THE urgency of the need to address climate change is undisputed on the left. Nevertheless, while it is clear that action must be taken, there has to be a discussion about what those actions need to be.The danger is that if the socialist left does not move the debate towards the shared goals of both lowering carbon emissions and protecting well-paid and skilled jobs, then the issue will become another culture war divide.
In the last year, we have seen the defeat of the Australian Labour Party in a general election where a major factor was its inability to bridge the gap between its greener, urban and often university-educated supporters in the big cities and its traditional working-class voters, particularly in Queensland, who support coal mining.
At the 2019 Labour Party conference in Brighton, there were undignified scenes when energy workers in the GMB trade union were heckled by some constituency delegates.
While Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution focuses, understandably, on steps which Britain can take, the largest global producers of carbon emissions are those states where coal is still the backbone of electricity generation, particularly the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
Although China has led the way in developing renewables, its overall reduction of carbon per unit of energy has only been about 25 per cent – compared to 40 per cent in the United States – due to the country’s continued expansion of coal-fired electricity generation. So Britain must focus its efforts on changes that will make a global difference.
Treaties and laws will not create enough change: what we need are technical measures that shift the economics of the energy industry. For example, adding carbon capture and storage to coal and gas-fired power stations might increase prices by an estimated 20 per cent, but it would make them effectively carbon neutral.
A trial at Drax near Selby is currently capturing a tonne of CO2 a day from a biomass generator, actually making electricity generation carbon negative. This technology exists now and needs action to implement, including start-up subsidies and state infrastructure investment. Replacing coal with gas in electricity generation also halves the carbon emissions. France has the lowest carbon emissions of any developed economy as 70 per cent of its power is nuclear.
Earth’s environment involves a complex carbon lifecycle and we don’t need to drop emissions to nothing — we need to drop them to the level where photosynthesis and plant growth can absorb them.
Some use of fossil fuels is unavoidable; for example, natural gas is a vital raw material for producing nitrogen fertiliser, without which the supportable world human population would be 40 per cent lower.
Steel-making is responsible for 10 per cent of greenhouse gases, as it requires coke as a raw material, but poverty can only be addressed in developing countries by expanding steel production.
Rice production is one of the largest producers of greenhouse methane emissions, but it feeds millions.
While some environmentalists are impatient at talk of technical measures, we cannot make progress without changes that actually work. For example, in 2008, billionaire T Boone Pickens proposed to make the North American Great Plains the “Saudi Arabia of Wind Power” and he spent $58 million on advertising to promote the project — but he abandoned the scheme when the transmission lines needed to take the electricity to where it is needed could not be built.
Wind and solar power are intermittent producers of energy and battery technology to store electricity for when it is needed doesn’t exist on a sufficient scale.
One of the most promising ideas for renewable electricity is to use it to create hydrogen from sea water and feed this into the domestic gas network because hydrogen is carbon neutral. A current trial in Hull is successfully diluting natural gas with 20 per cent hydrogen, which needs no adaptation of already installed boilers.
Significant progress can be made towards greenhouse gas reduction by applying incremental technical innovations to every part of our industrial and transport systems.
Some of the changes are not intuitive; for example, switching the manufacture of car bodies to using advanced high-strength steel (AHSS) can reduce the weight of a vehicle by 39 per cent and give a lifetime reduction of 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. This compares to only a 19 per cent reduction of lifetime emissions by switching to battery electric vehicles (BEV), and as currently 20 per cent of all global energy use is in fuel for transport, a major shift to BEV can only be achieved by a significant, and difficult, increase elsewhere in electric power generation.
International shipping is now an integral part of globalised, integrated supply chains, without which our modern civilisation would be impossible, but shipping contributed 2.6 per cent of all human greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, with more than half of that being generated by the biggest ships.
It is not possible to use renewables, but switching to liquid natural gas (LNG) rather than diesel fuel would dramatically reduce emissions. Sadly, in 2015, only 0.1 per cent of all ocean-going shipping used LNG. Forcing a conversion to LNG requires government action and could produce jobs in British shipyards.
While life for many in Britain may seem divorced from the businesses of agriculture, energy generation, shipping, mining and manufacturing, and from the vast energy-consuming server farms that underpin our online world, these are the biggest drivers of carbon emissions.
Many of them are indispensable for the urban civilisation that we live in. To transition towards a lower-carbon economy while maintaining living standards and improving life in the developing world is a major challenge, and the left needs to have answers — not just slogans.
This article appeared in the Morning Star, 3rd February 2020.