Capitalism oversees sluggish response to climate change


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The latest figures on renewable energy use show that it is being rolled out far too slowly to help us avoid dangerous changes to the climate. Investment into clean energy is mostly controlled by private capitalist investors, and as a result there is no plan to address global warming in any meaningful way. The need for a socialist alternative is urgent.

The group REN21 publishes an annual global status report on renewable energy. Their June 2018 report says that 26.5% of global electricity generating capacity was from renewable sources in 2017, a rise of 2% over a similar estimate last year. This is the largest rise ever seen; the year before, the increase was a more typical 0.8%.

However, only 1/5th of the energy used by humanity is for power generation, the rest is used in heating and transport. When these are considered, only 10.4% of global energy use in 2017 came from modern renewable sources. This is only 0.2% higher than their estimate for 2016.

It should be noted that these figures are estimates and the method of estimation can change from year to year, but they give an idea of the general trend. REN21 highlights the fact that renewables made up the bulk of newly built generating capacity last year. Government policies, falling costs, and growing electricity demand all make investment in renewables look profitable to some capitalists – for now. But this is happening too slowly to stop climate change.

The rise in renewable power has not come with any drop in CO2 emissions. The Global Carbon Project estimates that 2017 saw a growth of 2% in emissions. This came after a three-year period in which emissions did not grow. That hiatus was partly driven by factors like the economic slowdown in China – it was no indication of any real solution coming.

If we hold to the current rate of carbon emissions, figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2016 showed that it would take just 30 years to release so much carbon that the chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees, the inadequate target set by the Paris Climate Agreement, falls below 50%.

Climate researcher Robert Rohde noted in May that CO2 emissions in recent decades look like what was predicted in 1992 if we took no action to halt them at all (Twitter handle @rarohde, 14/5/18, 9:14am AEST). Virtually all studies agree we are not on track. A paper in September last year argued that we need emissions to start declining within two years to have a chance at avoiding 1.5 degrees of warming. If that does not happen, we will be left hoping for breakthrough technologies to draw carbon from the atmosphere.

Why have we failed to deal with the problem? The reason is capitalism, a system based on private ownership and investment.

The alternative is democratic public ownership and investment, but capitalists are unwilling to accept such a challenge to their system. Private ownership is the basis of their rule. Modern capitalism works to privatise even the publicly-owned institutions that existed in the past, when the workers movement was stronger. Their approaches to climate change shun public investment, relying on emissions trading schemes and private incentives. These approaches fall short.

The problem is that you can’t control what you don’t own. The enormous wealth controlled by capitalist investors, and the energy industry itself, needs to be taken under public control if we want it to be invested in clean energy. A democratic plan is needed to replace fossil fuels with renewables. This way, communities that depend on fossil fuel jobs are not ruined. With a proper plan, places like the La Trobe Valley could be turned into centres of renewable energy.

A decade ago, tens of thousands of people turned out to protests calling for the building of clean power. In 2010, the group Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) put forward a proposal to convert all Australia’s electricity generation to renewables within 10 years. Capitalist politicians ignored these calls, and diverted the discussion to market measures instead.

In a socialist society, proposals like BZE’s could be democratically debated and refined, with workers from different industries having input as to what is feasible. We know that changing power generation alone isn’t enough, so a worker’s government would also invest in free, high quality public transport, as well as energy efficient construction and agriculture. Capitalists compete with each other in national blocs, undermining international agreements to limit emissions, but workers can reach across borders to make a global plan to fight climate change.

To do this, we need democratic control of industry and society. The only way to avoid disaster is to fight for a socialist future.

By David Elliott

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