Electric cars are no panacea. The government’s focus on them is a sham

A transition to electric cars is part of both the Scottish and UK governments’ plans to tackle the climate crisis. Here we reprint (with permission) a post by SIMON PIRANI first published on the People and Nature blog, which takes a critical look at the Westminster government’s strategy.

The UK government has put electric cars at the centre of its disastrous climate strategy, which doesn’t even aim for half the needed greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

The focus on electric cars – which goes together with a gigantic £27 billion road-building programme – is opposed by researchers of climate science, transport policy, engineering and urban planning. Their advice has in practice been ignored.

The Labour leadership is happy with the electric cars narrative, leaving researchers and campaigners outside parliament to point out that electrification, without an immediate, giant shift towards public transport, cycling and walking – and away from individually-owned cars – will never come close to decarbonising transport at any meaningful pace.

In the run-up to the international climate talks in Glasgow in November, it is vital that the government’s cynical PR strategy is unmasked.

Support for electric cars was a highlight of the government’s ten-point plan for a “green industrial revolution”, announced in November. Sales of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2030 – that is, after the most vital decade for action on climate has already passed.

Electric Car CC0 http://www.pixabay.com

The plan includes a promise of about £2.8 billion to subsidise manufacture of, and infrastructure for, electric cars – just over one-tenthof the cost of the £27 billion national road-building programme. (That, transport researchers say, will add 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) to the atmosphere where a 167 million tonne reduction is needed).

Labour called only for a tweak to the government’s plan – bringing forward the ban on hybrid vehicles from 2035 to 2030. Even Greenpeacesaid the electric car policy was the “star of the show”, needing only more support for delivery.

The seductive logic, shared across the political spectrum, is that the cost of electric cars will soon fall fast enough that motorists will snap them up.

The fact that electric cars are far from “zero carbon” gets lost. (See Note 1 below.) The fact that, if we don’t want global temperatures to go more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, emissions will have to be cut at more than twice the rate the government intends, gets lost too. (See Note 2.)

The voices of researchers who actually study the role of transport systems in the climate crisis need to be amplified.

Why the ten point plan makes no sense 

Although the 2030 phase out of petrol and diesel cars is welcome, “in reality it is a delaying tactic”, argued climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Dan Calverley in response to the ten-point plan. “Climate change requires immediate action, not a promise for action in ten years.”

The plan passes the buck of mitigating climate change to another government, several electoral cycles down the line. More importantly, it obliges our children to remove colossal quantities of (our) carbon directly from the atmosphere, or attempt to live with the consequences of dangerous climate change. […]

Far from being a ‘green revolution’, this is simply business as usual, where the predict-and-provide paradigm of car ownership and road building go hand in hand.

That last point was echoed by Nick Eyre of the Centre for Research on Energy Demand Solutions, a prominent UK energy policy researcher. The government plan is “very far from a coherent strategy”, he wrote.

It “reads like a shopping list of interesting technologies that might be grafted on to the existing energy system” – but “fails to recognise the more fundamental needs for change and links to other policy areas”.

The plan mentions £9.2 billion for public transport, cycling and walking – but “on closer inspection, none of this is new money”, Eyre pointed out. So that would just put pressure on austerity-damaged local councils … while the £27 billion road building plan stays in place – albeit under legal challenge.

For transport researchers, the electric-car-focused plan was proof of government indifference to their calls for integrated transport policy that reduces the number of car journeys, and the speed and number of cars, and boosts public transport, cycling and walking.

“If we really were committed to reducing climate-damaging carbon emissions […] we would cancel road building and switch all the funding to world-best joined up thinking about transport”, wrote John Whitelegg of the Foundation for Integrated Transport.

But of course the government is not really committed, at all. And Whitelegg pointed to one reason why … car culture, that is such a key element of 21st century capitalism:

The prioritisation of cars goes deeper. We allocate huge amounts of space to cars that could very easily be used for green space, affordable housing, trees and parks. We encourage anti-social, unpleasant pavement parking in residential areas so that children and other pedestrians have to walk in the middle of the road. There is no space for anyone with a pushchair or wheel chair. The car takes up space that belongs to the people and this is ignored by councils and central government.

University-based transport researchers have churned out dozens of articles, over years, explaining ways of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

A recent one highlighted that in order to meet the climate targets implied in the 2015 Paris agreement, the UK would need, first, to ban hybrid cars (that can run on either petrol or electricity) as well as petrol and diesel ones, and, second, support “lifestyle and social change” that would alter the nature of journeys people need or want to make, and encourage non-car ways of making them:

Only the earlier phase-outs [of fossil-fuel-heavy vehicles] combined with lower demand for mobility and car ownership would make significant contributions to an emissions pathway that is both Paris-compliant [i.e. hits the targets set out at the international climate talks in Paris in 2015] and meets legislated urban air quality limits.

Engineering researchers come to similar conclusions via a different route. They reason that the best way to slash fuel use quickly – not in ten years’ time – is to cut the total weight of cars on the road.

Researchers at Cambridge published analysis showing that  “fostering vehicle weight reduction” could save more emissions by 2050 than current policies that focus on electrification – unless there is “an extreme decarbonisation” of the UK’s electricity grid, e.g. more than 50%.

Simple. Obvious. But resisted tooth and nail by motor manufacturers.

Thanks in large part to those companies, the average weight of cars in Europe has risen from 1320 kg in 2005 – when they already knew fine well about global warming – to more than 1400 kg now.

Cars on average carry 1.8 people, who weigh on average about one-twelfth of that … “so almost all petrol is used to move the car, not the people”, says the Absolute Zero report, which proposes how the UK could go to zero carbon with current technologies.

The authors’ scenarios imply that the UK could get to a place where non-fossil electricity generation is three times the current level, and transport without fossil fuels uses 60% of the energy it uses now. And that would mean:

Either vehicles are modified – with regenerative braking, reduced drag and rolling resistance (better tyres), and weight reductions, or we can choose to use them less – through ride-sharing, better freight management or an overall reduction in distance travelled.

Simple. Obvious. And because the motor manufacturers won’t hear of it, the government keeps away from it.

Changing transport systems, so that we can live more happily with fewer vehicle-kilometres, is not just about cars, or even just the roads and parking spaces. It is also about the design and layout of the cities in which we live.

Current transport and land use planning practice is “fundamentally unsustainable” at a time of climate emergency, warned a reportlast month by the Royal Town Planning Institute (hardly a bunch of rebellious eco-warriors).

It called for urban planning to be turned upside down to avoid locking-in “car dependent lifestyles”.

The report proposed a four-step pathway. The fourth step is “fuel switching”, i.e. electrification of transport.

But before that, the report urged, (i) “all new development” has to be “planned, designed and delivered to achieve net zero transport emissions”; (ii) demand for transport should be reduced “through local living”, i.e. remaking cities so that necessities (schools, doctors, shops, and so on) are within walking distance; and (iii) government should encourage a shift from private vehicles to walking, cycling and public transport.

Simple. Obvious. But of no interest to the property developers who rule the roost in urban planning.

Researchers vs politicians

Since policy is influenced so profoundly by the relations of wealth and power in society – by the motor manufacturers and property developers, by car culture –researchers who seek to advise government sometimes wonder whether they are hitting their heads against a brick wall.

Jillian Anable, one of the UK’s foremost transport specialists, vented her frustration at the University Transport Studies Group conference in 2019. “We are letting more and more water on board our Titanic, while our implements to bale ourselves out are getting increasingly ineffectual”, she said.

Three decades into the climate crisis, the transport sector is 98% dependent on fossil fuels, she reminded her colleagues.

“We need a profoundly more challenging mitigation agenda than the academic community has countenanced to date”, she argued. “We have to expose the gap between current measures and what needs to happen.” To “produce the knowledge we need to tell the truth”, research needs to go further, to “challenge the dominant frame held by policymakers” of “neoclassical engineering and microeconomic approaches”.

By implication at least, this call to go further was answered by Giulio Mattioli and his colleagues in an article published last year that highlighted five key elements of the “car-dependent transport system”: (i) the automotive industry; (ii) provision of car infrastructure; (iii) the political economy of urban sprawl; (iv) the provision (and, I would say, lack of provision) of public transport; and (v) cultures of car consumption.

This thorough analysis of the social and economic drivers obstructing decarbonisation concludes that:

Alternatives to car-dependent transport systems will have to be civic-minded, strategically coordinated for the public good […] Such alternatives can not benefit from a purported technocratic or apolitical presentation: instead, they should be argued for on the firm grounds of public coordination and delivery of public goods for all, while continually exposing the hidden workings of car-dependent transport systems.

This goes way beyond the framework of advising government that constrains so much work.

It underlines that the rift between research and politics – which has been so dramatically exposed in the last year with respect to the coronavirus – runs deep when it comes to climate change.

Where’s the opposition?

In the UK, this gulf between rational thinking and politics is deepened by the Labour party’s crisis. There is no functioning political opposition to the dysfunctional government.

Labour’s wimpish response to the government’s ten-point plan was just a symptom. Its own muddled climate policy is tied to discredited notions of pumping up “economic growth”. In fact the “green industrial revolution” slogan was coined by Labour and then stolen from it, and made infinitely more vacuous, by Boris Johnson and his corrupt cronies.

The gap between words and actions runs through Labour’s climate policies as it does the government’s. London mayor Sadiq Khan, arguably Labour’s most powerful elected politician, talks about tackling climate change – but his biggest spending decision has been to go ahead with the £2 billion Silvertown Tunnel project, which would help ensure there is more traffic in the coming decades, when it’s so vital that there is less.

The Labour-controlled Greater London Authority have simply ignored the reality that more roads produce more traffic, and defended the tunnel with the false argument – identical to the government’s – that electrification will make traffic “zero carbon”.

As campaigners in London (me included) have shown, the tunnel project is incompatible with London’s own emissions reductions targets, let alone those implied by the Paris climate conference.

How to turn the tide

So while politicians enthuse about electric cars, and motor manufacturers use them as greenwash, all the carbon emissions reductions from electric car use are being wiped out by the relentless rise in SUV use.

In 2020, a global reduction of oil use of about 2 million tonnes (40,000 barrels a day), achieved by people switching to electric cars, was “completely cancelled out by the growth in SUV sales over the same period”, research published last month by the International Energy Agency (IEA) showed.

While more than 3 million electric and hybrid vehicles were sold in 2020, SUV sales fell – but only to about 27 million, bringing the world’s total SUV fleet to more than 280 million, up from less than 50 million in 2010.

And the SUVs made a noticeable contribution to climate change. Energy-related greenhouse gas emissions fell by about 7% in 2020, across all the categories the IEA tracks … except those from SUVs, which edged up by 0.5%.

What’s more, the electric vehicles being sold are getting larger and heavier, on average, earlier IEA research showed.

Clearly, meaningful action to tackle climate change and make city life better means cutting the total number of cars on the road. 

It means communities fighting for investment in cheap and free public transport and infrastructure for cycling, walking and genuinely energy-saving transport modes such as electric scooters. It means combating the influence of motor manufacturers and the car culture on which they thrive.

It means social and labour movements making common cause with workers in the motor industry, to seek ways to use their skills, without producing climate-wrecking gas guzzlers – as is starting to happen with aviation workers.

And it means recognising that electric cars – which, over the long term, can combine with fossil-free electricity generation as a means of transport – are not a short- or medium term fix for the climate emergency.

Note 1. Why EVs are not zero-emission

□ Calling electric vehicles (EVs) “zero emission” is meaningless propaganda. Greenhouse gases are emitted when the car and battery are manufactured, and very often from the power stations that produce the electricity. There are heated controversies about EVs’ lifecycle emissions, measured in grams per kilometre travelled (g/kw), compared to petrol and diesel cars. The bottom line of a recent study by Carbon Brief was that EVs in Europe are usually more than twice as carbon-efficient (i.e. twice as “clean”) as petrol and diesel cars, depending on the make and where the battery is produced. That analysis cast doubt on a headline-grabbing study by the IFO institute in Germany, which warned that EVs would “barely help to cut emissions”. Over time, EVs have the potential to improve carbon efficiency still further, compared to petrol cars, with better batteries and lower-carbon electricity.

□ Carbon Brief found that, in the EU, a Nissan Leaf used half the carbon emissions of an average petrol car on a lifecycle basis. Half is not “zero”.

□ Much depends on how the electricity is produced. In Paraguay or Iceland, where it comes from hydropower, the carbon “cost” of an EV is only that of making the car and battery. But in China or India, where most electricity is produced from coal and EV markets are growing rapidly, most EVs will do worse than comparable petrol cars in greenhouse gas terms. (This is one of many studies with numbers.)

□ Lifecycle assessments do not include emissions from building and maintaining roads and parking spaces, and the knock-on effect of discouraging non- and low-carbon forms of transport. (The numbers are complex. See Transport for Quality of Life’s work on the UK to get an idea.)

□ EV purchases do not necessarily mean that buyers are giving up petrol cars. Research from Norway, which has gone furthest in electrifying transport, shows that the availability of EVs has increased the proportion of families who own more than one car, and decreased the proportion that use public transport to commute.

□ Plug-in hybrid cars (PHEVs), often counted as “low emission”, are being given low emission values from tests, but their real-world emissions are on average two-and-a-half times higher, a briefing by Transport & Environment reports. In 2017 in the UK, researchers fumed, a quarter of all plug-in cars registered were “an SUV in the form of a PHEV and one of the most polluting cars on the road”.

□ Apart from the carbon cost, EVs use metals, in particular lithium, that are mined in the global south under conditions that heap suffering on the people that live there. The huge expansion of EV manufacture envisaged by car companies implies a disastrous assault on those people. Some of the implications were examined by Jamie Morgan, an economist, in this article.

Note 2: Policies lag behind carbon budgets, which lag behind reality

Transport is the UK economic sector that accounts for the most greenhouse gas emissions (in 2019, 113 MtCO2e, 22% of the total). A report commissioned by the Climate Change Committee (CCC), a public body, said in December last year that transport emissions would have to be cut by 70% by the mid 2030s, for the government to meet its own climate targets.

These targets are expressed as “carbon budgets” covering five-year periods. The CCC warns that the government is unlikely to meet them: in the jargon, it is “off track” for the fourth (2023-27) and fifth (2028-32) carbon budgets.

In a letter sent to the government in October 2018, the CCC chair, Lord Deben, specified just how far off track. In 2030, when the CCC wants transport emissions down to around 68 MtCO2e/year, it a projected a 14 MtCO2e/year shortfall due to a “policy gap”, and a further 42 MtCO2e/year “at risk due to lack of firm policies and measures or those with delivery risks”.

In plain language: if the government does not get a grip (and there’s no sign of that, more than two years later), transport emissions could be more or less unchanged by 2030.

All that sounds bad enough. Worse still, climate scientists insist that the “carbon budgets”, on which government and CCC agree, would not even deliver half the necessary emissions cuts.

key research paper that takes the scientific conclusions of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, and applies the principle that rich countries should bear more of the burden (“common but differentiated responsibility”, in the jargon), gives the UK a carbon budget of 3700 MtCO2e for the whole 21st century – compared to the 9000 MtCO2e implied by the government’s targets.

The paper, by Kevin Anderson and others, assumes – unlike the government – that negative emissions technologies will play no substantial part in the next few decades. That means, the authors say, that the UK needs, starting now, to cut emissions by more than 10% per year – as opposed to the 5.1% implied by government targets.

The paper’s assumptions are very modest. That 3700 MtCO2e budget for the UK is based on an assumed global budget, for the 21st century, of 900 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e). A briefing paper by the ecological economist Tim Jackson, with a slightly different angle on the IPCC’s numbers, says the UK’s budget is 2500 MtCO2e, and the global budget 420 GtCO2e. It all depends on how much risk of going how far above 1.5 degrees higher than pre-industrial times you think makes sense.

In my view, caution is desirable with all these numbers, because discussion of them often implicitly assumes that politicians and diplomats at the climate negotiations have a right and duty to rule on these matters. I don’t think that, but I do think the science in the IPCC reports is a good place to start in working out our view on emissions cuts. But the government obviously does not.

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Just Transition of Aviation

We reprint a press statement from the PCS Union and Stay Grounded published on February 8th 2021.

Today, the UK trade union PCS and the global network Stay Grounded published together a paper entitled “A Rapid and Just Transition of Aviation – Shifting towards Climate-Just Mobility”. Tahir Latif, PCS Aviation Group President, says: “This paper clearly shows: the aviation workforce needs to accommodate the urgent requirement for a reduction in flying. This is imperative to avoid climate catastrophe. We need to retain job security through retraining and redeployment into jobs, some within aviation and some in other sectors, that help to restore the planet, not destroy it.”

This Paper makes it clear that there is no option to go back to business as before Covid-19: instead of bailing out airlines, airports and manufacturers, recovery packages must directly finance a just transition. This includes providing a living wage and social protection for workers leaving the industry, retraining programmes, creating jobs in climate-safe sectors and fostering alternatives to flights and harmful mass tourism.

Public money must save people, not planes”, says Magdalena Heuwieser, from Stay Grounded. “If we try to go back to the old high-speed fossil-fuelled transport system, it will crash very soon. Let’s be realistic: aviation will change, and it will do so either by design or by disaster. So let’s choose design.

The discussion paper has a global scope and is the result of a collective writing process by people active in the climate justice movement, trade unionists, indigenous communities and academics from around the world. Several aviation workers who were involved also advocate for a just transition and less flying, like ex-pilot Paul Taylor: “I was made redundant from my airline due to Covid-19 – and I won’t go back to flying. I realised it’s neither healthy for me, nor for the planet.”

The document has its focus on the question of how to fairly reduce passenger flights and it makes clear links to freight as well as tourism. ”Mass sun and beach tourism is a sector that is highly dependent on aviation and very vulnerable, as the Covid pandemic has shown. We need to focus on more inland and local tourism, based on sustainability, respect for the territory and on more sustainable mobility options,” says Carlos Martínez, member of the Secretary of Environment from CC.OO. The Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras) is one of the biggest Spanish unions. In another paper published in January 2021 with the biggest Spanish environmental NGOs, it argues for reducing dependency on mass tourism and air travel.

It is key that the climate justice movement, trade unions and workers join forces to fight for our future”, concludes Magdalena Heuwieser from Stay Grounded. The demand for a just transition has been developed by trade unions and the climate justice movement. It aims to protect workers and communities currently dependent on fossil fuel industries, but is also a broader process to help safeguard the future of workers, communities and the planet. It is not an argument for delaying the changes needed, rather for managing them effectively, fairly and democratically.

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) is one of the largest unions in the U.K., with around 180,000 members. PCS represents workers in the civil service and ex-civil service areas that are now in the private sector, including aviation. PCS is one of six UK unions with members in aviation, representing around 1,800 workers in air traffic management, airport ground and security staff and in civil aviation regulation.

Stay Grounded is a network of about 170 member organisations from all over the world, among them: NGOs, climate justice groups, indigenous organisations, labour unions and civil initiatives against airport noise and expansion. Together, they fight for climate justice and a fair reduction of aviation.

Glasgow Trade Unionists organise for COP26 and beyond

Stuart Graham writes about how trade unionists in Glasgow are organising for COP26 and beyond

Glasgow Trades Union Council (GTUC) attended the STUC Trades Councils conference on Sat 30 January and had requested that a session was added to deal with COP26 and the required level of mobilisation for the Nov summit.  Consequently 2 of the Glasgow delegates led the session to discuss the work started on one campaign (Free Our City campaign for free public transport) and the intention to devise another (along similar coalition-building type lines) around a retrofitting agenda for the city.  The opportunity to engage with Glasgow City Council on these issues has been presented by the fact that GCC declared a climate emergency in June 2019, published a list of recommendations from the Climate Emergency Working Group that considered the response and has subsequently undertaken public consultations on transport and the wider Climate Emergency Implementation Plan (CEIP).  While these are not always going to provide the desired solutions (indeed the transport proposals are particularly frustrating at this stage) this does provide some kind of opening to initiate genuine social dialogue and discuss what social protections are actually needed in the process of just transition. However, we need to ensure that such social dialogue remains genuine and capable of being a two-way conversation and not just a monologue with the option to tell the council in question how much you agree or disagree with an already defined endpoint.

As the provision of renewably-powered, free public transport is one of the significant, societal transformations that the Free Our City coalition (which includes GTUC) has identified as capable of delivering the just transition to a low carbon/carbon neutral economy, GTUC will be meeting with trades councils from the local authorities surrounding Glasgow to devise a common approach to take to the politicians which sit on the Strathclyde Regional Cabinet.  Bus service provision in Greater Glasgow cuts across local authority boundaries to such an extent that we will require a common mobilising agenda that is also capable of being adapted as we go.  Whether we view this solely from the perspective of municipal bus transit for a domestic population, or consider the amount of visitors we may be hosting come November (if the covid-19 vaccine roll-out permits an in-person attendance at COP26 that we were expecting pre-pandemic), we need to continue to make the case that the Bus Service Improvement Programmes (BSIPs) that continue to subsidise private companies like First Bus and Stagecoach, with public funds, are neither good enough nor capable of delivering what bus users across Greater Glasgow need.  Therefore irrespective of the current or anticipated positions of the various administrations which make up the Strathclyde Regional Cabinet, part of any campaign on public transport/buses needs to have the demand for public ownership and democratic control at its centre.  Public sector job creation – as drivers or mechanics as well that offered through renewables-focused supply lines – would also result from re-municipalization. 

GTUC are in the early stages of devising a local retrofitting campaign too and are watching with interest the progress of and obstacles to Leeds TUC’s retrofitting report and recommendations. Carbon emissions from domestic energy use/consumption remains a significant contribution to the city’s overall emissions levels, and while GCC’s CEIP has a commitment to a retrofitting programme, it is nowhere at the scale or level of ambition which will be required to retrofit all of the city’s homes, which will have different specifications depending on property types, ranging from multi-storey flats to tenemental and four-in-a-block properties.  While still in its very early stages, what is known about the scale of the retrofitting task ahead of us all, is that it has massive, public sector job creation potential and this is what we want to see.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs created to carry out the deep retrofitting of all homes, with the associated training available to those who want to work in this sector, as well as for those who have lost jobs due to the pandemic or are finding it particularly difficult as they are younger workers with little to no work experience because of the lack of real job opportunities (both pre- and mid-pandemic) and being forced into precarious work.  We will once again attempt to do so through coalition-building, and hope that Living Rent will also be one of the coalition partners due to its status and work as the only tenants union in the city.  

We appreciate that the priorities detailed are specific to Glasgow/Greater Glasgow and rely upon the demands of urban societies/economies.  And we know that some of the more rural local authorities/trades councils eg. Highlands & Islands, will have significantly differing demands, including a greater reliance on electrical vehicles.  Once known, these aspects can be better articulated, but will take some time to properly assess.  However, the proposal is to use one, other or both campaigns as a mobilising template or impetus which trades councils can then use to build coalitions and bespoke campaigning agendas around.  Transport and housing affect everyone – so the aim is to try and harness the energy that type of appeal can bring as a common mobilising agenda across trades councils.  Scottish trades councils will be meeting more regularly throughout 2021 under these and other auspices, to bring their affiliates under the banner of the COP26 coalition and call for more participation and action at all levels, and as we (in Glasgow at least) will definitely be here for the Nov summit, to build for it as if we are expecting a million people are (still?) coming to town.

Net Zero Targets – just greenwashing?

In the lead up to COP 26 in Glasgow the UK government will be pushing governments and corporations to declare new net-zero targets.  With every announcement we can expect politicians and large parts of the media to declare that these are real steps on the road to tackling the climate crisis.  In most cases this will not be the case. 

An excellent new report ‘Not Zero:  How net zero targets disguise climate inaction’ produced by a partnership of six climate justice organisations spells out why we should look very critically at the claims made for net zero.

The report argues that

Far from signifying climate ambition, the phrase “net zero” is being used by a majority of polluting governments and corporations to evade responsibility, shift burdens, disguise climate inaction, and in some cases even to scale up fossil fuel extraction, burning and emissions. The term is used to greenwash business-as-usual or even business-more-than-usual. At the core of these pledges are small and distant targets that require no action for decades and promises of technologies that are unlikely ever to work at scale, and which are likely to cause huge harm if they come to pass. 

Typically net zero strategies allow greenhouse gas emissions to continue while assuming that at some stage in the future equivalent amounts of carbon can be removed from the atmosphere.  The technologies proposed for this are untested at any significant scale.  Moreover, the sums just don’t add up.  We’ve written elsewhere on this site about BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage).  Where they use tree planting or other forms of taking carbon dioxide by plants there is simply not enough space on the planet to achieve the targets.  

The report suggests some key questions when net zero plans are being discussed.

  • When the “net zero” target is reached, how much GHG pollution will still be taking place? Will GHG emissions be reduced to nearly zero – or not? 
  • How much CO2 removal does the plan rely on to reach “net zero”? How and where will this be achieved? 
  • Which sectors and GHGs are included? Some or all?3 
  • How many years or decades before a country or corporation can claim to be at “net zero”? 
  • Between now and the “net zero” target date, how many cumulative emissions in total will have been added to the atmosphere? 
  • Will there be “overshoot”, i.e. accumulating atmospheric emissions that take the planet to more than 1.5°C of warming before the assumed CO2 removals take place, thus significantly increasing the risk of crossing irreversible tipping points? 

The conclusion is that effective action on climate requires strategies to drive down greenhouse gas emissions to zero.  

Key findings from the report 

  • The term “net zero” is used by the world’s biggest polluters and governments as a façade to evade responsibility and disguise their inaction or harmful action on climate change. 
  • “Net zero emissions” does not mean “zero emissions” and should not be accepted at face value. 
  • There is simply not enough available land on the planet to accommodate all of the combined corporate and government “net zero” plans for offsets and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) tree plantations. 
  • Collectively, “net zero” climate targets allow for continued rising levels of greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions, while hoping that technologies or tree plantations will be able to suck carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the air in the future. 
  • By putting the burden for carbon sequestration onto land and tree plantations in global South countries – which have done little to cause the climate crisis – most “net zero” climate targets are effectively driving a form of carbon colonialism. 
  • Many governments and corporations have pledged to achieve “net zero” by a distant date, further compounding the harm caused. “Net zero by 2050” is too little, too late. 
  • When assessing “net zero” targets, we must remember key questions of fairness and ethics: Whose land? Whose forests? Whose emissions? Whose responsibility? 
  • Instead of relying on future technologies and harmful land grabs, we need climate plans that radically reduce emissions to Real Zero. 

COP26 Coalition – solidarity with GMB British Gas Workers

Important statement from the COP26 Coalition in support of striking British Gas Workers

Solidarity with GMB British Gas Workers. 

The COP26 Coalition sends solidarity to the GMB members in the gas industry taking action to resist the outrageous fire-and-re-hire tactics of their employer. Big employers like British Gas who have made massive profits over many years must not be allowed to make workers’ pay for failing profits through loss of jobs, lower wages and cuts in terms and conditions.

The current crisis of British Gas is emblematic of a deeper crisis that is and will continue to affect many industries. Your fight deserves the support of all workers and all those who demand a fairer and more just society where the rights of shareholders to squeeze profits out of the labour and impoverishment of workers is ended. The rights of workers must be protected and must be a priority for the climate justice movement.

The UN Climate talks at the Glasgow COP26 meeting in November 2021 is a critical moment for all of us, for the climate and for communities in the global south who have contributed the least to climate change yet are suffering first and most through more extreme weather events, rising sea levels, deforestation and the deterioration of agricultural land and water sources. The COP26 meeting is also critical for workers in carbon industries like gas.

The COP26 Coalition, made up of trade unionists, environmental, faith and justice activists are demanding that workers’ and their families’ lives are not only protected but afforded the dignity and respect we all deserve. Workers in Britain and communities in the global south both need a Just Transition to a zero-carbon economy. This means significantly changing existing industries and providing training for workers to gain new skills. A sustainable and just economy must be a greener economy. The COP26 Coalition believe gas workers must be part of the solution to the climate crisis whilst British Gas are part of the problem.

We send you our solidarity and wish you well in your dispute.

What you can do to support the strike 

Get your organisation, union branch or group to write a letter of solidarity to the striking workers.

Donate to the strike fund
Share the COP26 Coalition Statement 

Like and share our Facebook post

Like and retweet our Twitter post: 

Free Our City

Scot.E3 is a sponsor and supporter of Free Our City – the campaign for free public transport in Glasgow. This is the campaign’s response to a consultation by Glasgow City Council.

Dear Sustainable Glasgow team,

Please accept this as Free Our City’s response to your consultation on the Climate Emergency Implementation Plan.

Founded in September 2020, Free Our City is a new coalition of community organisations, local trade unions and environmental groups, campaigning for a world class, fully-integrated public transport network which is free and the point of use.

Free public transport is already in place in hundreds of forward-thinking towns and cities across the world from Tallinn in Estonia, Calais in France and Kansas City in the US – where this policy is rightly seen as the only realistic way of addressing persistent poverty and inequalities and tackling the climate emergency with the urgency that we need.

The Free Our City coalition’s aim is to bring these brilliant examples from around the world to Glasgow, to raise our city’s ambitions (please read our manifesto attached). We were inspired by the Recommendations of the Climate Emergency Working Group (CEWG), which were approved by Glasgow City Council on 26 September 2019. These included the commitment to:


“engage with interested local authorities and other stakeholders and undertake a formal assessment of the potential for making the transition to a public transport system that is free to use” (Recommendation 20)

As well as the commitments to investigate the new powers available in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 – for re-regulating buses using ‘franchising’ and for greater public ownership – as the most efficient and affordable way to deliver a fully-integrated public transport network, with the potential to become fare-free (Recommendations 17 and 19).

Responding to the launch of Free Our City in September 2020, a spokesperson for Glasgow City Council acknowledged that without utilising these new powers, free public transport would not be “viable”. They said:


“At the very least, it would require public ownership – the alternative being taxpayers write a blank cheque for private operators, with little say in the service.” Quoted in The Herald, 6 September 2020

Further to this, on 29 October 2020, Glasgow City Council approved a motion “welcoming” the Free Our City campaign (see full text below). We therefore fully-expected the CEWG’s Recommendations on public transport to be at the heart of the “major transformative action” proposed by the Council’s Climate Emergency Implementation Plan (CEIP).

Unfortunately, the CEIP’s proposed actions on transport lack any ambition. Instead of the CEWG’s Recommendations to fully-utilise the new powers available in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, the CEIP has opted to ‘explore these issues’ through:


“ongoing work on Bus Service Improvement Partnerships, as required by the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 and Transport Scotland funding programmes.” (p.60)

Firstly, it is untrue that Bus Service Improvement Partnerships (BSIPs) are “required” by the Transport Act: BSIPs are just one of several options now available to local authorities, and they are the one least likely to deliver the changes we need. Despite the excellent Recommendations of the CEWG, and previous commitments made in the Council’s Strategic Plan (Priority 57), the Council appears to be actively choosing the option to “write a blank cheque for private operators, with little say in the service”.

Nowhere in the CEIP is there any indication of the need to regulate and reduce bus fares, when it is obvious that this is what is necessary to “tackle persistent issues of poverty and deprivation in the city” (p.12) and build a “just and more equal city” (p.7), and to encourage those accustomed to driving to give up their cars. Fare reductions on the scale that we need are just not possible through the ‘partnership’ model, as private operators will never voluntarily agree to anything that threatens their shareholders’ profit.

Why should Glasgow’s poorest people be faced with single bus fares of £2.50 on privatised First Glasgow, when fares in Edinburgh are only £1.80 on publicly-owned Lothian Buses, and fares in London are only £1.50 on buses regulated by Transport for London? And when people in Kansas City, Tallinn, Calais, Dunkirk and many other places can travel around their local areas for free?

We fundamentally reject the CEIP’s proposed actions on transport. Instead we demand that the Council works with SPT to deliver the following actions that are the our route map to the free public transport that we need:

  1. Re-regulate the region’s buses using new ‘franchising’ powers – plan the network properly to reach isolated communities and to integrate seamlessly with other transport modes (trains and Subway). Impose an immediate cap on fares.
  2. Set-up a new publicly-owned bus company for Greater Glasgow and start taking over routes one-by-one, or buy-out First Glasgow. 
  3. Once costs have been brought under control, we can begin to roll out free fares for all (we currently give more than £300 million in public subsidies to private bus companies annually in Scotland and deregulation and privatisation is a really inefficient way of using this).


Unless the Council actually commits to the “major transformative action” necessary to sort out our incoherent and overpriced public transport network – learning from the best examples from towns and cities around the world – then the ambition to become “one of the most sustainable cities in Europe” (p.6) is just laughable.

We look forward to hearing the outcomes of the consultation and to seeing the Council act to deliver a public transport network which works in the interests of our city’s people and our environment.

Best wishes,

Free Our City

Stoking the Climate Fire

Two recent posts on the People and Nature blog take a look at China’s plans for post Covid recovery and at the new book by US activist Richard Smith – ‘China’s Engine of Environmental Collapse’.   The first post picks up on work from Carbon Brief who analyse China’s plans for reviving the economy.  Just as after the 2008 crash the emphasis is on high carbon energy and infrastructure project that will put three times as much cash into fossil fuel projects as into renewable energy.  These plans are completely incompatible with Xi Jinping’s aims for climate neutrality by 2060.  Smith’s book provides the context and shows how China’s role as workshop for the world has resulted in extreme environmental degradation – severely impacting on the health and welfare of the population.

Read both posts on the People and Nature blog.

Save Loch Lomond – open letter

In this post Scot.E3 activist Ann Morgan shares the letter she has written to Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair work and Culture. Add your voices to Ann’s.

Loch Lomond by Pete Cannell CC0

Dear Fiona Hyslop, 

I have lived in West Dunbartonshire mostly all my life (I am now retired and live in Govan) and retain links with family, friends and community organisations. I have followed and participated in the Save Loch Lomond campaign.  The campaign currently highlights the possibility of a planning application by Lomond Banks, subsidiary of Flamingo Land and the extension of the exclusivity agreement, effectively excluding alternative community led proposals for the site and for job creation. 

I wish to comment both on the ecological impact on the site and provide examples of sustainable climate jobs.

I do so as a participant in SCOT.E3 (Employment, Energy, Environment) and as a member of Unite the Union (retired members). I am active in a number of local community projects including food -growing and provision and I am keen to share the successes of initiatives with other communities, including the Leamy Foundation /Growing West Dunbartonshire Project. I am not commenting on behalf of these agencies but draw on my research and activism within them to outline objections and alternatives to the proposed developments at the lochside.

The Scottish Government declared a Climate Emergency in April 2019. Emissions reductions targets include reductions of 70% by 2030.  This declaration must be followed by action.

Allan McQuade of Scottish Enterprise, in reference to the proposal, talks of sustainability and syas that the fight against climate change as ‘central to everything we do.’

Action must be two-fold, Protective and proactive.

Protection around biodiversity is of paramount importance. The State of Nature Report (a collaboration between conservation and research organisations) reported in 2019.The report contains the best available data on Scotland’s biodiversity.  Key findings show 49% of species have decreases in abundance with 11% threatened with extinction.  The First Minister in response states that Scotland must lead the way in facing the challenges to biodiversity.

With the above in mind, I request that the cabinet minister considers the impact on biodiversity on the National Park environment. Specifically, on the impact on Drumkinnin Woods within the West Riverside site. This is erroneously referred to as a Brownfield Site.  It is part of the National Park.  The stated aim of the designated Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area.

The proposed development is at odds with the Scottish Government and National Park aims.  The ecological impact would 

  • Endanger wildlife-insects, birds, trees and water species.  Woodlands and rivers are especially vulnerable.
  • The impacts arise from noise, light, traffic emissions and increased pollution. 
  • The above are exacerbated when there is a high concentration of visitors in the one area.  Sustainable Tourism encourages movement, public transport use with rover tickets and electric people carrier hire.  Single car use and enabling by large car parking space must be disincentivised.

The FM also describes in the annual Programme for Government that it is a key aim of the Scottish Government to empower communities.  The retention of the exclusivity agreement contradicts this aim.  Under the Nature Conservation (Scotland)Act 2004 public bodies in Scotland have a duty to further conservation in biodiversity.

My involvement with Scot.E3 has given me insight into the potential for Climate Jobs (see 1 million Jobs pamphlet).  Specific to Scotland a just transition could include advancing regional specific renewables energy, district heating and a programme of retro fitting and new build housing and public building with apprenticeship skills in insulation, joinery, roofing, glazing and heating, linking with schools and further education. My perspective, shared with environmental groups, is that this type of job creation is both more sustainable and career focused than many jobs in the hospitality sector, often minimum waged or even zero hours contracts and seasonal. That said, there are ways to encourage sustainable and responsible tourism with quality training for those seeking careers in the tourism.  It is of concern that the original proposal carried none of these assurances.  Any development with employment opportunities must adhere to the principles outlined in the Fair Work Convention.

Finally, the experience of the pandemic has greatly impacted on local and global tourism. There are scientists, ecologists, biologists, economists and epidemiologists (David Attenborough included) who are warning of future pandemics, with potential of more virulent strains. The current variant is concerning with increased contagion /transmission.

Rob Wallace, evolutionary biologist, charts the link between habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and the increase in zoonotic transmission of infection.  Again, this points to the important of biodiversity protection.  Tourism is of course both impacted by and causal in transmission.  Therefore, a rethink on safety in travel and transit will be required for tourist dependent development.  Linked with emission reduction this presents as an opportunity to put environmental protection as Allan McQuade asserts, central in Scottish Enterprise approval.

The fragility of tourism as well as its importance to the Scottish Economy is recognised. Within this perspective, social justice with environmental integrity is required. 

Yours sincerely 

Annie Morgan 

Why have the oil industry and the North Sea been ‘disappeared’ from the Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan?

Ex North Sea oil worker Neil Rothnie asks why the Scottish Government’s updated climate plan is so quiet on North Sea oil and gas. This piece was published as a letter in the Herald newspaper on 30th December 2020

Image – Dornoch Firth, Pete Cannell CC0

SCOTTISH Climate Change Secretary Roseanna Cunningham, has been giving her opinion on the Government’s updated Climate Change Plan. But nowhere in her Herald on Sunday article (“‘COP26 is a chance for us all to play our part in debate’”, December 20), or even in the plan itself, do we get a glimpse of the reality of climate change.

Climate change is increasingly experienced by people across the globe as extreme weather events that are already destroying lives. It’s experienced by the natural world as rising temperatures, the melting of ice and the destruction of habitats and the threat of species extinctions.

There’s no sense of this in the report. The term “climate change” is scattered throughout it like punctuation marks, and carries about as much meaning as a comma.

There is scientific consensus about climate change. It’s caused by burning fossil fuels which give rise to greenhouse gases (carbon emissions) that cause the atmosphere to heat, and progressively destabilise global climates.

The oil industry, and the North Sea where 75 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions originate, have been “disappeared” from the Government’s plan. It’s one area where the UK and Scottish governments are completely in step. Their plan for the North Sea is “Maximising Economic Recovery”. And if that isn’t clear enough, just think, “business as usual”.

Maybe you thought that a climate change plan might concentrate on how we might replace fossil fuel production with renewable energy production in a planned way, that protects the workers, their families and communities by helping them transition to work in a sustainable industry.

But no. Oil and gas must stay, and stay in the hands of the giant corporations, and suffer the vagaries of a basket case of an oil market that gives us periodic price collapses and catapults thousands of workers onto the dole. Twelve thousand have gone so far this time. Another 18,000 or so expected to go soon.

 Now it seems, our new future best friends are to be “hydrogen” and “carbon capture”. We’re to continue sucking the hydrocarbons from under the North Sea, then spend a fortune taking the carbon out, leaving hydrogen. Then we’ll pump the carbon back under the North Sea. Is this feasible at scale? Globally?

A third of North Sea gas comes ashore at St Fergus where by 2024 we “could” be able to remove 340,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year – a measly one 800th of the 280 million tons of greenhouse gasses that were produced by burning North Sea oil and gas last year.

Is Ms Cunningham going to be standing alongside UK Minister Alok Sharma to welcome the COP26 circus to Glasgow this coming year? If so, what leadership is she going to be showing Saudi, Russian, US and Nigerian delegates? Should they follow our lead and maximise economic recovery of their own oil and gas resources? And hope to decarbonise it and pump the carbon back underground?

The updated Climate Change Plan does not look like the Government has the measure of carbon emissions or the oil and gas industry. They all need public scrutiny.

Lighting a spark: How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Ende Gelände activists targeting a coal mine in 2019. Photo: Tim Wagner/Flickr

Harry Holmes reviews Andreas Malm’s ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’. Harry argues that the book gives a balanced assessment of the conditions which make sabotage, vandalism, and other forms of strategic direct action necessary in a warming world. This review was first published by Bright Green and has also been reposted on the rs21 website. Malm’s book is designed to provoke debate on strategy and tactics and we would welcome further contributions on these issues.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline starts with what will be a familiar image for many. It’s the yearly climate negotiations, activists have streamed towards the conference space, pleading with representatives to ratchet up their ambition to tackle the climate crisis. People block city traffic with banners, with activists dancing and playing music in the reclaimed streets. The next day brings a giant public theatre performance, with environmentalists pretending to be animals run over by cars whilst ‘negotiators’ walk around with signs saying ‘blah blah blah’.

Was this a collection of Extinction Rebellion activists performing and blocking traffic? Was it even earlier, in 2015 at the Paris negotiations? Maybe it’s 2009, during the economic crisis and the Copenhagen conference? No, this image comes all the way from COP1, the climate conference that started it all – in the lost world that was 1995.

Speaking straight from his experiences of this first COP, Andreas Malm’s recollection of these early climate protests indicates a wider malaise – a certain sluggishness of environmental strategy. Despite the growth in awareness around the climate crisis and the rapid increase in the number of people organising for environmental justice, there has been limited change in the actions climate groups are willing to take to defend life.

In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Malm has written a short and gripping manifesto which aims to wrench the climate movement out of its complacency. By convincingly arguing against movements’ dogmatic attachment to milquetoast non-violence, Malm makes clear that as the climate crisis escalates so too must the tactics of those seeking to defend life. Not content with simply dispelling the misguided understandings of pacifism environmentalists hold, How to Blow Up a Pipeline gives a balanced assessment of the conditions which make sabotage, vandalism, and other forms of strategic direct action necessary in a warming world. Coming out of the pandemic, with movements regrouping and attempting to navigate the mess that is the 2020s, this book is the shock to the system the world needs.

Beginning with the pacifism many climate movements advocate, a significant portion of this book is dedicated to dispelling the often ahistorical, whitewashed, and faulty justifications given for non-violence. To do this, Malm separates these arguments for non-violence into two forms; a moral pacifism focused on the wrongness of violence from an ethical perspective and a strategic pacifism centred on the advantages to environmental movements from committing to non-violence.

Learning to defend ourselves

It becomes clear that Malm has little time for the first form of pacifism. He turns to the case of Mohammad Rafiq, a 65 year old who stopped a right-wing terrorist attack on an Oslo mosque in 2019. As the gunman entered the building, the pensioner ran at him, tackling the would-be shooter to the ground where, with the help from other nearby men, they disarmed and beat the attacker. Malm points out that such self-defensive actions and any similar attempts to defend from far-right violence are unacceptable from the perspective of moral pacifism. With the struggle against the climate crisis being understood as a similarly defensive movement, focused on protecting life, Malm argues moral pacifism should hold little sway as a dogma. It risks being too rigid in the face of the escalating need to act in life’s defence.

Environmentalists’ deluded reading of the history of social change is not confined to past lifetimes either. Malm points out how groups like XR continue to invoke recent events, like the Poll Tax Rebellion of the early 1990s, as inspiration for non-violent ‘civil disobedience’, despite the Poll Tax famously being scrapped as riots rolled through London. Such a reading of history is not only one sided, but an act of positive erasure – an erasure which works to the detriment of the environmental movement’s strategic horizon.

Finding the radical flank

Looking at each of these past movements, Malm doesn’t reject the importance of the non-violent element. In fact, he suggests the opposite, the existence of a radical flank willing to commit acts of violence combined with a growing mass of non-violent organisers made change possible. Non-violence allows movements to grow larger quickly, it can secure sympathetic coverage in the public eye, and it can prevent government escalation. Because of this, non-violence always has a role.

Of course, no history of environmental movements would be complete without an assessment of the violent direct action of groups like Earth First! and similar Liberation Fronts in the 1980s to 2000s, who were responsible for the destruction of many a logging site. Malm suggests that their ultimate collapse was, at least in part, due to the lack of a wider mass movement where they could position as the radical flank. Malm’s polemical insight is that mass non-violence is the necessary condition for the impactful escalation to violent tactics and today, with climate strikes and Extinction Rebellions aplenty, we are not short of mass non-violent movements.

In short, it is not either/or but both, together in an escalating cycle. Malm argues the current environmental movement’s failure to accept the potential co-existence of both violence and non-violence reflects the wider collapse in revolutionary politics since the 1980s. In response to this collapse:

We have to learn how to fight all over again, in what might be the most unpropitious moment so far in the history of human habitation on this planet.

To begin these wide-ranging strategic conversations about fighting the climate crisis, Malm suggests focusing on two general goals – there is a need to announce and enforce a growing prohibition on new emitting devices, as well as rapidly reducing the lifetime of the polluting infrastructure and devices which already operate. The question, when bringing these general ideas down to Earth, is how precisely the environmental movement may go about this?

Building on Henry Shue’s distinction between luxury and subsistence emissions, Malm points to the increasingly violent role of luxury emissions, and the urgent need to focus efforts on these devices, whether SUVs or planes. There are several clear arguments given for focusing action on luxury devices, these are worth listing in full, albeit paraphrased:

  • As the effects of climate change are here, the harm from these luxury devices should be understood as immediate.
  • Luxury emitting devices like planes and cars allow the super-rich to also be hypermobile and escape the effects of climate change.
  • The ideological role of these devices is the championing of destructive lifestyles.
  • There is an ethical cost of how the money could have been better spent mitigating and adapting society to climate change.
  • In any reduction of emissions, it is better to reduce luxury emissions first rather than those necessary to secure subsistence.
  • Finally, and perhaps most crucially for Malm’s argument, there is the supremely demoralising role that these devices play. After all, if we cannot even get rid of SUV’s how are we meant to move towards a sustainable society?

Recognising this, Malm points to the need for violence to not just include the strategies of sabotage preventing new fossil fuel infrastructure from being built. It should also encompass the ways in which sabotage ‘can be done softly, even gingerly.’ Pointing to the mass movement in Sweden which deflated the wheels of SUVs during the night, Malm argues environmentalists should be comfortable engaging in extensive acts of vandalism targeting the luxury devices common in the Global North. Such violence would show how the ‘rich cannot have the right to combust others to death’, as well as preventing new emissions.

Unleashing new tactics

In opening up the horizon beyond non-violence, Malm invokes a further difficulty – precisely under what conditions does violence become necessary? What form might violence take? How to Blow Up a Pipeline makes clear that violence constitutes attacks on property, coming under the messy monikers like sabotage, vandalism, and demolition. This book is unequivocal that this does not extend to people or animals, nor property which is necessary for their subsistence. This still leaves much on the table, but Malm’s book should be read as a defence of destruction to property in a similar school as that of Osterweil’s In Defence of Looting.

Malm invokes scholars of direct action like William Smith, whose research points to important conditions which should be met for the successful escalation from non-violence. For Smith, escalation succeeds only if action would stop something which would likely cause harm, where mellower non-violent tactics have been exhausted, and where action is based on some wider ideal or charter, such as the Paris Agreement. Malm makes clear his view that these conditions are largely met for most fossil fuel infrastructure.

There are still several objections to escalation which could be posed. One is that governments have supremacy when it comes to repression and violence. As a result, escalation from the environmental movement could result in extreme crackdowns from states across the world. Malm accepts this asymmetry in power, in fact he suggests that it extends far beyond the ability of the state to commit violence. However, Malm points out that there is no law that this asymmetry ‘can never be overturned from below.’ Fighting climate change is a David vs Goliath fight in every sphere, whether economic, social, or militaristic. If we accept asymmetry as an argument against moving beyond non-violence, it would also mean abandoning nearly every climate struggle.

So Malm turns to the crucial argument many make for non-violence, that of popular support. The old story goes that abandoning non-violence leads to declining public opinion and a collapsing movement replete with infighting. Violent acts would be a ‘negative radical flank’, cutting into the wider non-violent movement. On the first issue of public opinion, Malm argues the role of social movements is not to take ‘an existing level of consciousness as a given, but rather to stretch it.’ Violence needs to stretch and drag society forward. This means that violent actions should be clearly explainable and acceptable in their wider context, with Malm suggesting perhaps the best strategy is to lie in wait for the next extreme weather event to strike at luxury emissions. With regards to the collapsing movement, Malm argues that the radical flank must simultaneously be prepared to be disowned by the wider movement, whilst also being receptive enough that in the case of either escalating repression or public backlash it can call off its actions.

The New Climate Laboratories

With regards to this last point, how are these contradictory characteristics to be satisfied? Being able to balance the tightrope of competing arguments for and against escalation is not something that Malm can answer in around 150 pages. In such a short work, one is left desiring the detail, the roadmap, where in practice the neat lines Malm draws can be observed. These will never appear, as only practice and thought together can bring this flourishing. What How to Blow Up a Pipeline does is effectively indicate strategic considerations and reflections which must be borne out in the practices of climate movements. There is no perfect tactic, no silver bullet, only a magazine of possible actions which environmentalists need to constantly assess as the crisis gets worse.

Malm puts his faith most of all in the climate camp movements like Ende Gelände and Reclaim the Power, where activists come together in mass numbers to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure. These camps can be built easily, allowing the movement to spread horizontally whilst also being planned well in advance. As the number of attendees rises, so too does the capacity to outmanoeuvre police and disrupt fossil fuel infrastructure. Malm invokes these spaces as the ‘unrivalled laboratory for learning this fight.’ If environmentalists are to develop the strategic acumen to pull the breaks on emissions, then what is need is a proliferation of these camps and any other equivalent ‘laboratories’ – we need spaces where climate activists can come together to learn and act with a sense of militancy. In the 2020s, Malm’s book points to the need to let a thousand laboratories bloom.

The final pages of How to Blow Up a Pipeline reflect on the opposite tendency to such escalating militancy – a climate fatalism which presents breakdown as inevitable. Many writers are encouraging society to ‘learn how to die’ and bring a deep pessimism about our capacity to change course. Whether in the work of Franzen, Scranton, or others, Malm rejects their pessimistic understandings of society’s future as that of a particular class interest. It is comforting for the rich of the Global North, unable to accept their need to change production and consumption, to ‘project this weakness of the flesh onto society’ and doom it to climate collapse. What is harder is internalizing the continued need for resistance.

With every part per million counting, with every stopped pipeline saving lives, and with every minute counting, the truth is the opposite of what the climate fatalists suggest. Looking to those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or who resisted within the extermination camps, Malm invokes the continued gesture of struggle against all odds. As Malm puts it:

Precisely the hopelessness of the situation constituted the nobility of this resistance. The rebels affirmed life so extraordinarily robustly because death was certain and still they fought on. It can never, ever be too late for that gesture. If it is too late for resistance to be waged within a calculus of immediate utility, the time has come for it to vindicate the fundamental values of life, even if it only means crying out to the heavens.

One hopes, like Malm, that it does not come to this, that we come to tackle the climate crisis with the ambition it needs before such hopeless struggle is necessary. What How to Blow Up a Pipeline does is act as a rallying cry for a climate movement far too comfortable in its ways, at a time where bold action is more than overdue.

How to blow up a pipeline is published by Verso at the beginning of January 2021 – we will have a small number of copies available for £10 (including UK postage). To enquire or order use the contact form.