Green capitalism, an appendix

Bye bye ice caps?

Some further thoughts on capitalism and climate change.

I previously blogged on this topic at the end of last year. My main argument was that "it underestimates the flexibility of capitalism to think there can be no moves towards addressing climate change", that sections of capital stand to make big money from a shift to renewable energy, and are mobilising themselves politically to pressure states in that direction. The folks at Aufheben asked me to expand the argument into a proper article, so I did a bit more research, talked it over with them, and it appears in the new issue which is out at the moment. I don't want to cover too much of the same ground here, but rather to briefly draw attention to a few articles which have subsequently appeared in the business press.

The first of those, from the Financial Times, is CBI calls for green energy backing. The CBI is the Confederation of British Industry, the bosses' union-cum-lobby group. The FT writes:

In one of the most comprehensive assessments of the green economy in the past five years, a CBI report said the UK’s £122bn low carbon sector accounted for about a third of all growth in the past year and employed close to 940,000 people. Under the right conditions, it could turn the UK into a frontrunner in low carbon goods and services and cut the trade deficit by half the report said.

This seems significant, because it's not just the capitalists with a direct stake in renewables making the case, but the CBI as a whole. The argument I've made previously, which is expanded in the Aufheben piece, is that the 'green capitalists' have been getting their act together politically in coalitions like We can lead in the US, and the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change in the UK. So far, they've been relatively marginalised by the dominant 'fossil capitalists', and not done much beyond issue the odd 'communiqúe' calling for action. This has lead many critics to see it as just greenwash. But the stance of the CBI suggests the balance may be shifting in their favour. The Aufheben piece suggests that the longer the economic crisis goes on, the more previously marginalised views like those of the 'green capitalists' might become mainstream. Is the CBI's stance a sign of that happening?

The second piece is from the Economist, Complete disaster in the making: the world’s only global carbon market is in need of a radical overhaul. This piece is about the 'Clean Development Mechanism' (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol. Basically, this allows polluters to invest in emissions-reductions where it's cheapest (i.e. poorer countries), and thus earn credits to off-set against their emissions quotas. The fatal problem is that the Kyoto Protocol placed no limits on the fastest growing polluters (China, India, Brazil...), the US - until recently the largest greenhouse gas polluter - has already withdrawn, and that the Protocol is expiring without replacement after international talks repeatedly failed. Consequently, the CDM has functioned mainly as an appendage to the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). However, the ETS is chonically over-supplied with emissions credits. The Economist piece writes that:

An oversupply of permits to pollute is an endemic problem. A recent report by Thomson Reuters Point Carbon, an information provider, found that supplies of a different emissions right under the Kyoto protocol, called an “assigned amount unit”, outstripped estimated demand by over a thousand times.

That the market-based mechanisms aren't exactly inspiring is unlikely to surprise libcom readers. Though it has to be said, the over-supply of credits in the EU ETS is partly deliberate. In theory, it's to reduce corporate resistance and increase take up, before throttling the supply and thus prohibitively increasing the price of greenhouse gas emissions in a later phase. Whether that happens or not... I'm not holding my breath. But it partly depends on the balance of power between the 'fossil' and the 'green' capitalists, since it's a matter of state/EU policy. Other factors are the wider geopolitical solution, as the more countries who take similar action, the less impact higher emissions prices would have on the EU's relative competitiveness (and the less chance it would lead to 'carbon leakage', i.e. relocation of emissions-intensive businesses to less regulated regions). Which brings us to China.

The final piece, also from the FT, is Could self-interest green China’s economy? It's a couple of years old, but like my previous blog, this piece notes that China is simultaneously the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter and the world's leading investor in renewable technology. This creates a contradictory self-interest, but the FT piece argues China's leading position in renewables tech might make it self-interestedly shift in that direction. I wouldn't say this is likely, but it's certainly plausible. As China's far less developed than the US, it's far less path-dependent on fossil fuels. When you're building cities from scratch it's easier to incorporate the latest renewable energy and energy efficiency infrastructure than if you're retrofitting it to existing housing stock, business premises etc. The FT sums this up:

This argument moves the debate on from “climate change is bad, but development is our first priority” towards “development is our first priority, and climate change may threaten that"

If that's really happening, it's got huge implications for the geopolitics of climate change.

I'm still pretty pessimistic, and think that capitalism's locked on course for 4oC warming or more by 2100. But I wouldn't rule out a pretty rapid shift to renewables if the 'green capitalists' really are in ascendance. And of course, being capitalism, such a shift would likely come at a high social and environmental cost (climate change isn't the only way capitalism fucks up the environment, and I wouldn't be surprised if it simply displaces the most urgent crisis into other areas). But who knows, maybe we'll all be insulating lofts under 'green workfare' in the next few years, as states scramble for the leadership of the emerging 'green economy'.

Posted By

Joseph Kay
Sep 20 2012 11:02


  • Maybe we'll all be insulating lofts under 'green workfare' in the next few years, as states scramble for the leadership of the emerging 'green economy'.

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Joseph Kay
Sep 20 2012 14:16

Donald Trump's anti-wind farm fundraiser falls flat. This is an astroturf front formed because the Scottish government is building off-shore wind turbines within sight of Trump's luxury golf course. He threatened to pull out of his £1bn investment and spend £10m fighting wind farms, the Scottish government more or less laughed in his face as they're planning to produce a renewables surplus from 2020, which is worth far more than Trump's paltry billion.

Joseph Kay
Sep 24 2012 13:20

UK-China announce joint research into 'smart' power grids. £4million each doesn't seem a huge amount, but it's research, not infrastructure.

Press release wrote:
Smart grids manage the supply and demand of power through the national distribution network more effectively by introducing high-tech communications to the system. They also accommodate new energies such as solar and wind power as effectively and efficiently as possible. Both countries are committed to reducing their carbon use significantly by 40 per cent to 45 per cent of 2005 levels by 2020 for China and by 30 per cent from 1990 levels for the UK.

Nov 17 2013 14:08

Renewable energy won't actually address climate change. Apart from hydro, collecting renewable energy is too bothersome. The sources (wind, sun, tides, geothermal) are too dilute. Solar and wind are useless for baseload electricity. Worldwide energy use is projected to grow 4 times by the end of this century. That's way too much energy for renewables to handle.

The only energy source that could address climate change is the nuclear breeder; which capitalists are not be investing in. People perceive nuclear's safety reputation to be bad. Vast write-offs (a history of half built, non-operating nuclear power stations in the USA) and very long investment cycles (over 10 years for Hinkley Point C) make finance scare.

Joseph Kay
Nov 17 2013 17:26

Renewable energy on its own can't address climate change. But it's a big part of any effort to do so.

What do you mean by 'too dilute'? Potential renewables capacity far exceeds projected demand. The question is whether it's economical under capitalism, which depends a lot on state policy frameworks. It doesn't look likely, there's a lot of investment today in gas and coal plants with 30-year life cycles, but it's not technically impossible afaics.

In terms of baseload, that's a well known issue with the more intermittent renewables. There's unlikely to be a one-size fits all fix for that, but in the immediate term gas/nuclear play that role, and in the medium term there's options like installing solar overcapacity and using peak time surpluses obtained at effectively zero marginal cost to store energy, long-distance latitudinal HVDC transmission, in some regions making more use of tidal/geothermal etc, as well as biomass (agricultural waste recover and abiotic decomposition seems most promising).

Again, the big factor here is likely to be the policy framework, since there's always de facto state subsidies involved given the massive infrastructure investment and capital costs involved in the energy industry. It doesn't look likely that a fast enough, aggressive enough move away from fossil fuels is going to happen. But i think that's principally an economic/political problem rather than a technological one.