Green face, old tricks

Two films I’ve seen over the past year both dealt with human consequences and lives against the backdrop of new, largely faceless renewables projects at opposite ends of Spain. Alcarràs is a heartbreaking story of a family of peach farmers in Catalonia who are being evicted to make way for solar panels, while As Bestas (The Beasts) is an altogether darker thriller about extreme interpersonal conflict triggered by divisions over whether to accept a new wind farm in the Galician hills.

The arrival of this theme into our cultural moment is indicative of the material shift taking place in the real world, as new green technologies are increasingly deployed, the impacts reverberating. A new economy is taking shape, although it is not clear yet whether it will result in a move away from fossil fuels or an energy expansion (JustAddRenewables™).

Plus ça change

Wherever there is a new market, there are corporate interests looking to make a profit, and to capitalists the challenge of climate change is no different. On one level: what’s not to like? We need an accelerated transition and if capitalism is the only train in town, why not get on board?

But the jury is out on whether the global market economy is capable of the changes needed to prevent climate catastrophe. And even if it is, it won’t be a transition that works for people. In fact, all the signs suggest that the new green face of capitalism is replicating the sins of the old: domination by corporate giants of the Global North, ignoring local communities, implementing extractivist models and dispossessing Indigenous groups, profiteering and plunging millions into poverty through energy bill hikes.

But it’s worse than that, as we’re in what civil engineer and environmental sociologist Emily Grubert has described as the ‘mid-transition’. ‘We still live in a fossil capitalist world but are laying the material groundwork for a renewable energy and zero emissions world,’ explains researcher and activist Thea Riofrancos, who has written extensively about extractive industries. ‘They’re simultaneous.’

That means we are seeing a doubling of harms, both those of the old energy system, as well as the impacts of building out a new one. Meanwhile, a profit-oriented transition looks set to repeat the devastation of previous industrial shifts, like the destruction of peasant agriculture or Margaret Thatcher’s abrupt closure of UK coal mining as a blow against union power.

Green neoliberalism, no thanks

As I write this the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – its monarchs fabulously wealthy on the back of oil – is playing host to the UN climate talks. Chairing the event is Sultan Al Jaber, the head of its national oil company Adnoc, talking a good game while continuing to keep the black stuff flowing.

All the signs suggest that the new green face of capitalism is replicating the sins of the old

This is characteristic of climate capitalism as a whole, which is full of wolves in sheep’s clothing making great green promises, while their real concern is good old profits. It encompasses not just wind and solar power and electric vehicles (EVs) – surely needed to some extent – but also biofuels, carbon credits, carbon capture, ‘green’ hydrogen and more. (See ‘The New Greenwashing’, from NI 537.)

To see the latter simply as greenwashing is however to ignore their very real consequences, not only in the billions of dollars diverted to pay for them, but also their real-world impacts. All too often land is used without real consent, and profits are rarely shared with local people.

Carbon credits are particularly Orwellian. At best they serve as an excuse for polluters to continue polluting, but many of these projects also seem to exacerbate the deforestation they purport to prevent, while enabling the latest wave of dispossession of Indigenous peoples.

When proper climate finance is lacking, this makes hard-up states and communities easy prey for such schemes. ‘If historic polluters are saying “We will not pay for climate reparation” ... the only option available [for African governments] is [to turn to] carbon markets,’ said economist Fadhel Kaboub recently, commenting on recent deals to hand over huge swathes of Africa for carbon credit schemes.

This new economy follows the tried and tested path of neoliberalism, which is to say: states forcibly creating new markets, pushed particularly by the wealthiest countries. From the extension of electricity markets (artificial and full of contradictions) to these dubious carbon markets, creating new commodities is seen as the solution.

In the US, Joe Biden’s 2022 Inflation Reduction Act has allocated $400 billion to supporting green energy as well as subsidies for every stage of the EV supply chain, including domestic mining for battery production. It also illustrates some of the issues with blunt subsidies: incentives for households to install heat pumps have been swallowed up by huge price increases as private equity firms aggressively buy up installation companies, decreasing competition.

An electrically powered trolleybus on the Grand Pont bridge in Lausanne, Switzerland. KEITMA/ALAMY
An electrically powered trolleybus on the Grand Pont bridge in Lausanne, Switzerland. KEITMA/ALAMY

Hot air

Meanwhile the EU has thrown billions of dollars into creating an entirely new market for green hydrogen – an unhelpful distraction to the needed push for more renewables and electrification. And megabucks have also been thrown at fossil fuel companies to try and conjure a carbon capture sector into existence, perpetuating the mirage that this techno- solution can allow us to continue burning fossil fuels.

‘The UK government had said they were going to stop giving money to biomass in 2027, but they are looking at giving money for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which doesn’t exist at scale,’ says Merry Dickinson, a campaigner with Biofuelwatch and the Stop Burning Trees coalition who lives near the Drax power station in Yorkshire, a former coal plant that now burns wood and is the UK’s largest emitter.

A Drax executive sat on the UK government’s Climate Change Committee, which recommended the technology in the UK’s sixth carbon budget in 2020. Meanwhile wood pellet manufacture is subsidised by the government in Canada, from where some of the power plant’s fuel is sourced.

The current focus on putting electric cars on the road is a key example of how the desire to turn us into green consumers is distorting the transition. Long term EV manufacturing plans detract from solutions we can implement now, like supporting public transport and making it easier for people to walk or cycle around cities. Meanwhile, unlike tried and tested alternatives such as electric trains and trolleybuses, electrifying cars will require huge amounts of mining to manufacture electric batteries. (See ‘Transition Mining’ in the print edition of this issue, page 37).

‘Some amount of mining is needed in the near term,’ says Riofrancos. ‘But I think we can have a transition with much less material impact. To reduce the harm, we need to reduce the volume of mining.

‘Recycling is extremely important but we also need to change the transportation sector,’ she adds, for example through developing urban mass transit and shifting away from larger cars like SUVs.

Solarpunk

If the state is intervening so heavily to create markets, shouldn’t public power instead be used to create a transition that works for all of us?

That will have to be one that is built democratically. ‘We need a phase-out of fossil fuels as part of a just transition towards a clean energy economy with quality jobs for workers and communities, led by those most affected,’ says Rosemary Harris, Oil Change International’s Senior North Sea Campaigner.

A just transition will not be compatible with endless growth everywhere – instead we should prioritize good living for all. Making better use of the resources we have will be crucial, from boosting public transport to recycling energy transition minerals, from robust collective schemes to massively increase energy efficiency to rolling out rooftop solar. We’ll need to stop doing some things too – like manufacturing weapons – but how to create a market for doing less? A just transition will also require us to rebuild public services and construct a more caring economy.

‘Why do we need not just to socially pay for all the costs of the transition, but on top of that, ensure it’s profitable for capitalists?’

‘The important thing is to put sovereignty and the role of the state front and centre,’ says Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz, senior programmes officer for Latin America at War on Want. We need ‘interventions in the global economy around trade, tax and debt’, he adds, as well as more participatory decision making for frontline communities in the Global South, and changes to how we consume energy in the Global North.

Muñoz points to the need for critical worker engagement in the transition – like Brazil’s trade union congress, the CUT, which has supported a move from fossil fuels while questioning the way the new renewable sector is being set up – and examples like Costa Rica’s publicly owned renewable energy system, which includes collaboration between national and regional bodies and several co-operatives.

Pressure from below is essential, according to Riofrancos, but she sees several reasons to hope. Firstly there’s increasing pushback against extractive projects, including through transnational and North-South alliances: ‘Communities are more conscious of their rights under international law, as Indigenous people… that is a sea change.’

She is also heartened by increased attention on the role of public ownership in the energy transition and points to the failure of several major ‘green capitalist projects’, including offshore wind plans in the UK and the US that have pulled out of government contracts because of viability issues. ‘It forces the question, why do we need not just to socially pay for all the costs of the transition, but on top of that, ensure it’s profitable for capitalists?’ she adds.

‘With the development and manufacturing of transition technologies under public ownership and democratic control, ecological damage could be minimized and the social benefits maximized,’ says Lavinia Steinfort, a political geographer and activist who works on energy democracy at the Transnational Institute.

After all, climate change – although perhaps the most urgent and universally apocalyptic – is not even the sole ecological challenge we face. We can play whack- a-mole, but simply swapping out energy technologies has no hope of solving what has been dubbed the polycrisis, but which is more accurately understood as the crisis of capitalism.

‘In Yorkshire there are deficits in health and care services. We need housing insulation,’ says Dickinson. ‘There’s a wide range of opportunities for actual decarbonization.’ We just need to kick out the snake oil salesmen and take the power back.

The Transnational Institute has collaborated with New Internationalist on this Big Story and has also published a collection of deeply researched pieces around this topic: ‘Dismantling Green Colonialism: Energy and Climate Justice in the Arab Region’.