Climate change: can technology save us?

After UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s latest October U-turn, all new cars sold in the UK must be electric by 2035, five years later than the original date. Of course, who knows what it will be in another five years’ time!

Cars produce half of transport emissions in the UK and transport emissions are one of the big four contributors to global carbon emissions. The other three: energy production, homes and industry.

Existing technological developments in all four areas will need to be harnessed to stop climate change. But in truth, the planet is not waiting for some new technological innovation to save it from burning up.

Sunak’s other recent climate U-turns include pushing back the deadline for phasing out home gas boilers and increasing the frequency at which new North Sea oil and gas licences are granted.

Together with London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) – charging owners of older petrol and diesel vehicles a punitive £12.50 a day to drive in the capital – these are lessons in how not to embrace the new technology we need to defeat global heating.

Meanwhile the real climate criminals – the big bosses, including in the fossil fuel industry – continue to benefit from huge state subsidies. Global fossil fuel subsidies and costs hit an incredible $7 trillion in 2022, the IMF reported in August this year.

Khan’s ULEZ efforts only feed suspicions that the science of global warming is a plot to rob the working class. Of course it is true that, as with everything else, the bosses will do all they can to make sure it is the working class not the capitalist class which pays the price for climate measures.

The workers’ movement has to make sure that the working class is not made to pay, and fight for the necessary climate measures too.

So does the technology capable of saving the environment exist? And who will pay?

The first answer is, yes, existing technology can already save the planet, but with two caveats. The first is that some major changes to the planet can now likely only be mitigated, not reversed.

“Accelerated ice melt in west Antarctica is inevitable for the rest of the century no matter how much carbon emissions are cut, research indicates” the Guardian reported in October, meaning an ocean rise of five metres, threatening to sweep away cities from London to New York, from Mumbai to Shanghai: “More than a third of the global population lives within 62 miles (100km) of the coast.”

The fear is not that the problem of sea rises could not be solved – that human ingenuity could not be used to mitigate the effects of a five-metre sea rise, for instance, in a modern equivalent to the centuries of building dykes for which the Dutch are famous.

The fear is that human ingenuity will not be engaged, except to protect the super-rich, because it will ‘cost too much’. That too little will be done, too late, too poorly and it will fail.

The levies failed in New Orleans, in the world’s most advanced capitalist nation, during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – a hurricane that was as much a marker of the arrival of global warming as any of the disasters that have followed.

80% of New Orleans disappeared underwater, some under 15 feet of water. That’s just slightly less than the five metres of predicted sea rise over the next few centuries. There were 1,836 fatalities.

And overwhelmingly, the victims of Hurricane Katrina were poor. A fear sweeping the world is that, whether in the USA or the UK, or anywhere else in the world, the poor and oppressed will be left defenceless against the effects of global warming.

How could we trust our capitalist governments, motivated by trying to cultivate a ‘profit-friendly’ environment for their own nation’s capitalist class – and clearly paralysed in the face of global warming – to protect us? The simple truth is, we can’t.

That’s the second, very large, caveat: that profit-driven, competition-based capitalism has proved itself unable to take the urgent measures necessary to prevent the global environmental disasters now hitting the planet. The United States now experiences a billion-dollar disaster approximately every three weeks on average, compared to once every four months during the 1980s. The neo-colonial world faces unending crises.

So who will pay? Clearly not the capitalist class if it gets its way. Only by nationalising big energy companies, other major industry and the banks, under democratic working-class control and management, can investment be planned to meet the needs of people and planet.

Electric vehicles and public transport

It may surprise you to learn that Clara Ford, wife of Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor company, drove an electric vehicle, a Detroit Electrics car, for many years, more than a century ago.

In the years that followed, as the planet heated up, investment in technology in other areas got humankind to the moon and back, created the atom bomb and the silicon chip, but despite declarations to the contrary, the legacy car manufacturers never seriously invested in electric vehicle technology.

Electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, led by the virulently anti-union Elon Musk, is now the world’s most valuable automaker. But far from being a shining light of a new start-up capitalist company, in fact Tesla has taken billions of dollars in US state funding during its development. In 2010 alone, Tesla received a $465 million loan from an Energy Department program, that offered funding to car companies making fuel-efficient cars.

The US capitalist state has stumped up huge amounts of cash for electric vehicle start-ups for the benefit of US capitalist interests as a whole – and in competition with China.

Seeing the rise of Chinese capitalist dominance over green technology, Joe Biden, desperate for US capitalism not to lose too much ground, enacted the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA), which included plans for $370 billion in energy and climate spending.

Environmental disasters, extreme weather events and other consequences of global warming are generally bad for profits – it is in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole to stop them. But the capitalist system is hindered by competition between individual capitalists, and between capitalist nation states. The ‘reallocation’ of resources to green technology at the rate needed would mean a serious hit to short-term profits. Capitalists and capitalist states don’t want to put themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

By far the most effective transport measure to reduce carbon emissions would be expanded, reliable, publicly owned public transport, made free to all.

But for many in Britain, public transport is simply not an option at present. The local rail system was ravaged many decades ago, approximately cut by half and it is far too expensive; it is often cheaper and quicker to travel by car. Many commute for hours every week, unable to afford to live near their workplace or find work near their home. Much of the rail network is not yet electrified. Freight is largely moved by diesel lorries, rail freight unable to provide enough capacity.

The now partly scrapped HS2 scheme, planned to connect London, Birmingham and major northern cities, was another example of capitalism’s reliance on state investment. Its completion was ultimately deemed ‘unaffordable’ by Sunak’s Tory government, with billions already spent.

With no affordable and reliable option, millions drive; and a majority that are looking to buy, now plan to ‘go electric’. UK battery electric vehicle sales increased 88% year-on-year in a standout July 2023, and 68% in Europe in August. Yet developing the charging infrastructure is once again something the capitalists look to the state to do, so that they can reap the profits.

Green energy production

It is essential that the electricity to run industry, homes and transport must be generated by green energy. Is it possible to generate enough?

Nine of the top 15 greenhouse gas emitters in the UK, which collectively output one sixth of the annual greenhouse gas emissions, are energy generating firms, according to a 2020 Sky News investigation.

Multiple studies have shown that the UK has plentiful green energy potential to supply all its needs. Zero-carbon sources provided 40% of the electricity used in 2022, made up of solar, wind, biomass, and hydropower.

In fact, renewables worldwide have developed far more rapidly than anticipated. Carbon emissions from the global electricity sector may peak this year, and the entire carbon emissions of China could peak this year, such is the investment in its renewable power generation capacity.

Yet, at present, the world’s emissions are still hitting record numbers. The ever-present danger is the profit motive itself. It was a lack of potential profit, not technical issues, that caused the failure of the latest UK government wind farm auction in September, gridlocking further growth. Wind power produces almost three quarters of the UK’s green energy, but reliance on private capital has just throttled growth again. This industry should be nationalised to enable planned development.

68% of the UK adult population support bringing energy companies back into public ownership. The Socialist Party supports this, as part of a democratic plan of production, and says compensation should only be paid to those shareholders who can prove real need.

More than a decade ago, a study carried in Scientific American, ‘A Plan for a Sustainable Future’ (November 2009), showed how “wind, water and solar power could supply the entire world’s energy needs by 2030.”

The study said that renewable energy is superabundant: “Accessible sunlight alone (excluding sunlight that falls on the oceans) could provide more than 40 times the amount of energy being consumed around the world today.”

If this report seemed unrealistic in 2010, since then, the cost of electricity from solar plants has fallen by 89%. The emergence of cheap perovskite solar cells signals another significant price drop and increase in efficiency of solar cells. Solar energy has become the cheapest source of electricity in history, according to the International Energy Agency. The cost of batteries has seen a similar price drop. The technical potential is very real.

Converting all transport and energy production to zero carbon cuts about 50% of the UK global warming emissions. The same principle applies to the other half – it’s not technology that is lacking but the inability of capitalism to implement it.

Extracting CO2 from the atmosphere is entirely technically possible but as billionaire Bill Gates told the Financial Times, “it’s not economic for the world”. (3/11/23 – Paywall) OK, it’s not a substitute for zero emissions, but as an emergency, concomitant action, it makes sense. So what price does capitalism put on saving the planet, Bill?

Batteries of every sort

Sceptics say that batteries, a critical component of green energy, are not advanced enough. If a society runs solely on electricity produced by solar, wind and waves, which vary so enormously, how can it be stored for average daily use?

In reality, energy storage is not a problem once one escapes from the capitalist mindset. The ‘problem’ of green energy generation and storage is a problem for big energy companies wishing to maintain monopolies over energy generation to make massive profits.

Large-scale energy storage has many ridiculously simple, low-tech solutions. For instance, ‘gravity batteries’ are weights, such as water or concrete blocks, raised when there is energy to store, and dropped as energy is required, generating power from a turbine.

These devices can be implemented in purpose built buildings, high rises, or even disused mineshafts. They can power a small town for a few hours at peak demand, to replace the peak-demand gas-fired power plants.

They can store surplus solar, wind and wave power to ensure steady output night and day. But existing batteries can do so too. The UK already has over 3 gigawatts of battery storage systems with the same again having received planning permission but not private capital funding.

And new battery technology advances continue. Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer BYD (‘Build Your Dreams’), the preeminent challenger to Tesla, is ramping up sodium ion battery production this year, and next year is thought to be placing them in its new Ford Fiesta-sized Seagull electric vehicle. It currently has a lithium battery, and is on sale in China for a remarkably low £8,500.

When the Seagull arrives in the UK next year, even at twice that price, it will undercut internal combustion engine vehicles and present a significant saving for buyers, given petrol costs. So has capitalism stepped up?

Well, no. Facing such significantly lower costs from China, the European Union is talking about imposing tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles. The EU aims to “protect” European car manufacturers, which failed to develop decent batteries for decades. A trade war gathers pace.

Action against global warming takes second place to profit, and competing national capitalist interests, once again. And car insurance companies, spooked by scare tactics, are threatening to hike costs massively. Another industry ripe for nationalisation!

The simple truth is, wherever you look, the obstacle to saving humanity from global warming is capitalism. For capitalism, the environment is an “externality”, to use the phrase of JP Morgan Chase, US-based multinational investment bank and one of the premier financiers of fossil fuels. Global warming is a systemic failure of capitalism itself. Trade wars, competition, secrecy, and decades of disinformation, lies and super-profits from oil, gas and coal – it is time to call time on the profit-based system.

Socialist change is needed – based on the nationalisation of major industries, a democratic plan of production and international collaboration – to swiftly put an end to global warming.

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December 2023