The Left and Climate Change ­- why green goes better with red


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The convenient green honeymoon.

With everyone from David Cameron to Enda Kenny wearing their green hearts on their sleeves it’s easy to think that climate change is beyond politics. In this post Inconvenient Truth world, we’re all signed up members of the must-do-something-about-climate-change brigade. We just have to switch to energy efficient light bulbs, buy a Prius and wait for the inevitable global agreement to make it all better. It’s certainly not about politics. And with those erstwhile dangerous radicals The Greens going into government with Fianna Fail – well, clearly this climate change lark is most definitely nothing to do with old fashioned notions like right or left. It’s just pragmatic, practical and sensible. Isn’t it?

And therein lies the danger. Because how we choose to deal (or not deal) with climate change is in fact one of the most critical ideological questions of our generation. And it is most certainly about whether you are left or right.

We’re living in the Convenient Honeymoon Period for the moment. The last two years has seen the broad acceptance that i) climate change is happening and ii) that human behaviour is responsible. We have also seen climate change move centre stage in public debate and public consciousness. To deny anthropogenic climate change now is to set yourself up as either naïve, contrary or in hock to big-oil. Public hearts and minds have been won over, and people agree that Something Must Be Done. The trouble is, most people haven’t really thought through what that means. And once they do, there may be a lot fewer people looking for that Something to Be Done.

Because changing lightbulbs and insulating our attics just isn’t going to cut it. We need to be looking at major cuts in our carbon emissions – at the very least 60% by 2050 (although this is probably too timid); some (such as Monbiot) argue as much as 90% by 2030.

What’s not in dispute is that we have to cut, and cut deep. The question that is of most concern to us here though, is what tools we use for the cutting. And this is where ideology moves centre stage. Do we do this in a fair and equitable way? Or do we attempt to minimise the pain felt by the privileged and the prosperous? For example, take the debate around biofuels.

The beautiful mirage of biofuels.

Biofuels have several obvious attractions for westerners raised in the era of oil. They hold out the possibility that we can continue with our car dependent ways without contributing to climate change. Cars could be cool again. Fuel prices may even come down. Drivers would be happy. And not only that, they provide farmers with a valuable cash crop that could revitalise the rural economy.

Biofuels have many fans – the EU Biofuels directive calls for 5.75% of transport fossil fuels to be replaced by Biofuels by 2010. George Bush wants biofuels to be supplying 24% of US fuel requirements by 2017. Here, the programme for government introduces a minimum requirement for the use of biofuels in public transport vehicles. The Labour Party policy calls for the progressive introduction of the EU 5.75% target.

So what’s the problem? Well, there’s a few. Not one to mince words, George Monbiot describes biofuels policy as “a formula for environmental disaster”. We’re already seeing this. Biofuels are displacing food crops in developing countries, helping to drive up food prices and contributing to a global food shortage. Worse, forests are being cleared to make way for biofuel production. And deforestation means the release of stored carbon and the loss of vital carbon sinks. In fact one report has shown that biodiesel made from palm oil causes 10 times as much climate change as ordinary diesel.

The folly of biofuels is most apparent when you start looking at how much would be required to power our cars. Using currently available biofuel crops, to keep the UK’s car fleet on the road would require 5 times more arable land than actually exists in the country. A similar scenario probably exists here. So to power our car habit with biofuels we would have to stop growing everything else. No more spuds. No more turnips. No more grass for cows to graze.

There’s a clear question of equity here. We can, in the short term at least, reduce our country’s carbon footprint somewhat by increasing the use of biofuels. But anything beyond a token usage will cause devastation to the world’s poorest people and untold environmental damage as well. Until a new generation of more efficient biofuels is developed, no progressive person or party should promote the increased use of biofuels.

Back from the dead. The return of nuclear.

The biofuels fallacy should alert us to the dangers of apparently simple solutions to climate change. Take the newly invigorated nuclear lobby. If you believe what the cheerleaders say, nuclear power is the answer. Sure, it has its problems, but we have to be mature and grown up about energy now, and the problems of nuclear pale next to the dangers of climate change. And nuclear power stations produce no CO2. Stop fretting and start building!

Well, if it was that simple then I think I’d be leading the charge. But unfortunately the arguments for nuclear collapse under the most basic scrutiny.

First up, nuclear power is not economic. It has always required massive subsidies to make it happen. Which means one of two things – government subsidies to big business to help them build and run nuclear stations, or the re-direction of government spending into a nuclear construction project. Given the current vogue for the private sector, we’d most likely be looking at the former. So we’d have economic redistribution, but from our pockets into those of big energy companies.

When you add in the uncertainty around continued uranium availability, the major question marks over the carbon cost of extracting uranium and the dangers of leaks and accidents, nuclear looks less like a solution to climate change and more like a bonus for big business.

The invisible green hand.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a business response to climate change. Market mechanisms are powerful and have an important role to pay in the task ahead. But on it’s own, the fabled market is no panacea.

Nicholas Stern described climate change as “the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen“. The externality of carbon pollution hasn’t been properly priced over the last 150 years, leading us to the point we’re currently at. So the first task is to put a proper price on carbon – and carbon taxes are the most obvious way of doing this.

But the problem with a carbon tax is that it has a relatively greater impact on the poorest in society. If I’m already struggling to pay for fuel to keep my house warm, increasing the price may reduce my consumption, but at what cost? Less money for food? More winter nights without heat?

Meanwhile, the wealthiest amongst us will still be able to pour petrol into their big cars and heat their large houses, albeit at a higher cost.

The problem is that carbon taxes are not redistributive. The only way you can argue for carbon taxes is if they’re accompanied by a strong package of supports to ameliorate their impact on the poorest in society. Without fuel subsidies, real investment in public transport, and a national programme to make our leaky homes more energy-efficient, carbon taxes will hurt the poorest hardest.

There is an alternative. The idea of carbon quotas is already with us in the EU and Kyoto cap and trade systems for business. But a personal system could be the most radical and effective wealth redistribution mechanism.

A contraction and convergence system would work along the following lines. For simplicity, let’s look at in national, rather than global terms.

We take a time horizon – let’s say 2050 – and a target for reducing our emissions. Friends of the Earth argue that we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90% by 2050. For Ireland that would mean bringing per capita emissions down from 17 tonnes per person to around 2 tonnes per person by 20501[1].

Everyone is then given an annual carbon quota – initially of 17 tonnes. If you use less than that, you can sell your excess credit to those who are more profligate with their carbon.

Then each year, the personal carbon quota reduces towards the ultimate target. If you take a linear reduction that would mean your quota would reduce by 0.375 tonnes each year.

So how is this redistributive? Well, generally speaking, the wealthier you are, the more carbon you’re going to produce. And likewise, poorer people tend not to emit as much. So if wealthier people want to continue their high-carbon lifestyle they’ll have to buy credits from those with excess – who will tend to be either very carbon conscious, or less well-off, or both.

Hey presto, we have a wealth redistribution system together with an equitable distribution of the ‘right-to-pollute’.

When you transfer this to the global arena, the scale of wealth distribution would be utterly transformative. Just look at the per capita emissions of countries like Chad, Uganda and Rwanda, all of which have per capita carbon dioxide emissions of less than 0.1 tonnes. If the developed North wanted to continue with it’s carbon intensive lifestyle, it would have to buy large amounts of carbon credits from the South. The contraction and convergence system facilitates a global transfer of wealth from the richest to the poorest while still allowing under-developed countries to grow to a sustainable level.

Yes, but…

Of course there are major challenges with introducing such a scheme on a national, never mind a global, level. But it provides us with a template for a fair and equitable means to tackle the global crisis. And a mechanism for smoothing out some of the disparities of wealth within and between countries. If we’re to take a progressive approach to climate change we should give serious consideration to contraction and convergence.

A new urgency for the public sphere.

A personal carbon quota system would never happen if we simply left things to the market to sort out. Indeed, the global nature of climate change and the scale of the challenge demonstrates the continued need for strong government. Global action can only be co-ordinated by national governments and national action can only be ensured by strong state-led leadership, direction and enforcement. The market alone will not stop climate chaos.

Which suggests that the greening of the likes of David Cameron may be little more than greenwash. Does the right really think that a shrunken and emaciated state will have the wherewithal to deal with climate change? Or do they believe that market forces alone can stop the juggernaut heading our way? Are they really that naïve or in thrall to the ideology of Freidman and Thatcher?

Here’s where the left can strike a decisive claim to the climate change agenda. We already believe in the important role of the state in leading, directing and enforcing progressive change. We’re not (at least we used not be) blinded by the false and empty claims of the omnipotence of the untrammelled ‘free market’ or the belief that the private sector is necessarily better than the public.

And we also believe in the principles of fairness and equality. A left approach to climate change would see the pain shared equally (or even disproportionately by the wealthiest and most carbon-wasteful). Could we say the same about a right wing approach?

Too much pie?

But there are areas when the new climate reality will severely challenge left thinking. None more so than the idea of growth. For a long time there has been consensus across left and right that the goal of politics and economics was to grow the size of the pie. The differences were about how to divide it. Well, we may have to re-assess our appetite for pie.

How far can we grow our economy while simultaneously reducing our carbon footprint? Yes, we have seen a degree of ‘de-coupling’ of emissions and growth in Ireland over the last few years. But we have simply slowed the rate of emissions growth in our economy. In an environment of annually reducing greenhouse gas emissions, can we expect continued, non-stop economic growth?

The left urgently needs a new economic analysis that takes account of the new challenges we face. The fundamental question is how can we ensure a better quality of life – and a fairer distribution of wealth – while reducing our carbon emissions to a level that doesn’t threaten the survival of the planet?

The current centrist consensus of relatively unregulated private sector growth and a low tax regime lifting all boats (though not equally) will not be enough. We need a new economy, and the left needs to lay claim to it.

Equality, our children, and our children’s children.

When you boil it down, dealing with climate change is fundamentally a left issue and an egalitarian issue. The basic question is one of inter-generational equity: should our children have the same rights to enjoy the planet that we do? We can’t offer them the same ‘right to pollute’ that we in the west enjoy, because we have been over-indulging on carbon to an almost catastrophic extent. But we can aim to have a liveable, enjoyable world for our children. That’s a worthy goal for progressives to champion.


[1] There are a number of different ways that emissions can be reported. Some use tonnes of carbon, others use tonnes of carbon dioxide. To convert from carbon to carbon dioxide multiply by 3.667. A broader measure is tonnes of greenhouse gases, which includes other gases such as methane which contribute to climate change.Photo taken by Donncha O Caoimh of It appears in the post Old Boat at Mizen Head.


7 Responses

  1. KevanB

    June 12, 2008 6:34 pm

    I do not have a problem with your basic idea but the cost of tackling climate change will be very high. Improved public transport infrastructure, the cost of turning all our stock of houses into ones that have we can heat cheaply and an array of other measures. It will add up and, if taken seiously as I believe we must, will mean an increased tax take from all of us. Whatever our wealth. It will mean major changes in the way we conduct our social and political lives. We live in Interesting Times, even beyond 2012. Any rolling over will have to be in the way we live rather that, hopefully, the poles rolling over

  2. Roger

    June 12, 2008 11:31 pm

    In the developed world we have come to expect an inceasing standard of living and the prospect of that actually decreasing is more than most people can bear.

    I also think biofuels are folly. Perhaps not so much because of the current economics of the fuels themselves or even the issues of land clearing and loss of food production (though both are important), but rather from the view that we already have sufficient technology to power our society without them.

    Solar technology is sufficiently advanced that a global mass production effort of all possible types of panels would be able to rid us of the need for any fuels for either transport or electricity generation. Oil would still be needed for plastics production, but that issue needs to be addressed separately.

    Biofuels are a smokescreen to cover up our unwillingness to surrender some portion of our standard of living in order to fix the problem of climate change.

    It is simply shifting deck chairs on the Titanic as it sinks.

    Roger from

  3. Damian O\'Broin

    June 17, 2008 10:25 am

    It will indeed be expensive – but the Stern report argues that failing to act would be far more expensive.

    An increased tax rake? Maybe. But first of all we’ll need a re-ordering of spending priorities. There can be savings as well. For instance, if we weren’t so far over our Kyoto target we wouldn’t have had to allocate €290 million to purchase Kyoto carbon allowances.

  4. Damian O'Broin

    June 24, 2008 9:07 am

    Wageslave, I never claimed it as an original idea – in fact there probably isn’t an original idea in the entire essay! Feasta have done a lot of very good work in this area, but the credit for developing contraction and convergence would go to the global commons institute who I’ve linked to in the essay.