Boris Johnson: Ecosocialism or Extinction



Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, inheriting a nation of widespread poverty, indefinite detention, a looming recession, and a polluted environment. What are the prospects with Johnson and his cabinet for the UK’s environment? (They’re not good)


In parliament Johnson almost always voted against measures to prevent climate change. According to DeSmog UK he has frequently “rejected climate science” and maintains ties to climate denial groups. The former chief scientist of the UK has said that Johnson has previously misled the public and oversaw cuts in a team of climate experts as foreign secretary. The Prime Minister’s focus is squarely on protecting Britain’s economy during Brexit, despite the fact that 71% of Britons believe climate change is more important. In typical neoliberal fashion he has said he will put the private sector “in the driving seat” of efforts to address climate change.

His cabinet, dubbed the “most anti-climate action” ever, is a rogues gallery of climate deniers, fossil fuel investors, fracking advocates, and anti-renewable bureaucrats.

The UK government itself cheated on its emission figures by excluding figures from flights and shipping, and the Net Zero by 2050 legislation that Johnson has inherited from May is not as impressive as it sounds. The government is currently hopelessly unprepared for the impacts climate change will have on its citizens. Although the carbon intensity of electricity generation is consistently getting lower the UK will soon miss its carbon emissions targets regardless.


In the UK we’ve seen a 19% percent increase in food bank use, and there are an estimated 2.2 million people in the UK that are severely food insecure. This occurs at the same time as almost a third of UK vegetable crops are not harvested due to superficial supermarket standards and a spiralling crisis in health caused by a blinkered focus on producing cheap food regardless of the consequences.

Our soils are leaking carbon and will soon lose their ability to produce food. The UK agricultural system is still reliant on fossil fuels – machinery requires petroleum, fertilisers need natural gas, and our distribution system is based on motor trucks, and figures from 2008 claim that “95% of our food is oil dependent“. A fifth of all agricultural land “must shift to alternative uses that support emissions reduction” in order to reach Net Zero by 2050.

Our food system must undergo a revolution in order to be fit-for-purpose and future-proofed – all Boris can do is promise that UK farmers will “have the support they need“.


More and more people across the world will be forced from their homes and communities by extreme weather and will make their way across borders in search of sanctuary as climate refugees. The EU’s border externalisation is no solution to this, and neither is the UK’s hostile environment.

The wealthy nations are strengthening and militarising their borders to prepare for the predicted influx of climate refugees. Johnson’s promise to introduce an Australian-style points system will likely not change this – as Jamie Bartlett writes, “the lesson of history – real, long-lens human history – is that people move, and when they do, it’s hard to stop.”



A better world is possible!

A carbon-neutral society is easily achievable as outlined by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). A program like Labour’s Alternative Models of Ownership that emphasises cooperatives and municipal ownership would help to restore local control of energy and services. Over three-quarters of the UK population believe our electricity networks, as well as the UK’s railways and water infrastructure, should be in public ownership. Decentralised systems of offshore wind, solar power, and wave energy, alongside energy efficiency improvements will allow the UK to phase out fossil fuels and embrace renewable energy.

Converting large areas of inefficient animal farmland to forest would help sequester carbon whilst maintaining food production. The principle of subsidiarity – favouring local production for local consumption over long-distance production and transport of goods – will help the UK increase food self-sufficiency while minimising irrational trade. Our farms are more than capable of phasing out pesticides and maintaining yields through agroecology. The breaking-up of huge monocultures into a greater number of smaller farms organised on agroecological principles scattered across the countryside will help boost food production and reduce their environmental impact. Reforestation projects with mass public participation have huge potential to sequester carbon across the UK (the CCC calls for at least 30,000 hectares per year) alongside coastal ecosystem and peat restoration.

The stakes have never been higher. Limiting global warming to less than 2 °C warming by 2100 is becoming increasingly unlikely. Carbon markets, renewable subsidies, and hand-wringing over intervening in the market are absolutely meaningless. We need a Green New Deal for the UK to tackle climate change while guaranteeing a just transition for fossil fuel workers and ensuring energy democracy for the UK’s citizens. John Bellamy Foster outlines an appropriate ecosocialist platform that could be adopted for the UK, emphasising (among other things) accessible public transportation, the phasing out of fossil fuel infrastructure, and the prohibition of privatisation. A redistributive, democratic system is necessary for us to survive. We can degrow the economy whilst ensuring a good life for all within planetary boundaries.

We must reject lifeboat authoritarianism and let the refugees in. “This is not a refugee crisis,” as Omar Robert Hamilton writes, but “a public demonstration of an ideology.” We must reject the völkisch environmentalism of the right-wing and embrace ecosocialism, recognising that climate change is a class problem. Capitalism has ushered us into this planetary mess, a world-state we may call the capitalocene. Now we need to find a way to escape together.

“We can ask only one thing of the free men and women of the future: to forgive us that it took so long to get there and that it was such a hard pull.”


Part 2: Hinkley Point C – Alternatives to Nuclear Ideology

paneles solares

Image: Jose Juan Castellano

As we saw in the last post plans for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C, Somerset have been beset by troubles. This next post aims to detail further problems with a nuclear strategy for the UK, and highlight the alternatives to achieve a genuine low-carbon energy sector.

The Problems

Hinkley Point C (henceforth just Hinkley) is simply another example of the current UK government engaging with projects not for economic or environmental concerns, but for ideological reasons. For example, “taxpayers could end up paying more than £30bn through a range of subsidies” in order to support the new power station because it is not profitable by itself (Business Leader, 2016). Advisors in DECC (when it existed) also had links to EDF, which could explain the preferential treatment given to nuclear energy (Clarke, 2016) despite the fact that the current set price for electricity generated from the power station offered by the UK government is double average wholesale electricity prices (Elmes, 2016), representing another loss for the average UK citizen. As if that wasn’t enough,

“The predicted cost of Hinkley Point C has steadily risen from £14bn to £24.5bn and has steadily risen from earlier estimates of £16bn. The complexity of the project is enormous, due to what is believed to be by many to be an over-engineered design. There are also reported issues regarding the manufacture of the reactor pressure vessel for the EPR [European Pressurised Reactor] associated with anomalies in the composition of the steel.” (Freer, 2015)

These defects – enormously dangerous in a nuclear power station – are down to the French nuclear firm Areva, responsible for leading the construction of Hinkley, misreporting or failing to report key information in their quality control documents. As a result Hinkley – and other nuclear power plants around the world – may be using components that would be unable to “withstand sudden breakdown in certain conditions” (Boren, 2016).

On the bright side, we won’t have to worry about these manufacturing errors causing problems in the immediate future. Due to ongoing delays “Hinkley C is unlikely to produce electricity much before 2030” (Carrington, 2016a). By the time it is online it is likely to face ongoing problems due to extreme weather events caused by climate change (if global warming hasn’t been mitigated appropriately by then). Nuclear power stations are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather as these events

“could disrupt the functioning of critical equipment and processes that are indispensable to safe operation including reactor vessels, cooling equipment, control instruments and back-up generators.” (World Energy Council, 2014)

So at the moment we are looking forward to a nuclear power station billions over budget, not scaled to be completed until 2025 (Farrell, 2016), and subsequently vulnerable to storm damage and rising sea levels.

On top of this the justification that Hinkley will provide the UK with “baseload”power that is “vital to the UK” (EDF, 2016) is a myth. The importance of the new power station “has been repeatedly overplayed” (Gosden, 2016) and “the idea of large power stations [nuclear or not] for baseload is outdated” (Beckman, 2015). Practical experience, such as the German states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Schleswig-Holstein running on 100% renewable energy, and a host of studies and computer simulations of electricity markets and supply-demand systems prove that monolithic power stations providing baseload power are not required (Diesendorf, 2016). Other studies have shown that closing down nuclear power stations and transitioning to renewable energy provides a host of environmental and economic benefits without jeopardising energy security (, 2012; Gawel & Strunz, 2014).

Additionally, any employment supported by the construction of Hinkley will be temporary and filled by overseas workers, and less than a thousand jobs will be “created” for day-to-day operations (Fairlie, 2016). Jobs in the renewable energy sector far outweigh nuclear jobs. It is no surprise then that public support for Hinkley is very low (Chrisafis, 2016; Pagnamenta, 2016). There are even internal disputes within the board of EDF, with worker representatives filing “a challenge to overturn the company’s controversial decision to build the nuclear reactors” due to essential information about the power station not being shared with all board members (Chrisafis, 2016).

So we have seen that nuclear energy would be problematic for UK, and if Hinkley Point C were allowed to develop it would be a tacit endorsement for further nuclear development regardless of its practicality. So what are the alternatives?

The Solutions

The current situation seems dire. At the moment “the percentage of energy Britain now has to import has returned to the levels last seen in the early 1970s, before North Sea oil came on stream” (Elliott, 2016). This is a fear that the nuclear industry has exploited in order to appear as a solution. But as Elliott continues, “the cost of renewables are coming down all the time”. To develop a practical, secure energy supply requires the UK “to move away from large Hinkley-type projects” (Business Leader, 2016). This is not only an environmentally safer option but more economically secure – the thinktank Intergenerational Foundation found that “Britain would pay up to £40bn less for renewable alternatives that would generate the equivalent power to Hinkley over the plant’s planned lifetime” (Vaughan, 2016a). For the UK to pursue nuclear energy when “the world is finally producing renewable energy at an industrial scale” and with global installations of renewable energy projects surpassing “100,000 megawatts of capacity” in 2014 seems ludicrous (Steiner, 2015). As The Economist (2016) reports,

“Since Hinkley became a serious proposal less than a decade ago, the cost of nuclear power has increased, that of renewables has fallen and the price of battery storage—which could one day disrupt the entire power system—has plummeted. What is more, EDF’s nuclear technology has failed to get off the ground in the two projects in Finland and France that have sought to use it.”

So what are our options? Let us assess the evidence.


The world’s largest offshore windfarm was recently approved by the UK government, set to be constructed 100km off the Yorkshire coast (Anthony, 2016). It will provide power to almost two million homes when completed. As more of these windfarms are constructed (there are currently thirty offshore windfarms in UK territory) the energy generated will steadily become more reliable – as den Rooijen (2016) explains, “if the wind doesn’t blow in one [area], the wind blows in another, and the net effect is that the combined power output is less variable”. He continues

“At present, we have 2,200 wind turbines in operation and under construction, taking up less than 1% of our total seabed. National Grid estimates that nearly half of all power could be generated from our seabed by 2030 through offshore wind, combined with tidal power lagoons and strong electrical connections to our neighbouring countries.”

With 5GW (gigawatts) of offshore wind energy and 9GW of onshore wind currently online with new projects constantly in the pipeline (e.g. Hornsea Projects 1, 2, and 3) the 3.2GW that Hinkley will provide seems insignificant by comparison (Macalister, 2016a).

At the moment offshore windfarms are already being built at cheaper prices than Hinkley, and will meet 10% of the UK’s electricity demand by 2020 (Sauven, 2016; Macalister, 2016b) while Hinkley will only produce 7% when it is finally built in 2025 (ignoring delays common with the reactor design – see Stacey & Burgis, 2016). Looking to land, the UK government’s own calculations predict that “onshore wind power and large-scale solar [will] cost less per megawatt hour than new nuclear by 2025” (Vaughan, 2016b). Renewables will also be cheaper to build – the Intergenerational Foundation found that onshore wind power would be £31.2 billion cheaper than Hinkley whilst producing the same amount of energy over a thirty-five year period (Simms, 2016).

In reality the UK has exploited less than 1% of its offshore wind energy potential – a total of 675GW is economically feasible, which is more than six times the UK’s current electricity demand (Cavazzi & Dutton, 2016). The potential for wind energy alone dwarfs UK nuclear power.


Solar power is similar to wind power – it is cheap, efficient, and a far better alternative to nuclear projects like Hinkley. By 2025, large-scale solar is expected to cost between £50 and £75 per megawatt hour, according to the UK government’s energy department, whereas nuclear power is expected to cost “around £85-125/MWh, in line with the guaranteed price of £92.50/MWh that the government has offered Hinkley’s developer, EDF” (Vaughan, 2016b). The Intergenerational Foundation’s report consolidates the cheapness of solar compared to nuclear, citing evidence that solar power in the UK would be £40 billion cheaper compared to Hinkley over the thirty-five year contract period (Simms, 2016).

Solar power is now 50% cheaper than it was in 2011, and “more than 800,000 homes now have rooftop solar” (Sauven, 2016) proving its effectiveness. Solar power recently beat coal power in the UK for the first time some months ago, generating “1,273 gigawatt hours of power” in May, beating the 778 gigawatt hours generated by coal (Evans, 2016), showcasing its ability to outclass fossil fuels in power generation.

Looking past simple economic comparisons, solar power arrays can also enhance biodiversity as they take up only a small percentage of the land and often allow insect species “to thrive” compared to arable land (Solarcentury, 2014). A more recent study found that “solar farms can lead to an increase in the diversity and abundance of broad leaved plants, grasses, butterflies, bumblebees and birds” (Montag et al., 2016). Solar power on agricultural land is also a possibility – a 2013 study published in Agricultural and Forest Meteorology found that crops under a “half-density” array of solar panels “were just as productive as the ones in the unshaded control plots; in a few cases, they were even more productive”and that “shading irrigated vegetable crops with PVPs [photovoltaic panels] allowed a saving of 14 percent to 29 percent of evapotranspired water, depending on the level of shade created and the crop grown” (Marrou et al., 2013). Solar power is thus an effective energy delivery strategy without having to sacrifice grassland or arable land, compared to the large footprint required of nuclear power stations like Hinkley.

Other Possibilities

Solar and wind power are not the only alternatives to Hinkley available to us – there is a miscellany of other technologies available. Wave energy devices, for example, placed in the “most economic areas” around the UK’s coast could generate up to 10GW, which equates to “11% of the UK’s current power generation” (Carbon Trust, 2012).

Instead of producing additional power, increased energy efficiency measures in the UK would make projects like Hinkley obsolete. Improving efficiency could, according to various authors, reduce electricity demand by the equivalent of four to six Hinkley power stations (DECC, 2012; Blackman, 2016) and save billions of pounds a year. As Damian Carrington (2016b) writes,

“Energy efficiency could deliver six Hinkley’s worth of electricity by 2030, interconnector cables to Norway, Denmark and France could add another two or three Hinkleys to the grid by 2025 and four Hinkleys’ worth of electricity could be saved by 2030 by increasing the ability to store electricity and making the grid smarter, with the latter alone saving bill payers £8bn a year.”

These trends in efficiency, smart grids, and better energy storage won’t go away – “the National Grid predicts that in some scenarios by 2020, small-scale and distributed generation will represent a third of total capacity in the UK” (Sauven, 2016).  This is simply proof that the age of megaprojects like Hinkley is over – the UK needs to focus on connecting “consumption as well as supply and think more decentralised than central” (Elmes, 2016).

Is it Possible?

These technics are far from implausible – many of them rely on technology that exists today and trends that are already occurring. If Hinkley Point C is cancelled (and it should be) additional renewable energy projects can “plug significant gaps in capacity very quickly – much more quickly than long lead time and significantly delayed new nuclear” (Caldecott, 2016). The recent analysis from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit using “ultra-conservative” estimates and considering “only mature technologies” succinctly surmised that “Hinkley is not essential” (ECIU, 2016), contrary to the assertions of the EDF chief executive (de Rivaz, 2016).

As Gawel and Strunz (2014) wrote in their case study of Germany’s nuclear phase-out, it is less about technology and more about providing a “a long-term transition perspective and a stable political consensus” that will encourage the development of renewable energy and not so-called “low-carbon” energy sources like nuclear or gas. This social and political shift will readily yield “measurable economic and environmental benefits” (, 2012).

Many studies and analyses looking at the possibility of a long-term, global shift to renewable energy have found that it is plausible and easily achievable. EDF’s claim that we shouldn’t “hope that a new technology will meet all our needs” is unfounded and false – we don’t need “new” technologies because existing ones are more than enough (de Rivaz, 2016). Such claims muddy the waters when it comes to discussing a sustainable future and betray the wants of large energy corporations like EDF who are threatened by the coming wave of renewable and decentralised energy technologies. In fact, pursuing the idea of nuclear power as part of the UK’s energy strategy would be harmful to genuine renewable energy uptake – a study by the University of Sussex found that countries like the UK who are “nuclear-committed” and plan to replace old nuclear power plants with newer models are slower to adopt renewable energy and reduce the carbon intensity of energy generation (Lawrence et al., 2016; Cuff, 2016). The study identified that

“progress in both carbon emissions reduction and in adoption of renewables appears to be inversely related to the strength of continuing nuclear commitments.”

Thus any and all assertions that nuclear power should be a component of the UK’s energy strategy are detrimental in the long-term.

Jacobson and Delucchi (2010) in a peer-reviewed study found that instituting a global infrastructure based on wind, water, and solar energy could not only meet the world’s energy needs but reduce “world power demand by 30%”. In a growing trend, they emphasise that “barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic”. Schwartzman and Schwartzman’s (2011) similar study, published via the Institute for Policy Research & Development, found that a global transition to (only) wind and solar power could

“occur in two or three decades and requires very little fossil fuel (on the order of one half of a year’s present global consumption) and no revolutionary technological innovations.”

As far back as 2004 one peer-reviewed study identified that “humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century” (Pacala and Socolow, 2004).

Importantly though, we cannot wait for these energy trends to unfold by themselves. Many political and economic actors will work and lobby to ensure that energy systems in the UK remain centralised and based on scarce supplies of fossil fuels, the better to control energy distribution in a country gripped by the worst inequality in decades (Williams-Grut, 2015; Reuben, 2015). But as Podobnik (2010) warned

“The historical record shows very clearly that deep, enduring changes in energy industries require the mobilization of mass social movements. We cannot simply wait for visionary politicians to forge the way.”

A mass social movement in the UK calling for fair, equitable, renewable energy generation (e.g. plasmatelly, 2014) is thus required to not only break the trend of monolithic, centralised energy projects being built, but also to protect and defend the environment from the biocrisis (Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009). Projects like Hinkley Point C must be opposed whenever they emerge. Any form of society that hopes to survive in the coming decades can and must be powered by renewable energy.


Anthony, S. (2016). World’s largest offshore windfarm in Yorkshire approved by UK government. Accessed 22/08/16

Beckman, K. (2015). Steve Holliday, CEO National Grid: “The idea of large power stations for baseload is outdated”. Accessed 21/08/16

Blackman, J. (2016). The role for energy storage as an alternative to Hinkley Point C. Accessed 27/08/16

Boren, Z. D. (2016). Hinkley builder admits defective parts may be found in nuclear plants around the world. Accessed 21/08/16

Business Leader (2016). Security is not the only reason to cancel Hinkley. There are many others. Accessed 20/08/16

Caldecott, B. (2016). Keeping the lights on: security of supply after coal. Accessed 27/08/16

Carbon Trust (2012). Revealed: the UK’s wave power hot spots. Accessed 27/08/16.

Carrington, D. (2016a). Five ways to power the UK that are far better than Hinkley Point. Accessed 21/08/16

Carrington, D. (2016b). Hinkley’s nuclear plant fails all tests – bar the politics. Accessed 27/08/16.

Cavazzi, S., Dutton, A. G. (2016). An Offshore Wind Energy Geographic Information System (OWE-GIS) for assessment of the UK’s offshore wind energy potential. Renewable Energy 87 (1), 212-228.

Chrisafis, A. (2016). EDF representatives file legal challenge in France over Hinkley Point. Accessed 01/09/16

Clarke, J. S. (2016). Hinkley C: government’s ‘revolving door’ to EDF execs. Accessed 21/08/16

Cuff, M. (2016). Study: Countries that support nuclear energy lag on climate targets. Accessed 28/08/16

DECC [Department of Energy and Climate Change] (2012). Capturing the full electricity efficiency potential of the UK.–2 Accessed 27/08/16.

Diesendorf, M. (2016). Dispelling the nuclear ‘baseload’ myth: nothing renewables can’t do better! Accessed 21/08/16

ECIU [Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit] (2016). Hinkley: What If? Can the UK solve its energy trilemma without Hinkley Point C? Accessed 28/08/16

EDF (2016). Why Hinkley Point C is vital to the UK. Accessed 21/08/16

Elliott, L. (2016). UK green energy sector needs nurturing over nuclear. Accessed 22/08/16

Elmes, D. (2016). As Hinkley Point C put on ice: the UK needs to get over energy megaprojects. Accessed 21/08/16

Evans, S. (2016). Analysis: Solar beats coal over a whole month in UK for first time. Accessed 27/08/16

Fairlie, I. (2016). If it’s jobs they want, Labour and the unions must back renewables, not Hinkley C! Accessed 01/09/16

Farrell, S. (2016). Hinkley Point C: what you need to know about the nuclear power project. Accessed 21/08/16

Freer, M. (2015). Simpler, smaller, cheaper? Alternatives to Britain’s new nuclear power plant. Accessed 21/08/16

Gawel, E., Strunz, S. (2014). Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power is fundamentally sensible from an economic perspective. Accessed 22/08/16

Gosden, E. (2016). Hinkley Point not necessary to keep the lights on, says SSE chief. Accessed 21/08/16

Institute for Experimental Freedom (2009). Introduction to the Apocalypse. Accessed 28/08/16

Jacobson, M. Z. & Delucchi, M. A. (2010). Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power. Energy Policy 39 (3), 1154–1169.

Lawrence, A., Sovacool, B., Stirling, A. (2016). Nuclear energy and path dependence in Europe’s ‘Energy union’: coherence or continued divergence? Climate Policy 16 (5).

Macalister, T. (2016a). Hinkley Point C is not only new energy option, says windfarm developer. Accessed 23/08/16

Macalister, T. (2016b). Crown estate wades into Hinkley Point nuclear debate. Accessed 22/08/16

Marrou, H., Guilioni, L., Dufour, L., Dupraz, C., Wery, J. (2013). Microclimate under agrivoltaic systems: Is crop growth rate affected in the partial shade of solar panels? Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 177, 117-132.

Montag, H., Parker, G., Clarkson, T. (2016). The Effects of Solar Farms on Local Biodiversity: A Comparative Study. Accessed 25/08/16

Pacala, S., Socolow, R. (2004). Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies. Science 305, 968-972.

Pagnamenta, R. (2016). Hinkley nuclear support falls as majority oppose China role. Accessed 01/09/16 (2012). Bulletin: German nuclear exit delivers economic, environmental benefits. Accessed 22/08/16

plasmatelly (2014). Communising energy: power to the people! Accessed 28/08/16

Podobnik, B. (2010). Building the Clean Energy Movement: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective. In: Abramsky, K.. ed. Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-petrol World. AK Press, Oakland, 72-80.

Reuben, A. (2015). Gap between rich and poor ‘keeps growing’. Accessed 28/08/16

de Rivaz, V. (2016). ‘New nuclear’ has to be part of our low-carbon energy future. Accessed 28/08/16

den Rooijen, H. (2016). Hinkley C’s future is in doubt. Let’s turn our sights to offshore wind. Accessed 22/08/16

Sauven, J. (2016). For a secure energy future, there are far better investments than Hinkley. Accessed 23/08/16

Schwartzman, P. D. & Schwartzman, D. W. (2011). A Solar Transition is Possible. Institute for Policy Research & Development, London.

Simms, A. (2016). Toxic Time Capsule: Why nuclear energy is an intergenerational issue. Accessed 23/08/16.

Solarcentury (2014). Further evidence supports opportunity for creating bio-diverse solar farms. Accessed 25/08/16

Stacey, K., Burgis, T. (2016). EDF’s French nuclear plant faces years of further delay. Accessed 22/08/16

Steiner, A. (2015). ‘The world is finally producing renewable energy at an industrial scale’. Accessed 22/08/16

The Economist (2016). When the facts change… Accessed 01/09/16

Vaughan, A. (2016a). Scrapping Hinkley for renewable alternatives would save ‘tens of billions’. Accessed 22/08/16

Vaughan, A. (2016b). Solar and wind ‘cheaper than new nuclear’ by the time Hinkley is built. Accessed 23/08/16

Williams-Grut, O. (2015). Here’s just how wealthy the top 1% in Britain are. Accessed 28/08/16

World Energy Council (2014). Climate Change: Implications for the Energy Sector. Accessed 21/08/16

Part 1: Hinkley Point C – What is all the fuss about?


Image: Adrian Sherratt

You may have seen in the news recently much debate about the new nuclear reactor planned for Hinkley Point in Somerset. EDF had been wondering whether to finance it, Theresa May is delaying the decision, but what is really going on? This post aims to clear up the situation.

UK Government

The government gave the go ahead for new nuclear power stations back in 2006, stating they would make a “significant contribution” to energy generation, considering we are phasing out coal fired power stations. Before Hinkley C the last new nuclear station was Sizewell B which opened in 1995.

The new power plant at Hinkley C will purportedly provide just 7% of our electricity. For some silly reason we have also agreed to pay double the current market price for it over 35 years. To even a passing reader this seems rather expensive to fulfill not much of our energy needs. In comparison, gas power stations are £27.50 per MWh less expensive at generating energy. The executive director of Greenpeace, John Sauven, says it is “terrible value for money”.

Amber Rudd, the former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, emphasised “we have to secure baseload electricity”. However, more and more research is suggesting the idea of needing power stations to maintain baseload is a fallacy. Practical experience shows that renewable energy can easily cope alone. As an example, the states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Schleswig-Holstein in Germany already use 100% renewable energy. This is a net figure because they trade with each other and between other states to achieve this, but does show with a bit of effort it is possible.

As for construction, at least that will provide 25,000 jobs, although it remains to be seen how many of them come from the local area. Once construction has finished 900 people will be employed to operate the station itself. What will it cost taxpayers? The government has insisted consumers will only have to pay about £10 per year for Hinkley C’s construction, but has provided no figures or evidence to back this up.



EDF, the French power giant, has been tasked with building the power station. They have yet to complete building any reactors like those which will be used at Hinkley. The construction of their nuclear power plant at Flamanville in France has had many problems and is now years behind schedule and way over budget. I wonder if this is what we have to look forward to in the construction of Hinkley C? It certainly hints that the £10 per year cost to UK taxpayers is like rise and not just by a bit.

As EDF is 85% owned by the French government, any decision on this scale also effects them. They have been under strain to approve this project, even leading to EDF’s finance director, Thomas Piquemal, resigning reportedly amid fears the investment could damage EDF. In July the French Financial Markets Authority raided EDF’s offices, investigating claims they had misrepresented the cost of Hinkley. Some staff believe the project could sink the company, with the company warned its credit rating may be downgraded if it goes ahead. The French government have even offered to help bailout EDF to cover construction costs. Things are certainly not looking good for EDF as a company in its own right, and many are already calling Hinkley C a ‘white elephant’.

Assuming the plant gets built, what would happen should a future UK government decide to close it prior to 2060? Documents seen by The Guardian show that UK taxpayers could be left with a £22b bill if that were to happen. This gives EDF zero risk, but there could be numerous reasons why the UK may not want to continue for instance costs, loss of public confidence and a change in energy infrastructure (IS THIS THE RIGHT WORD?). Do we really want to be tied into such a contract?

Chinese Investment in Hinkley

Now EDF have finally made the decision to proceed with construction the Conservative PM Theresa May has decided to delay the start. May, as former home secretary, had apparently voiced concern about the attitude to Chinese investment in Hinkley, according to Vince Cable. The Chinese General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGNCP) are providing a third of the £18b cost. It has recently been alleged that the CGNCP had conspired to produce nuclear material without the USA’s permission and were involved in nuclear espionage. Hardly an ideal start to a relationship that will have to last the duration of construction. Wisely, May and her ministers now want to read through the contract and make a final decision this autumn. However at this rate it is projected Hinkley C might not be up and working until 2030 due to delay after delay! Barry Gardiner, the shadow energy secretary, has called the handling of the situation “absolute chaos” and I am inclined to agree.

I understand the need to look at the fine print, but China has now said the delay is putting strain on UK – China relations and warn we are at a “crucial historical juncture”. It isn’t good to rely on any country too much, but the Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming, says China have already “invested more in the UK than in Germany, France and Italy combined over the past five years”. China is such a super power and their decisions effect us on a day to day basis. Annoying them post-Brexit would not be a smart move and the UK would be wise to consider the current position they have put themselves in.


Hinkley C has been dogged by investment and costs issues from the start and its construction has barely started which is hardly a good omen. Why haven’t the UK decided to look into renewable energy instead of nuclear? Is the government determined to deny climate change is happening and avoid the fact renewables are the way forward? Or have they decided to proceed because it would be far to complicated to stop what is in motion already? These are questions which will be addressed in our next post.

Links that provided information for this post:


New posts coming soon

It has been a while since we last posted a series of posts as a team so we thought it was high time to get our act together.

In the coming months we shall be posting on a range of subjects all key to understanding how the environment will fair in the UK post-Brexit. We shall be spotlighting MPs, many newly appointed to the Cabinet by our new PM Theresa May, and definitely touching upon the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). Their background prior to being assigned their new roles will be analysed as this if often a good indicator of what they will be like in office. We hope to cover topics including farming, fisheries, forestry, climate change and energy to name a few. In addition to these series of posts there may be reviews of TV programmes that focus on the environment. Personally, I am hoping to watch the latest installment of Hugh’s War on Waste (this evening at on BBC One at 9pm for those interested). Stay tuned!

Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Six)


The transition to a future radical agriculture, in the UK and elsewhere, is not utopian or a “distant proposal” but “an unavoidable, immediate, and immense challenge that will call for unprecedented levels of creativity” (Heinberg, 2007). But as we prepare to make our agricultural systems sustainable, so do we have to pay attention to our economy and society. Our methods of food production and distribution and the wider economy are inextricably linked, each mirroring the other. To change one is to change both:

“It is impossible to attain sustainable development of society without a sustainable agricultural sector and the safe food production it produces, and vice versa.” (Wright, 2009: 213)

A future radical agriculture will have to be as decentralised as possible, following the principle of subsidiarity, but rejecting parochialism and regressive localism for a diverse interconnected web of food production, distribution, and consumption. Farms will be smaller and more diverse, with systems of intercropping and polyculture boosting productivity and food security and providing much needed resilience for the years of climate chaos we may face (Lyons, 2015).

It will be renewably powered, minimising the impacts of peak oil and taking advantage of the explosive growth in renewable energy technologies (Steiner, 2015) and the recent predictions that the world’s energy infrastructure could be fully transferred from fossil fuels to renewable energy in a matter of decades (Jacobson and Delucchi, 2010; Schwartzman and Schwartzman, 2011).

It will use as little nonrenewable inputs as possible to ensure the sustainability of the land and its suitability for farming, mimicking ecosystem flows, minimising ecological disturbance, and being “self-regulating and self-renewing” (Warner, 2006: xiii). As Marx said,

“Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.” (1894: 546)

It will use agricultural technologies deemed appropriate not by scale but “according to their role in enhancing human freedom and integrating human society with natural processes” à la social ecology (Out of the Woods, 2014), avoiding the nature/society binary. It will combine agroecology and organic farming with “high” technologies such as integrated pest management and vertical farming and culturally “outlandish” techniques such as entomophagy and algae farms.

The agriculture of the future will also be part of an anti-capitalist economic system that recognises the limits to growth (probablyasocialecologist, 2015) and the absurdity of private management of farmland, abolishing the disinformation and speculations of markets (O’Neill, 1998: 153) and recognizing that each and all of us has the right and entitlement to food regardless of contribution, occupation, or identity.

Returning to the beginning, as Dr Bob Scholes told us, the soil of the UK – and elsewhere – is “social property because humankind depends heavily on it for food production”. But with the biocrisis looming with its hydra heads of climate chaos, energy depletion, and perhaps most importantly soil depletion, we have to consider, in the transition to an unknown, fairer future:

“Can mankind regulate its affairs so that its chief possession — the fertility of the soil — is preserved? On the answer to this question the future of civilization depends.” (Howard, 1940: 20)

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five


Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part Three)

Capitalist Agriculture in the Present 

“The manipulated people in modern cities must be fed, and feeding them involves an extension of industrial farming.” — Herber, 1964

Under capitalism the means of production belong to the minority of the population, and the means of production include the agricultural systems that feed us. As every society “extends its own perception of itself into nature” (Bookchin, 1986), the society dominated by capitalism sees agricultural land as a means to make profits and control the working class with the threat of hunger (Cleaver, 1997: 3). Capitalism sees the production of food as a “business enterprise”, sees soil as a “natural resource”, and treats agriculture no different than “any branch of industry” (Bookchin, 1994). It is impersonal and bureaucratic, and cares nothing for natural limits. For a more in-depth look at capitalist agriculture it is worth quoting Dr Julia Wright at length:

“The dominant agricultural approach of the twentieth century in industrialised countries relies upon manufactured pest and disease controls and fertilisers, and emphasises maximising production through simplification, the use of external technologies, and minimising labour requirements. Goewie classifies mainstream, intensive and conventional agriculture within this industrialised group, and also suggests integrated, precision, high-tech and certain sustainable definitions as falling within it. An industrialised production system is associated with socio-economic issues of external dependency, long marketing chains, cost externalisations, and free-market principles as a driving force. Guiding and driving all this is a particular set of attitudes and perspectives surrounding agriculture, such as the belief that mankind can break free from and take control over the natural environment and natural processes, and that this is a positive step. The development of GM crops is a contemporary example of this belief.” (Wright, 2005: 35)

Murray Bookchin, writing under the pseudonym Lewis Herber (1964) goes further, adding that this results in agricultural land being reduced to a “factory floor”, tightly regulated to maximise production, and treating the soil as “a mere resource, an inorganic raw material.” Supply chains are often massive, and only about 10% of people who work in the food industry are actually farmers or farm workers (Maxwell & Slater, 2003: 535). Due to ignorance or bureaucratic oversight, the capitalist structures of food production, distribution, and marketing “often ignore local solutions” which may be more efficient or appropriate, and actively prevent the creation of sustainable solutions (Koc et al., 1999: 4). In large part the introduction of “modern” farming techniques was simply due to pressure to increase productivity for the mass marketing of agricultural goods (Lyson & Green, 1999), which led to intense resource-extraction, widespread mechanisation, and the creation of “monocultural cropping systems” (Jarosz, 2000: 279). Ultimately, capitalist agriculture is an attempt to “subordinate the substance of society itself to the laws of the market” (Polanyi, 1957: 71).

Capitalist agriculture is ultimately unsustainable and wasteful, hindering the natural recycling systems of nature and disturbing “the circulation of matter between man and the soil” (Marx, 1887). This presents a serious issue as our society has a profound and direct effect on the environment, immediately affecting “food webs and biogeochemical cycles” (Bookchin, 1994) – our actions have passed a “tipping point in our relationship with the world” and we now influence the environment “at every level” (Orrell, 2007: 12). Recycling is “enforced” in the natural world (Commoner, 1974), so our ignorance of the cycles of waste and organic matter will have grave consequences.

As mentioned, monocultures “integrate efficiently into economic markets” but because of their ecological instability the resulting agricultural system is “brittle and unstable” and relies on constant chemical inputs to maintain productivity (Warner, 2006: 157), the production and selling of which produces profit for other parts of the capitalist agriculture system. Amongst other degradations they also contribute to rural poverty and the concentration of land ownership (Corporate Watch, 2008). This leads to the centralisation of agricultural production due to economies of scale (Heinberg, 2007) – in Britain for example, the number of farms “fell from 454,000 in 1953 to 242,300 in 1981” (Fotopoulos, 1997: 150). In short, the “monopolisation of markets results in the monoculture of nature” (McKay et al, 2008). This monopolisation, like the enclosures centuries past, reduces farm employment and encourages rural-to-urban migration. In less than two hundred years the UK agricultural workforce has dropped from 21% of the working population to about 2% (Trobe & Acott, 2000; Maynard, 2008), and it currently stands at just over 530,000 people (Angus et al, 2009; DEFRA, 2011).

In a specific UK context agriculture is the largest type of land use, accounting for around 75% of total land area which equates to 17.5 million hectares (ha) (Rounsevell & Reay, 2009) with another 1 million ha that is utilisable but not currently farmed (Maynard, 2008). About 28% (4.74 million ha) of agricultural land is used for crops and 6% for woodland – the rest (66%) is used to grow grass for meat production (Angus et al, 2009). The use of markets and free trade is seen by the government as the ideal solution to securing national food supplies (Maynard, 2008), reducing the significance of local food and increasing the dependence on international trade (Kirwan & Maye, 2013).

The rampant use of fossil fuels in agriculture, while increasing the yields and consistency of agricultural production, has meant that not only is the reliability of our food production tied to rapidly depleting nonrenewable energy sources, but has also resulted in a slew of environmental imbalances such as soil carbon loss, eutrophication of water sources, biodiversity loss, and environmental contamination from pesticide overuse (Reganold et al., 2001; Cruse et al., 2010; Weis, 2010), all of which are treated as externalised costs and are never factored in capitalist calculation, leaving biophysical “debt” that is taken up by the wider society. Ignorant of the dangers of catastrophic climate change, fossil-fueled powered agriculture is still the norm for the UK and the world at large. Modern farm machinery requires petroleum, nitrogenous fertilisers require natural gas, common biocides require oil as a feedstock, and foodstuffs are frequently transported via fossil-fuel powered transportation (Heinberg, 2003). We rely on fossil fuels in all steps of agriculture – seeding, maintenance, harvesting, processing, and transportation (Pfeiffer, 2006). Utterly ignorant of the impending shocks of peak oil (probablyasocialecologist, 2014), in the UK “95% of our food is oil dependent” (Maynard, 2008), with oil accounting for 30-75% of agricultural energy inputs (Woods et al., 2010). As a result the “modern food chain” is extremely vulnerable to interruptions in energy supply (DEFRA, 2008: 23). The energy required for fertiliser production and usage alone constitutes 0.5% of the UK’s total energy supply (Dawson & Hilton, 2011). As a report from City University London aptly says, “the era of western food and farm efficiency reliant on oil is probably coming to an end” (Barling et al., 2008: 33).

This reliance on fossil fuels for agriculture can be called “soil mining” where, as Bookchin described, soil is seen as an inorganic mineral and subsequently mistreated, causing long-term damage to soil regeneration and replenishment. With vast tracts of agricultural land predicted to be too degraded to grow crops in the coming decades (Pimentel & Pimentel, 2008) and demand for food rising this issue cannot be overstated. The UK alone is losing around 13 million tonnes of carbon annually due to soil degradation and erosion, a large part of this due to “intensive farming” (Maynard, 2008: 9).

Like fossil fuels, modern agricultural systems have become inextricably linked to inorganic fertiliser use. The issue is that despite their unsustainability it may be difficult for farms to do without these inputs. Vaclav Smil estimates that, thanks to the “125-fold increase” in global nitrogenous fertiliser applications “today’s global crop harvest would be cut in half without the applications of nitrogen fertilizers” (Smil, 2001: 156; see also Erisman et al., 2008 and Dawson & Hilton, 2011). In the UK nitrogenous fertiliser consumption increased by about 300% between 1961 and the 1980s – this, coupled with a decline in total agricultural land, meant an increase in the application rate per unit area of land (Rounsevell & Reay, 2009). Quoting the Soil Association, the UK’s food security “is based predominantly on vast inputs of nonrenewable, oil-derived and climate-change exacerbating artificial inputs” (Maynard, 2008).

Smil, 2001

Smil, 2001

Rounsevell & Reay, 2009

Rounsevell & Reay, 2009

It is a similar situation with phosphorus fertilisers – under capitalist agriculture it is economically efficient to mine phosphate-based rock to produce mineral fertilisers instead of recycling organic waste, but phosphate rock “is a finite resource that cannot be manufactured” and extraction “is predicted to reach its peak this century” (Neset & Cordell, 2011: 2) despite growing demand (part of which is from the increased share of meat in human diets leading to increased demand for animal feed and fertiliser applications (Van Vuuren et al., 2010)). As Beardsley (2011) details, “there are no possible substitutes” for phosphorus, and the worst-case scenarios forecast significant depletion of phosphorus reserves within this century (Cordell et al., 2009; Van Vuuren et al., 2010).

On top of this, despite the usual claims of capitalist efficiency, vast amounts of food is wasted under modern agricultural systems. As the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) reports:

Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. Furthermore, this figure does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands. (2013: 2)

Most of this food in the industrialised north of the world is wasted not due to poor technology (e.g. inadequate refrigeration or transport) but due to consumer preferences or supermarket behaviour. Supermarkets, the IME continues, “will often reject entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at the farm because they do not meet exacting marketing standards” and globally “retailers generate 1.6 million tonnes of food waste annually in this way” (IME, 2013: 3). In the UK, this manifests as 30% of the UK’s vegetable crop never being harvested, a colossal waste of resources and an example of capitalism’s anti-ecological character. A significant portion of this waste is caused by the “redirection” of foodstuffs to destinations other than human beings:

“We produce 4600 kcal per person of edible food harvest, enough to feed a global population of 12-14 billion, but after waste and conversion to animal feed and biofuels, we end up with no more than 2000 Kcal per person.” (Pol, 2015: 4)

This wastage also contributes massively to anthropogenic climate change, as the carbon footprint of wasted food equates to 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide released annually – “as such, food wastage ranks as the third top emitter after USA and China” (FAO, 2013: 6).

As per the neoliberal hatred of barriers to the free movement of capital and goods, foodstuffs are transported all across the world regardless of their inefficiency or environmental damage – all that matters is profit and economic “common sense”. To this end, according to then-Defra Minister Margaret Beckett, “it is freer trade in agriculture which is key to ensuring security of supply…it is trade liberalisation which will bring the prosperity and economic interdependency that underpins genuine long term global security” (Maynard, 2008: 3-4). It is this belief that led, for example, to Britain importing about 62,000 tonnes of poultry meat from the Netherlands in 1998 whilst at the same time exporting about 33,000 tonnes of poultry meat to the Netherlands (Lucas & Hines, 2001).

Although the UK has long been a net importer of food (DEFRA, 2006; 2008) self-sufficiency in food has steadily declined, “falling from 78% to 60% in the last 30 years” (Carrington, 2014). For the last century it can be argued the UK has relied on imports to meet its needs (Barling et al., 2008), not just regarding food but also “imported inputs such as fertiliser, fuel and machinery” (DEFRA, 2006: iv). It’s food imports are also at risk – for example, nearly half of the UK’s food imports are sourced from areas of high water risk (Morgan, 2015).

However, it is important to note that capitalism’s ability to adapt means it has seized the opportunity to profit from the rise in environmental awareness and the damages of industrialised agriculture. Organic agriculture represents a thriving business, to the point where the UK has to import about 34% of its organic produce to meet demand (SIPPO, 2010). This occurs despite the misconception about organic agriculture being completely pesticide-free and that scientifically speaking “organic” farming is a meaningless term (Out of the Woods, 2015). More about organic agriculture will be detailed in the next section.

So after centuries of mismanagement and abuse we are left, both globally and here in the UK, with a system that in the pursuit of profit wrecks the environment, destroys social structures, and has made us suicidally reliant on rapidly depleting substances, all to grow food which, half the time, is never eaten. To change is not a choice – a transition to a fairer and sustainable agricultural system “does not constitute a distant utopian proposal” (Heinberg, 2007). It is immediate and required for our survival.

Part Four coming Soon

Part One | Part Two


Radical Agriculture in the UK: Soil as Social Property (Part One)

“Soil fertility is both a biophysical property and a social property – it is a social property because humankind depends heavily on it for food production.” — Bob Scholes, 2013


Farming and agriculture exists as a fundamental link between humanity and the land it inhabits. The soil from whence we grow our food and feed our society acts as a “metabolic relationship binding nature and society” (Warner, 2006: 1). It’s importance means that it, and its fertility, is a form of social property (Wits University, 2013) that ought to belong to the whole of society. As Pierre-Joseph Proudhon stated, our agricultural land “is indispensable to our existence”, a “common thing” that “must be regulated, not for the profit of a few, but in the interest and for the security of all” (Proudhon, 1840). To take away the soil from common ownership, to take away “the means without which life is impossible” is, as Bookchin reminds us, “outright homicide” (1989: 187). But the land, the soil, and its fertility, has been taken away. Over centuries it has been taken by a minority who have mistreated it, plundered it, mined it. Now, the damage from its misappropriation is further compounded by a terrifying biocrisis (1) that approaches us from the horizon.

The climate of planet earth is shifting and destabilising (NASA, 2015), producing unpredictable systems that will play havoc with the consistent and seasonal weather patterns farmers require to feed us (Heinberg, 2007; Charles, 2014). Our global “stocks” of soil are facing constant degradation, with 1% of the global land area degraded every year (Wits University, 2013). Our ability to produce food will suffer (Delgado-Baquerizo et al, 2013) even as we attempt to expand the global cropland area in anticipation for an increasing demand for food (UNEP, 2014). The world’s staple crops will experience worsening yield losses as the century advances (Challinor et al., 2014) at the same time as our conversion of land to agriculture releases more carbon into the atmosphere (University of Montana, 2014). At current rates almost half of the land currently being cultivated “will be unsuitable for food production by the middle of the twenty-first century” (Pimentel & Pimentel, 2008: 364). Here in the UK, anticipating a  2° to 3.5°C temperature rise by the 2080s means readying for heatwave-induced crop yield reductions of 25-30%, even as our national soils are in various stages of erosion and degradation (Maynard, 2008).

On top of this our agricultural systems are dependent on unsustainable inputs of fertilisers (Smil, 2001; Neset & Cordell, 2011) and fossil fuels (Heinberg, 2003; Pfeiffer, 2006) to maintain production levels, even as reserves of phosphate and fossil fuels are set to peak in the near future (Beardsley, 2011; Hughes & Rudolph, 2011; Murray & King, 2012). Additionally, our farming arrangements themselves are responsible for vast amounts of ecological degradation (Reganold et al., 2001; Patel, 2008; Weis, 2010).

The neoliberal government in the UK has aggravated these issues by reducing the food security of its citizens, increasing those requesting food aid (Lambie-Mumford et al, 2014) and using food banks (Butler, 2015). “Workfare” programs and changes in state benefit have been directly linked to “one of the world’s richest countries” witnessing unprecedented numbers of hospital admissions for malnutrition-related illnesses (Just Fair, 2014).

Where we stand, then, is at the culmination, a vortex, of political failures, environmental degradation, and mismanagement of the means of life. Our agricultural systems, and our relation and outlook to these systems and the wider environment, will have to change if we are to survive the upcoming storm. Here the focus will be on the state of farming and agriculture in the UK, its history, and its future, but many of the lessons and solutions written here will be broadly applicable to other countries and farming systems, as well as to the global agri-complex as a whole. Drawing heavily on radical left-wing theory, this essay will combine scientific observations of “what was/is” and theoretical insights into “what could be” to produce a goal and broad ideal of “what we want/need” – that is to say, radical agriculture (Bookchin, 1994).


“The land is indispensable to our existence — consequently a common thing.” — Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, 1840

Is is important to first define the distinction between “farming” and “agriculture”. In this essay the definition relies heavily on Henry Bernstein’s work, where “farming” is “what farmers do and have always done – with all the historical diversity of forms of farm production, their social and ecological conditions and practices, labour processes” (Bernstein, 2013: 22) and “agriculture” is farming plus economic activities and interests, including the supply of instruments of labour, markets for land and produce, and the processing and distribution of produce (Bernstein, 2010: 65). Despite these two distinct definitions we have to realise how interconnected the two are – in today’s capitalist system there can be no farming without markets and “agri-business”; likewise there can be no form of agriculture without the fundamental processes of plant production. Here we will focus on agriculture, exploring as we do so how the capitalist zeitgeist has shaped and controlled it.

As stated previously this essay draws heavily on radical left-wing theory. There are many thinkers on the radical left who in their works successfully analysed the problems inherent in capitalism and its dangerous and inherently anti-ecological character. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1840), a French anarchist and mutualist, was arguably one of the first to recognise that due to its indispensability, agricultural land had to be regulated “not for the profit of a few, but in the interest and for the security of all”. Soon after Karl Marx (1869) identified that the soil was “the original source of all wealth” and that agriculture under capitalism robbed not only the worker of the means to life, but the soil of its fertility (1887). About a hundred years later Murray Bookchin helped to connect the environmental problems modern humanity faced, including degradation of the soil and climate change, with our social structures – “nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems” (1993). Conversely, as he explained in his theory of Social Ecology, these environmental problems could not be resolved without resolving first the contradictions and injustices of capitalist society. “Every society extends its own perception of itself into nature” (1986) – so a capitalist society that treated human beings as profit-making resources would see the wider environment via “the operational systems of modern corporate society”.

Part Two coming soon

(1) “We can call the real wave of extinctions caused by extreme ecological degradation the “biocrisis” … The biocrisis is the true in the moment of the apocalyptic false.” (Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009)


The Failures of Atmospheric Commodification

Climate protesters: 'more future, less capitalism'

“The rush to make profits out of carbon-fixing engenders another kind of colonialism.” — Centre for Science and the Environment, 2000


Are carbon markets just another wave of capitalist accumulation, or is there an inkling of hope that in commodifying the atmospheric commons we will stave off catastrophic climate change?

By now we’re all familiar with the ongoing planetary biocrisis1 and anybody who isn’t is more than scientifically illiterate. Global temperatures are predicted to potentially rise by 4°C by 2100 (University of New South Wales, 2013), with recent research warning of a 6°C rise by 2100 (Connor, 2015), a far cry from the 2°C target deemed safe by many (Hope & Pearce, 2014). The warming of the atmosphere now poses risks to the integrity of our energy systems (World Energy Council, 2014) and agriculture (Challinor et al., 2014). The world’s oceans are increasingly acidifying due to the increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) (Mora et al., 2013), our forests are unable to absorb the excess CO2 we’re releasing (Philips & Brienen, 2015), and despite these warnings the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies continue to increase their fuel reserves, straying dangerously close to any safe emissions limit (Carrington, 2015). Even now research shows that the 1972 book Limits to Growth, previously characterised as doomsday fantasy, has recently been vindicated and that we should start to “expect the early stages of global collapse” (Turner & Alexander, 2014).

The answer to our problems seems deceptively simple: if global warming is such a danger to our (and the biosphere’s) wellbeing, then we just need to stop emitting all that carbon dioxide and other pesky greenhouse gases2. The solution is more complex when we realise the primary inducer of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels, which have become inextricably linked with the world’s capitalist economies as they have continued to grow over the centuries (Keefer, 2006; Leigh, 2008; Lohmann & Böhm, 2012).

One of the many solutions put forward by the establishment in addressing the prevention of dangerous climate change is the idea of a carbon market, or carbon trading. This is defined innocuously by the Financial Times as “a market that is created from the trading of carbon emission allowances to encourage or help countries and companies to limit their carbon dioxide emissions” (Financial Times, 2014), or quite simply subjecting climate change to market logic via allocating property rights to carbon emissions (Newell & Paterson, 2009). Is it possible that the trading of permissions to release CO2 could help pave our way to a low-carbon future? Could the pricing of carbon, as the World Bank asserts, help to “incentivize cleaner decisions and innovation” for the global economy (World Bank, 2015)? Or alternatively, is the concept of a carbon market simply another example of neoliberal hegemony, an attempt for capitalism to enclose yet another round of commons in its attempt to profit from disaster à la Naomi Klein’s “Disaster Capitalism” (Klein, 2007)?

This essay will attempt to investigate the concepts of the carbon market, focusing on its history and origins, contemporary examples of carbon markets in the world today, and whether they succeed or fail in their goal of slowing down/preventing climate change and instituting a low-carbon, renewable-powered future. Alternatives will be considered at the end of the essay, and the success and relevancy of carbon markets will be evaluated.

The Origins of Carbon Markets

“[T]he pollution rights scheme, it seems clear, would require far less policing than any of the others we have discussed.” — Dales, 1968, p. 97

The precursor to the idea of carbon markets, that of controlling emissions via market mechanisms, can be traced back to the 1960s where the idea of internalising the costs of pollution via taxes and property rights unsurprisingly first emerged from economists (MacKenzie, 2008; Tokar, 2014; Koch, 2014) as a supposedly cost-efficient alternative to government intervention. The first arguably successful pollution market was the sulphur dioxide (SO2) trading mechanism in the USA, established in the 1990s. This was introduced in a market-friendly attempt to reduce the SO2 emissions from coal-fired power stations in order to reduce the occurrences of acid rain (Likens & Bormann, 1974), after previous attempts to pass bills in the US congress to address the problem failed in the 1980s with “Reaganomics” and free market beliefs ascendant. The successful 10% reduction of SO2 emissions between 1995 and 2003 (Lohmann, 2010a) seemed to vindicate the idea of market environmentalism, and subsequently shaped the Clinton administration’s insistence of market mechanisms in international climate negotiations.

It was the US delegation that introduced the idea of market instruments in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (Searles, 1998; Koch, 2014) although the helpful role of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) which sent almost 1,500 lobbyists to encourage the use of these mechanisms cannot be discounted (Fernandes & Girard, 2011). It was in fact Al Gore, then the US Vice President, who advised that the US would only agree to the Protocol if the “trading of ‘rights to pollute’” was implemented (as well as mandated emission reductions to be much lower) (Tokar, 2010). This helped to consolidate the idea of using markets and property rights in attempts to prevent climate change, despite the fact that as negotiations came to a close the USA refused to adopt the Protocol. Since then the design and development of carbon markets has predominantly fallen into the hands of the theorists and architects of financial markets (Lohmann, 2010b; Koch, 2014). Once these financial groups realised the potentials of this market, emissions trading “became almost unstoppable” (Newell & Paterson, 2009, p. 8).

These ideas can be better placed in a historical view of capitalist accumulation. It is another case of the state (or states) enclosing the commons, this time the atmosphere, in order to forcefully create a new market. Capitalism has attempted to make something irreducibly complex (the climate) into something easily quantifiable (a carbon price). As David Harvey states, “Creating markets where there have been none before is one of the ways in which, historically, capital has expanded” (Derbyshire, 2014). Sullivan (2009) drives the point further when he says the modern era represents a “wave of enclosure and primitive accumulation to liberate natural capital for the global market” (p. 26). Capitalism’s requirements have always required either geographical expansion, technological/financial innovation, or both (Moore, 2011). Emissions trading and carbon markets are another example of this.

Fast forward to the present day and the previously fringe belief of pollution trading is now a key part of dominant capitalist logic. Scientists and researchers frequently endorse the idea of putting a market price on carbon to help tackle global warming (e.g. Nuccitelli, 2015). Corporations experiment with internal carbon pricing in attempts to save money and reduce emissions (e.g. Hepler, 2015). The World Bank now estimates that “40 national and over 20 sub-national jurisdictions are putting a price on carbon” which accordingly represent “about 12% of the annual GHG [GreenHouse Gas] emissions” emitted (World Bank, 2014, p. 14). Carbon markets now form an integral part of an “emerging global policy framework” that also includes renewable subsidies and carbon taxes (Office of News & Communications, 2015) in an attempt to halt GHG emissions.

Contemporary Developments

“We’re going to see a worldwide market, and carbon will unambiguously will be the largest non-financial commodity in the world.” — Richard Sandor (Carr, 2009)

Despite the now famous assertion of Nicholas Stern (2006) that climate change “is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen” (p. viii), it is not surprising to witness the size and scope of carbon markets in the modern era of neoliberalism, austerity, and the unassailable forces of markets. From Chile to New Zealand, California to Japan, South Africa to Kazakhstan, emissions trading or carbon pricing instruments are popular globally (World Bank, 2014), with eight new markets emerging in 2013 alone (Henbest, 2015). Leonardi (2012) references this proliferation as a sign of the “carbon trading dogma” (p. 13), the political assumption that only markets can provide a solution to climate change. Indeed, it would seem entirely logical to the capitalist hegemony that reducing carbon emissions can go hand-in-hand with economic growth, as Sweden’s Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson asserted recently (World Bank, 2015). To think otherwise would be tantamount to heresy and questions the ability of capitalism to solve hitherto intractable problems.

Carbon markets come in many forms, and it is beyond the scope of this work to go into full detail, but some brief information is required. The largest emissions trading system currently in existence is the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, commonly abbreviated as the EU ETS or ETS, and established in 2005 (Ellerman & Buchner, 2007). It is a prime example of a cap and trade system (an excellent summary of which can be found from Lohmann, 2010a). Additionally there are “project-based” carbon offsets, where “instead of cutting their emissions industries, nations or individuals finance “carbon-saving” projects elsewhere” which are cheaper to implement (again from Lohmann, 2010a, p. 10). Under the Kyoto Protocol there are also “flexibility mechanisms” such as the Clean Development Mechanism3 (UNFCCC, 2014a) and Joint Implementation (UNFCCC, 2014b), the former being similar to cap and trade and the latter being a form of offsetting.

In 2009 Richard Sandor, the founder of the Chicago Climate Exchange, stated that “We’re going to see a worldwide market, and carbon will unambiguously will be the largest non-financial commodity in the world” (Carr, 2009). Those words are close to the truth given the growth and extent of carbon markets today. The global carbon market has doubled in size every year since 2005 with an estimated value of US$2 trillion in 2014 (Suppan, 2009) and an expected market value of US$3.1 trillion in 2020 (Friends of the Earth, 2009). In 2009 carbon markets traded over US$100 billion a year (Lohmann, 2009) and were worth €64 billion in 2014 (Smedley, 2015). The EU ETS alone had a turnover of €90 billion in 2010 (Gale, 2015), and a proposed national carbon market in China to be launched in 2016 will have an estimated annual turnover of 100 billion yuan, equivalent to roughly US$16.1 billion (Staff Reporter, 2015).

Carbon markets have widespread support amongst at least 1,000 companies and 84 governments (Marcacci, 2015a). Perhaps unsurprisingly as a locus of financial capitalism the City of London has become the focal point for carbon trading, with financial institutions opening their own trading desks exclusively for carbon markets (Bumpus & Liverman, 2008) or even acquiring their own “carbon companies” (Lohmann, 2010c, p. 6), although in recent years some banks have scaled back these efforts (Henbest, 2015). Recent efforts have focused on attempts to link up existing carbon markets. The EU and California are looking to connect their regional markets together (Zetterberg, 2012), and California has begun assisting China with carbon market design (Marcacci, 2015a). Canadian provinces are beginning preparations to join up existing cap and trade systems (McDiarmid, 2015), and carbon markets are now set to expand across the rest of North America (Marcacci, 2015b). Carbon markets are not advancing homogeneously however: efforts to reform and fix the issues inherent in the EU ETS continue (Neslen, 2015a; 2015b; Krukowska, 2015) and following Tony Abbott’s current track record of facilitating environmental degradation Australia has become the first country to repeal a carbon price (White, 2014; Henbest, 2015).

It seems then that carbon markets are here to stay. They are hegemonic both politically and economically. But as with most capitalist efforts to rectify problems, they are fraught with problems fatal for both humans and the biosphere.

The Failure of Atmospheric Commodification

“The oil price shocks of the 1970s didn’t wean us off oil, so why should we believe that a high carbon price will wean us off carbon?” — Jim Watson (Lovell, 2007)

First, let us consider the actual attempts of carbon markets to accurately price carbon in order to prevent climate change. The prevailing logic is that a high enough carbon price, controlled by laws of supply and demand, will provide an incentive for market actors to invest in cleaner, less carbon-intense methods of production, transport, and energy generation in order to save money. “In generating a price for carbon, it is argued, an incentive is created to reduce emissions as efficiently as possible” (Bumpus & Liverman, 2008, p. 131).

A recent economic study (Lontzek et al., 2015) found that, factoring in potentially irreversible climatic “tipping points” 4 the cost of carbon should be “200% higher” than it is today, with most institutions “seriously underpricing carbon dioxide” (Yeo, 2015). A “glut” of emission allowances in the EU ETS has continued to undermine any possibility of its effectiveness, with some fearing the oversupply of allowances “may grow to more than twice the size of the emissions the EU ETS covers by 2020” (Carbon Market Watch, 2015). For a country like Germany to have enough economic incentive to switch from coal power to using natural gas (not to renewables, just a “cleaner” fossil fuel) would require an EU ETS price of €43 per tonne of carbon – it is currently at €7 per tonne (Henbest, 2015). Other economic studies have proven that carbon pricing mechanisms are not enough to ensure climate change is averted and to encourage investment in renewable technologies (Waisman et al., 2014).

It is interesting to suppose that emissions trading systems have been designed badly on purpose to, as Lucia (2009) asserts, produce “an elaborate way to disguise a lack of action and transfer wealth to polluters” (p. 237). The relentless growth of carbon markets, as Chester & Rosewarne (2011) suggest, symbolises a “subterfuge for maintaining the commitment to the continued expansion of economic activity as well as creating new opportunities for wealth enhancement” (p. 27). Even a homogenous global carbon price, the same in all applications across all institutions, “cannot adequately reflect the true social costs of carbon emissions, because the market mechanism only recognizes preferences when these are backed up by purchasing power” (Storm, 2009, p. 1025). The idea of markets ushering us into a low carbon future thus seem hopeless and impossible. As market-based solutions continue to prevail, the control of our atmospheric commons will remain in “the hands of polluting corporations and big players in the financial markets” (Lohmann, 2010a, p. 2) and the countries backing the global neoliberal regime, as our faith in the “efficiency“ of markets continues to harm ourselves and the wider environment (Albritton, 1999).

Indeed, it is vital to remember that the overarching concept of carbon markets – a market mechanism being able to facilitate a desired change quicker and more efficiently than command-and-control policies via the state – is a gross misunderstanding. Neoliberalism, and markets in general, have always used violence in the form of state intervention in order to secure property rights and enforce stability, as well as quash dissent (Wall, 2005; Bumpus & Liverman, 2008), and carbon markets are no different. A non-scarce “non-value” like carbon requires active state intervention for it to be commodified (Koch, 2014, p. 54), enforcing an “overarching regulatory framework” within which market activities can take place (Fletcher, 2012). The end result of which is that now “an ever-increasing portion of the world’s energy and material resources now flows in networks of market-based connections” (Manno, 2011, p. 2075).

It is fitting that like the world of abstraction and derivatives from which it was birthed carbon markets and emissions trading have since their inception been wracked with corruption and criminality. A reliance on corporate self-regulation and difficulties in offset measurement have helped to draw in millions of dollars (or pounds, or euros) into “climate fraud” with corporations lying about emissions reductions or exaggerating offset projects to generate carbon credits (Bachram, 2004). Even INTERPOL felt it necessary to release a report in 2013, the “Guide to Carbon Trading Crime” as part of its Environmental Crime Programme (INTERPOL, 2013). It details the vulnerabilities of carbon markets to embezzlement, money laundering, insider trading, and cybercrime, and details how the capacity to cut corners, falsify information, or receive bribes has been found in institutions of all kinds including supposedly independent GHG accounting firms, national authorities, and companies. In recent years the full extent of “carbon crime” has become apparent, involving computer hacking, VAT fraud, bomb scares, and even funding for terrorism (Day & Bawden, 2014; Funk, 2015).

So what about emissions? Carbon markets are an attempt to quickly and efficiently allocate pollution rights in order to prevent climate change, so what evidence do we have for GHG reductions? As with setting a workable price for carbon, the carbon markets have failed in this regard. To start, many of the trading processes themselves have no inherent environmental benefits and do not actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Baldwin, 2008)! The growing expansion and coupling of carbon markets have done nothing to reduce emissions, and “evidence of the CDM to date suggests that offsetting increases rather than reduces” these emissions (Reyes, 2012, p. 28), or at the very least these CDM projects have done nothing to halt the rise in emissions (Fernandes & Girard, 2011). The billion (and potentially trillion) dollar market in carbon and offsets has now created an economic structure with “vested interests whose opportunities for making money rely on maintaining GHG emissions, not reducing them” (Spash, 2010), thus making any attempt to reduce GHG emissions impossible. There have been localised emissions reductions, such as those in the EU, but these have been a result of short-term fuel switching (e.g. coal to natural gas) and do not constitute a sustainable strategy (Calel & Dechezleprêtre, 2012). One can even see the unabated increase in emissions through the online measurements of the Mauna Loa Observatory (CO2Now, 2015)5.

This would seem to suggest that whether the carbon markets are designed well or not, it is impossible for them to reduce emissions in any significant way. Let alone the fact that the global carbon market is vulnerable to financial “shocks” (and that financial “firewalls” to enable resilience will never sit well with neoliberal orthodoxy (McKibbin et al, 2008, p. 13)) a safe carbon budget cannot actually enable carbon trading due to supply constraints. As Childs (2012) describes at length:

“The global carbon budget to avoid dangerous climate change is too small to allow trading. If a temperature target of 1.5 degrees is chosen with a reasonable to high chance of avoiding it, then the global carbon budget will be tiny. Carbon trading relies on countries having ‘spare’ carbon emissions that they can sell to others who do not have enough. Under a tiny carbon budget it is almost certain that no country will have any spare emissions to sell. Rich countries would need to make significant cuts very quickly and developing countries would have to develop predominantly through low carbon technologies.” (p. 15)

Again, this confirms the impossibility of carbon markets having any role to play in emissions reductions. To produce a workable carbon market, the climate will have to be endangered, and as Spash (2010) describes, GHGs are so well-embedded and pervasive in the global economy (via fossil fuels – see introduction) that their emission cannot be slowed down via simple market mechanisms. Further, this ignores the existence of huge fossil fuel consumers/GHG emitters that are not and cannot be subsumed under markets – the US military for example, “by some accounts the largest single consumer of petroleum in the world”, would hardly allow itself to be charged a carbon price as it released “56.6 million metric tons of CO2” in 2011 (Klein, 2014, p. 99).

What of the other element of our low carbon future – that of enabling the transition to a future society powered by renewable energy? Again this is an abject failure showcasing how carbon markets cannot justify their raison d’être. Lohmann (2010b) provides us with evidence that, in the case of the EU ETS, the flagship of carbon markets, renewable energy “gains no demonstrable benefits” and quotes other experts who are adamant that carbon prices cannot “deliver the escape velocity required to get investment in technological innovation into orbit” (p. 16). Indeed, the EU ETS has been criticised for being in “direct competition” with the development and subsidising of renewable technologies (Gale, 2015, p. 1), and at best it has had “a very limited impact on low-carbon technological change” (Calel & Dechezleprêtre, 2012, p. 24). Koch (2014) comes to the same conclusion, stating “carbon prices have at no point in time been high enough to trigger behavioural change and technology investments” (p. 60). Carbon markets are thus able to trigger short-term changes (e.g. fuel switching, see Calel & Dechezleprêtre, 2012) for immediate profit but are unable to undergo any “long term structural changes” to promote a renewable future (Lohmann, 2006; 2010a). Even the economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and an “apostate of market theology” (Storm, 2009, p. 1019) said that the “hands-off approach” of economists setting prices and unleashing market forces “will not work in the case of a major overhaul of energy technology” (Sachs, 2008).

A Mistaken Enemy: Capitalism, not Carbon

“Climate change must be defined as an issue of capital not carbon…there is no equitable technological solution to climate change.” — Steven, 2012

A more fundamental critique is thus required, a need to address the heart of the capitalist system, of the “grow or die” imperative (Bookchin, 1993) that has created carbon markets. As has been seen it is clear that carbon markets have failed in their objectives of reducing GHG emissions to prevent anthropogenically-induced climatic change and enabling a transition to renewably powered economies. Instead they have enabled a subterfuge of environmental protection and progressivism whilst maintaining and furthering inequitable wealth distribution. Whilst there appears to be minor conflicts between advocates of uncontrolled economic growth at all costs and what could best be called a “climate bourgeoise“ that seeks to use the biocrisis to facilitate another round of “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey, 2004) or “Accumulation by Decarbonization” (Bumpus & Liverman, 2008) capitalism is still unrelenting in its commodification of genes, species, ecosystems (Sullivan, 2009) and now the atmosphere, maintaining the nature-society binary for its own ecocidal purposes (Out of the Woods, 2014a).

Perhaps unsurprising given its capitalist and neoliberalist background, carbon markets and emissions trading have done an excellent job of maintaining inequalities and facilitating wealth transfer from rich to poor. As with all markets, “wealthier participants may secure allowances on more favourable terms than impoverished users solely due to the information and arbitrage opportunities that accompany their superior wealth” (Page, 2012, p. 944). Similarly Steven and Böhm et al reinforce the idea that “there is no equitable technological solution to climate change. A de-carbonised global economy will still be a capitalist economy with all the social and environmental damage this entails” (Steven, 2012) and that “even if a decarbonized capitalist ‘green economy’ were possible, such an economy would be characterized by uneven growth and disparities of income, and by the unequal distribution of economic, social and environmental risks that global markets produce” (Böhm et al., 2012). The anti-ecological character of capitalism, as Tokar (2014) asserts cannot be denied “however skilled we may become at measuring our ecological footprint.” Existing wealth inequalities are only exacerbated within emissions trading, and in fact carbon markets offer up “wealth creating opportunities” to the wealthiest, who happen to also be the most polluting (Baldwin, 2008, p. 22).

As they maintain and perpetuate the disparities between rich and poor, carbon markets preserve the capitalist imperialist divisions of North and South, of “developed” and “developing”. As Howard Zinn stated, “globalization is in fact imperialism” under a different name (Lockard & Schalit, 2001). Areas of land (or water) that maintain a net absorption of carbon (under climate discourse a “carbon sink”) are becoming commodified as part of carbon offset schemes under capitalism, enclosing the commons and empowering dominant countries and elites at the expense of the geographical South (Shiva, 2001; Böhm et al., 2012). In effect the South is becoming a “carbon dump” for the industrialised nations, as “assets” like old-growth rainforests are seized from indigenous communities for them to be officially “managed” per international climate agreements (Bachram, 2004; Rights and Resources Initiative, 2014). Just one example of this is the plight of the Sengwer and Ogiek indigenous peoples in Kenya, who have been attacked and forcibly evicted from their ancestral forest homes in order to clear the forests for conservation and carbon offsets at the behest of the World Bank (Ahmed, 2014), but other examples are frequent (see Böhm & Dabhi, 2009). In the North land speculation for carbon credits also causes conflicts, though of a different nature (Hume, 2015). It then should be of no surprise that many developing countries “suspect that the newfound ecological concern of industrialized countries is merely the latest chapter in a long history of imperialism” (Litfin, 1997, p. 187).

It is clear then that carbon markets are simply another weapon in capitalism’s toolkit of domination and assimilation. As part of the “carbon trading dogma” (Leonardi, 2012, p. 13) reflecting the need for “everything” to “have a price” (Lander, 2011, p. 8) capitalism helps to present the image that “climate change does not contradict finance-driven capitalism” and thus helps stifle resistance or alternatives (Koch, 2014, p. 63) as part of a greater trend of absorbing environmental concerns into market activities (Kingsnorth, 2009). Following Klein’s (2007) concept of disaster capitalism “the energy and desire to act on climate change” has been appropriated and redirected into global capital flows (Paterson, 2009, p. 250), using the biocrisis as “a marketing opportunity and justification to expand neoliberal markets and regulatory mechanisms” (Fletcher, 2012, p. 108). If anything capitalism has proven how quickly it can shift its strategies and approach to climate change from “reactionary and obstructionist” to seeing “a business opportunity” in potential climate disaster (Fernandes & Girard, 2011, p. 20).

“Ultimately,” as Know-Hayes (2010) states, “carbon markets are designed to continue capitalist development and expansion.” The ideas of protecting the environment, reducing emissions, and promoting societal sustainability are secondary to the profit motive, as can be seen in the evidence Lohmann (2010c) cites where the vast majority of carbon market transactions are in derivatives, or the large amount of carbon funds established for financial gain. Carbon markets can also be characterised as an example of “weak ecological modernisation” characterised by technological solutions, technocratic control, and narrow-minded frameworks, in order to act as a “lifeline for capitalist economies threatened by ecological crisis” and nothing else (Gibbs, 1998, p. 5). Indeed, carbon trading can be seen as a form of “proxy commodification” in order to facilitate “green” accumulation (Koch, 2014, p. 54), turning the very problem of environmental degradation into “an asset, a tradable commodity” (Abboud, 2013). Even if the global economy were to be successfully “de-carbonised” it would still be capitalist at heart and in nature, a “more austere form of capitalism in which increasing unrest will require disciplining by increasingly authoritarian forms of state power” (Steven, 2012). In essence capitalism wishes to maintain the status quo, to allow business as usual, and carbon markets certainly allow our consumption (especially those of us in the North) to continue unabated as we purchase “green credentials” and personal offsets to make up for the ecological damage our economies cause (Bachram, 2004; Beder, 2014).

As Bookchin (1985) said thirty years ago, capitalism is not “decaying” by any means. It is an “ever-expanding order that grows beyond the capacity of any society” to contain it. Any attempt to “green” capitalism is destined to fail (Müller & Passadakis, 2009; Tokar, 2014; probablyasocialecologist, 2015). As Bookchin quipped “One might more easily persuade a green plant to desist from photosynthesis than to ask the bourgeois economy to desist from capital accumulation” (Bookchin, 1980, p. 66). Capitalism and the environment “are antagonistic in their very essence” (Amin, 2010) and as described its economic growth is both facilitated by and encourages the consumption of fossil fuels (Foster, 2008; Spash, 2010). A prime example brings us back to the World Bank who, despite its rhetoric of facilitating and financing the transition to a low carbon future, still paradoxically desires economic growth and a stable biosphere as it “continues to subsidise and support fossil fuel extraction on a scale 17 times larger than it supports clean energy initiatives” (Carton, 2009, p. 22). And as Keefer (2006) maintains it was fossil fuels that were responsible for “industrial capitalism and its astonishing conquest and transformation of the world”.

So not only are carbon markets failures at their own objectives but they, as a symbol of capitalism’s desire to co opt and commodify, are inherently anti-ecological. The widespread belief that market mechanisms can facilitate a prevention of climate change or transport us to a sustainable future is extremely dangerous. A new approach is required.

Are Markets Necessary?

“There are better ways of tackling climate change than by privatising the Earth’s carbon-cycling capacity.” — Lohmann (2006)

Capitalism, then, is a dead end. It can not solve the problem it helped to create and accelerate. “Capitalism is the origin of the biocrisis, the last and final crisis of capitalism” (Institute for Experimental Freedom, 2009, p. 12). Thankfully there are glimmers of hope we can aim towards. The global economy has recently begun “producing renewable energy at an industrial scale” (Steiner, 2015) and it has been estimated the entire world energy infrastructure could easily be replaced with renewables within twenty to forty years (Jacobson & Delucchi, 2010; Schwartzman Schwartzman, 2011). These developments leapfrog any need for carbon markets or other market mechanisms, and it is only political will that is required to realise them, a political will that we must spearhead quickly if we are to avoid conflict as fossil fuel reserves run dry (Hughes, 2008). As Podobnik (2010) states, “The historical record shows very clearly that deep, enduring changes in energy industries require the mobilization of mass social movements. We cannot simply wait for visionary politicians to forge the way” (p. 76-77).

But a solution cannot be a simple product of technics. Our society, and its view of the wider environment, has to change also. “Renewable energy is a necessity for a sustainable and equitable society, but not a guarantee of one” McBay (2011, p. 260) says, citing the US military and its renewable energy projects. We must remember that “The way we position ourselves in our view of the natural world is deeply entangled with the way we view the social world […] Every society extends its own perception of itself into nature” (Bookchin, 1986). A renewably powered capitalist economy would still view the natural world as nothing more than a resource to be managed and plundered, assigned market values and traded, the “terminology of contracts” poisoning our view of ourselves both as humans and as part of wider nature (Bookchin, 1998, p. 79).

The transition to a low-carbon, anti-capitalist social order will be a “transition to the unknown” (Levy, 2012). We will need to struggle against the “carbon trading dogma” and the overriding logic of markets, informing others of the alternatives we aim for. As the bourgeoisie ruin not just our world but “the Earth systems which sustain human civilisation” we have to steel ourselves for the struggles ahead and ask ourselves – who’s afraid of ruins? (Out of the Woods, 2014b)

1 I borrow the term “biocrisis” from the Institute for Experimental Freedom (2009), referring to “the real wave of extinctions caused by extreme ecological degradation.”

Often defined as the “Kyoto Basket”, the greenhouse gases most responsible for anthropogenic climate change are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and perfluorocarbons (PFCs) (Eurostat, 2015).

3 “The CDM can be seen as a good example of what Peck and Tickell (2002) called rollout neoliberalism, in which the state intervenes to allocate and secure private property rights, provide scientific knowledge, or create stable market institutions.” (Bumpus & Liverman, 2008)

4 “These tipping points are the irreversible melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the dieback of the Amazon Rainforest, the reorganisation of circulation in the Atlantic ocean and the increase in the amplitude of the El Niño Southern Oscillation.” (Yeo, 2015).

5 There is even a Twitter feed run by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography that documents global CO2 concentrations – they can be followed at @Keeling_curve.

The author apologises for any references that can’t be accessed due to paywalls.


The Impracticability of Fracking

One of the many gas flares that light up the night at the huge Bakken fracking operation in North Dakota. Photo credit: Joshua Doubek / Wikimedia Commons

Energy use has increased throughout human history, rising tenfold since the twentieth century via a sixteen-fold increase in fossil fuel extraction (Smil, 2008). Fossil fuels have intrinsically linked themselves to today’s global economy and are essential for economic growth (Longwell, 2002; Leigh, 2008). Recent fears of “peaks” in the production of these non-renewable resources (e.g. Hirsch et al., 2005; Mohr, 2010; Patzek & Croft, 2010) have stimulated research and extraction of “unconventional” fossil fuels in order to offset these declines.

Whether an energy source is “conventional” or not relies upon technology and economics (Greene et al., 2006). Recent technological breakthroughs have allowed the extraction of shale gas, deposits of natural gas trapped in shale rock, via hydraulic fracturing. This process involves the injection of high-pressure fluids into shale rock formations underground, inducing fractures and releasing trapped gas deposits which travel to the surface (Hagström & Adams, 2012; Thompson, 2012; Hughes, 2013). Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, is not a new process, but the scale of recent developments is unprecedented (Bierman et al., 2011; Guidotti, 2011).

With potentially huge reserves of shale gas now accessible (for US estimates see Engelder, 2011 and Hagström & Adams, 2012) proponents argue that shale gas should be used as a “transition fuel” between a fossil fuel economy and a renewable one (Charman, 2010). However, there are controversies surrounding the fracking industry, including whether shale gas is economically viable to extract (Hughes, 2013), issues with water contamination (Osborn et al., 2011; EcoWatch, 2013), health risks (Bamberger & Oswald, 2012), and its contribution to the greenhouse effect and global warming (Howarth et al., 2012). Should there be a complete ban on shale gas extraction via fracking, or a temporary moratorium to allow for a comprehensive assessment? Is shale gas a worthwhile investment, or should we be implementing cleaner, renewable alternatives?

There is no doubt that improvements in hydraulic fracturing and in the gas industry as a whole have allowed new access to large deposits of shale gas, with reserve estimates in the US alone ranging from fourteen trillion cubic metres (Charman, 2010) to forty-two trillion cubic metres (Engelder, 2011). However, accounting for US natural gas consumption of almost seven hundred billion cubic metres annually (CIA, 2011), this will represent between twenty and sixty years of consumption. This clashes with the claims of a one hundred year supply frequently asserted by some (Nelder, 2011).

A further issue is the energy that shale gas can contribute to society. The ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) of shale gas is around 5-6 : 1 (Heinberg, 2012; Hughes, 2013), a worryingly small amount compared to a global natural gas ERoEI of 30 : 1 in the 1950s (Gupta & Hall, 2011). Further energy in extraction is required for extracting and processing the gas (Charman, 2010), and the water-intensive process could “threaten the viability” of shale gas (Kent, 2012). Claims that focus on financial costs rather than net-energy costs also ignore the perpetual capital needed to maintain shale gas extraction, called the “drilling treadmill” (Rogers, 2013) and at the moment extraction is dependent on financial subsidies to remain profitable (Hughes, 2013).

Additionally, the legitimacy of shale gas as a “transition fuel” can be called into question. Stephenson et al. (2012) find that the best available evidence in the industry does not support the transition fuel claim. Furthermore, the emissions and greenhouse gas footprint are typically larger than other fossil fuels (Howarth et al., 2011; Hultman et al., 2011; Howarth et al., 2012). The International Energy Agency (2011) itself admits that shale gas extraction produces higher life-cycle emissions than natural gas. Can a resource that is dirtier than other fossil fuels be called a transition fuel?

Although risks to environmental and human health are prevalent with any method of energy generation, hydraulic fracturing nonetheless presents a unique case. Health-wise, the cocktail of chemicals in fracking fluids present the risk of chronic health problems (Thompson, 2012) including those neurological and respiratory (Lauver, 2012). Bamberger & Oswald (2012) also found a correlation, albeit weak, between gas extraction activities and livestock mortality. However, due to the pace of shale gas extraction in the US, there are yet no well designed studies on the potential health risks it entails (Hultman et al., 2011). Although there are possibilities for safer water use (Jenner & Lamadrid, 2013), controversy remains over methane contamination of groundwater (e.g. Osborn et al., 2011 versus Etiope et al., 2013), although evidence abounds of methane leakage from poorly sealed well bores (Johnson & Boersma, 2013).

Further, regardless of its potential economic or social benefits, the issue remains regarding shale gas’ greenhouse gas emissions, where there is overwhelming consensus that its climate footprint is either equal or larger than other fossil fuels (Hultman et al., 2011; Hughes, 2011; Lior, 2011; Howarth et al., 2011; 2012; Jiang et al., 2011; Jenner & Lamadrid, 2013). Indeed, even a global transition to conventional gas would provide minimal respite for the climate (Myhrvold & Caldeira, 2012) – what point does shale gas then have?

Combine these issues with significantly downgraded gas reserves in the US (Blohm et al., 2012; Hughes, 2014), doubts regarding its possibility to bring energy independence (Vaughan, 2014), and scepticism regarding the replication of the US “shale gas revolution” in the EU (Johnson & Boersma, 2013), and you have a clear result – shale gas is far from being a long-term energetic panacea. Banning fracking and promoting investment in low-carbon technologies and electric grids would be an environmentally, healthier, and economically more sound move (Paltsev et al., 2011; Howarth et al., 2012; Jenner & Lamadrid, 2013) The Institute for Policy Research & Development (IPRD) for example, has already calculated that by using 1% of current fossil fuel capacity it would be possible to replace our “entire existing energy infrastructure with renewables in 25 years or less” (Schwartzman & Schwartzman, 2011).

It must be noted that shale gas extraction sites are heterogeneous regarding size, production rates, and safety, and so health hazards will vary between different areas (Jiang et al., 2011). Contrary to previous assertions however, shale gas extraction is still a hazardous method of energy extraction, with blowouts occurring in the Marcellus Shale (Zoback et al., 2010), and significant cancer and non-cancer risks affecting those living nearby shale gas extraction sites (McKenzie et al., 2012). Additionally, a historical perspective is required – shale gas was “elevated” as an alternative fuel in the US only after a string of catastrophes previously, including coal mine collapses, the Deepwater Horizon incident and the Fukushima meltdown (Jenner & Lamadrid, 2013). These high-impact/low-frequency events did well to remove coal, oil and nuclear power from the publically acceptable non-renewable energy portfolio.

It is also stressed previously that if shale gas is not an acceptable transition fuel (see Myhrvold & Caldeira, 2012; Stephenson et al., 2012), then what should be used in its stead? Some suggest the capital invested in shale gas extraction be diverted to smart electric grids (Howarth et al., 2012), or that shale gas can solve the problem of intermittency common with renewable energy (Carus, 2011). Despite this benefit however, shale gas extraction will simply reduce gas prices, which in turn will reduce the competitiveness of upcoming renewable technologies (Jenner & Lamadrid, 2013). An example is wind power in the US, where low gas prices have slowed or cancelled wind turbine construction (Greenwire, 2012; Wiser & Bolinger, 2012).

A more cynical outlook might proclaim that, despite the related health risks, low energy extraction, massive water consumption, and uncertain greenhouse gas footprint, fracking will continue regardless due to the consumption needs of the world and the “money to be made” (Rahm, 2011; Courtney, 2012). Can we afford to be complacent when the world we leave for our children and grandchildren is at stake?

The unviability of fracking is clear. There is no concealing the potentially huge resources of shale gas available for extraction, nor the (limited) economic benefits fracking can bring to a region via employment and energy independence. But evidence of groundwater contamination and potential health hazards reduce its viability. Add to this a larger climate footprint than coal, a low ERoEI, its water-intensive nature, and the economic problems shale gas has on truly renewable forms of energy, it becomes clear that fracking is neither economically or environmentally sustainable. It should not be pursued, and resources instead should be directed to truly renewable energy sources.

The author would like to apologise for those references which are unfortunately behind paywalls at the time of writing.

Tar sands and their environmental effects

The change in landscape from tar sands mining. Image from:

Previously I have used images to convey the physical and environmental impacts the extraction of oil sands, or tar sands is having. The impacts are both local to Alberta, Canada and global. In this post I shall briefly outline what exactly these are.

1) The tar sands are being mined for oil, the use of which generates greenhouse gases. However, the method of extraction used with tar sands means the total greenhouse gas emissions is much higher than conventional extraction, therefore there will be a bigger impact on climate change. 1

2) As can be seen in the above picture, the landscape used to be boreal forest. Deforestation means there are fewer trees to take up carbon, one of the main greenhouse gases. I’m pretty sure everyone would prefer to look at boreal forest than the horrible landscape created by tar sands mining.

3) The destruction of the boreal forest also means the destruction of habitat for many species. Who knows how many animals have suffered as a consequence? Just the loss of one species in an area can have a profound impact on the way an ecosystem works.

4) Large amounts of water are diverted from the Athabasca River. It is then superheated and injected underground in order to make the bitumen fluid enough to pump to the surface. One estimate is that three barrels of water are needed to produce one barrel of oil. This means less water available further downstream. 2

Tailings pond. Image from: Original source:, by Jiri Rezac

5) Tar sands create tailings ponds, which are effectively large pools of waste from the extraction process. 3 These ponds are so large they can actually be seen from space. The fact that they are filled with toxic waste is a hazard enough, but they are endangering the First Nation communities in the area. The toxic waste has been found leaking into the Athabasca River and therefore their water supply, and there have been reports of elevated occurrences of cancers and other diseases in the area. 4 It is of course everyone’s right to have safe drinking water, but this is obviously being contravened in this case. The tar sands are also damaging sacred areas and affecting cultural practices. If this is the effect on the human population, who knows how the wildlife in the local area is being affected.

So there we have it, a list of some of the environmental impacts the oil sands, or tar sands, are having on both a local and global scale. We can try and ignore what is going on in Alberta, Canada but in the end it will affect all of us. People in the UK should especially be made aware that the government are actually delaying legislation on fuel quality which would aim to discourage high emissions fuels such as oil from tar sands. 5 Shell and BP are already involved, and the Royal Bank of Scotland is one of the major investors. 1 Countries are obviously so eager to keep using oil and other fossil fuels, and delay the switch to renewable as long as possible, that they don’t care what the environmental impact is anymore. It’s truly a tragic situation and I hope this post will make people more aware of what is happening in Canada.

For more statistics and facts, such as the potential area of tar sands extraction could cover an area the size of England, the Rethink Alberta website has quite a few.