Labour and Green Capitalism

By Stephanie Linkogle

Climate change is a huge risk to the survival of the planet, and the poorest and most vulnerable, who are least able to protect themselves, suffer the worst of it.

A central plank of Labour’s proposals on climate justice is that the cost of dealing with the climate emergency we face fall “fairly and are mostly borne by the wealthy and those most responsible for the problem.” Green New Deals like Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution call for massive public investment in renewable energy and electric vehicles in order to avert a climate catastrophe. This mammoth task would transform our economy and ambitious targets have been set for the replacement of fossil fuels with renewables. For this energy revolution to be consistent with climate justice, we must take care that green initiatives do not create more environmental damage than they prevent and that they are suited to Labour’s wider climate justice agenda.

Currently, some green energy solutions being advocated for use in the UK may not be living up to their ‘clean energy’ promise and are in fact heavily reliant on those fossil fuels they are supposed to replace. A case in point is solar energy in the UK which, surprisingly, may not always be environmentally beneficial.  The raw materials used to make solar panels need to be extracted, treated and manufactured into solar panels.  There are more or less environmentally damaging ways to do this, but the production of all solar panels currently require heavy metals and fossil fuels which create air pollution and greenhouse gases.

Solar panels last for between 20 and 30 years.  Obviously the longer they last the more they can offset and exceed the environmentally detrimental impact of their production, although their efficiency declines over time. At the moment most solar panels in the UK require the back-up of an electricity grid, which is usually powered by fossil fuels.

When solar panels eventually do come to the end of their lives, there is the problem of what to do with them.  The process of reclaiming the heavy minerals in them is more expensive than the value of the recovered minerals. Landfilling dead solar panels risks leaching toxins into the groundwater. A basic principle for adopting a green technology must be that the clean energy produced (replacing a polluting fossil fuel) will more than offset the detrimental environmental impact of its production and disposal.

This is in no way an argument for not pursuing renewable energy!  However, the limits to the energy-generating potential of renewables mean, at the moment, that it is not possible to simply get rid of all fossil fuels in the UK and replace them with green energy sources. This capacity will no doubt improve but we need to honestly evaluate not only the efficacy of green energy sources to meet current and growing energy needs but also their environmental footprint.

It may be that more creative solutions would yield a better environmental impact and be more socially transformative and redistributive. For example, the women’s budget group recommends that resources be put into the design of affordable “new houses and flats with dedicated spaces for drying laundry and storing bulk goods and recyclables, providing communal gardens, kitchens and utility sheds for sharing tools, toys, appliances and work between neighbours.”  

Ultimately any climate justice approach that does not challenge capitalism’s unbridled growth is bound to fail. As the 2019 Labour manifesto outlined, climate justice requires a board range of ecosocialist policies to succeed.  A future Labour government will need to see green technologies as tools of climate justice rather than the panacea for arresting climate change that green capitalists often claim.

Green imperialism?

We have seen many imperialist wars over the decades driven by securing access to oil. With the growing demand for green energy resources, we should be alert to the development of novel forms of imperialism.

For example, former Bolivian President Evo Morales, leader of the Movement Towards Socialism, was deposed in a 2019 US-sponsored coup. He has stated that the reason for his overthrow was the policy that only state-owned companies could mine and process lithium for export. Bolivia has the world’s largest single deposit of lithium and at least one quarter of all lithium resources. Lithium is an essential component in batteries, including those needed to power electric vehicles.

Prior to the coup, Bolivia had begun making its own batteries and the country’s first electric car model was manufactured by a majority state-owned company. Bolivia would have been able to set the world price for lithium. After overthrowing Morales, the coup government immediately announced its plan to allow multinationals to mine lithium in Bolivia and the coup’s foreign minister Karen Longaric wrote to Elon Musk, CEO of the electric car manufacturer Tesla, stating, “Any co-operation that you or your company can provide to our country will be gratefully welcomed.” In response to criticisms of the coup and the violent aftermath, Musk, responded, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”

In October 2020, the people of Bolivia resoundingly rejected this coup government, voting the Movement Towards Socialism back in with a huge majority. So those that wish to control Bolivia’s lithium, will just have to ‘deal with it’.  Climate justice must extend to making sure that green capital doesn’t get a free pass to exploit the resources of other countries and socialists should be aware of the potential for a new breed of imperial warmongering.

Selective activism and ‘greenwashing’

Environmental groups and activists often focus their efforts on eliminating the use of fossil fuels as central to averting climate disaster. However, 51% of total greenhouse gas emissions come from animal agriculture and this rarely receives anything like the attention that environmental campaigns devote to the deleterious impact of fossil fuels. Perhaps it’s because a focus on animal agriculture as the major driver of human-made climate change requires the massive scaling down of a global trillion dollar industry whereas a focus on the replacement of fossil fuel is a trillion dollar boon to the green energy industry. 

Another factor that could play a role in this silence is the funding that many environmental groups receive from billionaires who have a stake in green technologies or who may be greenwashing their extreme wealth. This may make it difficult for environmental organisations to offer unbiased solutions to the environmental crisis we face. 

Many were surprised when Extinction Rebellion declared, “Just to be clear: we are not a socialist movement.” Yet it doesn’t seem that surprising when you consider that Extinction Rebellion is funded by billionaire Sir Christopher Hohn, who owns a stake in Heathrow Airport, and the Climate Emergency Fund, set up by American billionaires.

It is estimated that there will be $50 trillion worth of profit opportunity from a full transition to renewable technology.  Governments funding Green New Deals will need to be very careful that they do not confuse their climate justice agendas with the aims of the green energy industry – profit. We must be cautious that our understanding of the environmental crisis and the solutions necessary to achieve climate justice are not skewed to the money-making priorities of green capitalists.

A climate justice policy which included support for organic farming and for meat and dairy farmers to transition to more sustainable farming would see a huge reduction greenhouse gasses.  Subsidising sustainably produced food for consumers and directly purchasing sustainable food from farmers for high quality free school meals for all children in education would also be a huge step in averting climate catastrophe and would vastly improve the health and educational prospects of our children. 

The current Labour leadership must build on and strengthen the groundbreaking and transformative Green Industrial Revolution strategy outlined in the 2019 manifesto. Scrutiny of the efficacy of new green technologies and the climate footprint of their production should be mandated. Since it is not yet possible to meet our current energy needs exclusively or even primarily with renewables, let alone steadily growing demand, support to areas of the economy that are less energy-intensive, for example, social care, must be a priority.

As green energy is heavily reliant on mining, any Labour Green New Deal should stipulate that minerals in green technologies are ethically sourced and that the climate emergency is not used as a justification for exploiting poor counties. Finally, given that animal agriculture is a major driver in climate change, radical food and farming policies are required to meet carbon reduction targets. This could also be also a historic opportunity for Labour to not only tackle climate change but also to dramatically improve public health and food security.

The danger to people and the planet created by capitalism will not be swept away by capitalism. There is no avoiding the fact that green technologies, while essential to halting and reversing climate change, will not in and of themselves overcome the environmental dangers that capitalism poses.

In the huge economic and social transformation that climate justice requires, Labour’s socialist agenda may well be distinct from the interests of green capitalists. We must fight for democratic control over our resources and the solutions to climate change must be genuinely for people and planet. Capitalism got us into this mess – only socialism can get us out.

References/Further reading:

Towards a Feminist Green New Deal for the UK

How Sustainable is PV solar power?

Study claims meat creates half of all greenhouse gases

Elon Musk ‘Confesses’ to Lithium Coup in Bolivia

Labour Manifesto 2019: It’s time for real change

The Case for the Green New Deal, by Ann Pettifor, published by Verso

Stephanie Linkogle is a member of Islington North CLP. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Great Escape 3, a Highbury East branch magazine.

Image: The Uyuni Salt Flat is the world’s largest salt flat.  Underneath is a pool of brine rich in lithium which Bolivia is just starting to extract. Bolivia is the holder of the world’s largest known lithium reserves. Source: 20170809_Bolivia_1505 crop Uyuni sRGB. Author: Dan Lundberg, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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