carbon.

In a report last year, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said greenhouse gases would need to be at net zero by 2050. It said that only such a drastic reduction would avoid the most catastrophic climate change.

But Extinction Rebellion (XR) goes further—demanding that the government acts now to ensure emissions are at net zero by 2025.

Some say this is impossible. James Murray, editor of the Business Green website, said the demand is “at the counter?productive/all but impossible end of the ambition spectrum”.

But he also said a “brave and competent” government could deliver changes “within months if it treated the ‘enormous crisis’ of climate change as seriously as it professes”.

Currently Bhutan—a country that is 72 percent forest—is the only nation that is carbon neutral. Making more countries carbon neutral requires a transformation of the energy, manufacturing and transport sectors, and huge political, social and economic changes.

Governments should launch projects in lagoon, wind turbines and solar farms. And these should remain in public hands—not used as an opportunity to hand lucrative contracts out to private firms

The 2008 Climate Change Act commits Britain to reducing carbons levels so they are at least 80 percent less than their 1990 levels. According to the environmental think tank Green Alliance, Britain will struggle to achieve this.

“Basically all our success so far have been through energy,” it said. “Most of that has been through the phase-out of coal.”

But with all coal plants due to shut by 2025, there will need to be an immediate shift towards renewable energy.

In 2017 renewables accounted for 30 percent of electricity generated in Britain. Of this, wind generated 13.8 percent, solar 4.2 percent and hydropower 1.8 percent.

And in the EU wind power produced around 11.5 percent of electricity in 2017 and accounted for around 55 percent of newly installed energy. This capacity would need to increase massively.

It takes around two months to install a wind turbine—but years to manufacture them, organise permits, and so on.

Why capitalism can’t solve the climate crisis
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The Renewable UK think tank said that at the current rate of progress there will an 18 percent shortfall in low-carbon electricity demand by 2030.

Governments should launch projects in lagoon, wind turbines and solar farms. And these should remain in public hands—not used as an opportunity to hand lucrative contracts out to private firms.

This will make expanding renewables much cheaper.

Transport is the sector with the highest emissions, and would need to be transformed. Road transport makes up 75 percent of global transport emissions with air and shipping making up most of the rest.

And it’s forecast that between 2015 and 2030 annual passenger traffic will increase by 50 percent and there will be an extra 1.2 billion cars on the road. Investment in roads would need to be diverted to a zero-carbon energy system.

We would need to nationalise and expand public transport, and cut the number of cars. And we would need electric-powered vehicles.

The Tory government says it wants to ban new diesel and petrol cars from 2040. That is decades too late.

Labour promises to ban fracking, support renewables and work for a just transition to green jobs. It said it will invest in home insulation provided by local authorities to tackle reliance “on energy companies and market mechanisms”.

Free bus travel for under 25 year olds, a publicly-owned railway and retrofitting cleaner engines are also part of Labour’s proposals. All are welcome—but achieving them means challenging the logic of profit.

It is possible to have a world where we collectively decide what we produce and how we produce it, and to live in a sustainable way

The solutions required to decarbonise already exist, according to a review from Imperial College London last year. Co-author Paul Fennell said that “solutions are available for even the hardest problems, but we are collectively not tackling some of the easier ones”.

“What is necessary is nothing short of a new industrial revolution—making more with less, and with fewer carbon emissions,” he added.

The necessary steps to decarbonise Britain by 2025 would transform the lives of ordinary people. It’s not in the interests of capital to do it. But it is possible if we fight to radically transform the system we live in.

Ordinary people are capable of taking charge of society and running it in the interests of the vast majority. It is possible to have a world where we collectively decide what we produce and how we produce it, and to live in a sustainable way.

The threat of catastrophic climate change exposes how urgent it is that we scrap this poisonous system.

Decarbonisation is desperately needed. And calling for it shows up the inaction of the politicians and the rich. But winning it, particularly on the timescale we need, will take a much bigger movement for change.

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