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.
We’ve published a number of posts on Covid and Climate, most recently ‘Covid, Climate and Transition’. Graham Checkley continues this theme reflecting on the links between ecology, environment and pandemics.
Habitat destruction has been pointed out, by both the UN and the World Health Organization, as a major contributing factor behind pandemics. In such situations we see displaced and stressed animals, carrying their own viruses and probably sick, coming in to contact with new potential hosts, including humans. It is not only the animals that are stressed; people, driven off their land and deprived of any other food, can end up eating dangerously prepared and already diseased meat.
Nature does not usually do things this way; a common analogy for the relationship between species is a long, slow, evolutionary arms race between predator and prey, sometimes, oddly, to mutual advantage. But there is a potential for violent change, and from an evolutionary point-of-view it is nothing personal, just a virus living through a period of mass species extinction by evolving to use a novel new host, all 8 billion of us. Avian flu, Ebola, HIV and SARS have all jumped the species gap from their original host to humans; Covid-19 is only the latest virus to do this, and with global habitat destruction it will not be the last.
While the habitat destruction in Africa, Brazil and China makes the headlines, something just as terrible is happening here in Britain, a few trees at a time.
The report from the state of nature partnership for the UK in 2019 documents that 15% of UK species are threatened with at least local extinction, and that 41% have decreased in abundance over the last 50 years. Perhaps most alarming is the 60% drop in UK priority species over that period, species identified as key indicators of the health of UK biodiversity; what this means in practice is that our habitat is becoming less species rich and as a result less resilient to change.
Habitat loss is a major factor here, putting pressure on wildlife as thousands of hectares of farmland, woodland and wetland are built on every year to meet the needs of our increasingly urbanised population. However, it is local government policy that is driving that urban sprawl, a policy with an emphasis on city centre offices, shops, cafes, restaurants, hotels, Airbnb, student accommodation and no affordable housing. Family home in Edinburgh? You need to move out to East Lothian and commute.
At a more detailed level we see one development project after another leading to habitat destruction. While the most infamous have been the destruction of ancient woodland for the HS2 rail project and the conversion of SSSI protected dune systems into golf courses, we also see proposals for a theme park on Swanscombe Marshes and the building of a dual carriageway through bat habitat in Norfolk. But perhaps the most bizarre and revealing piece of un-joined-up thinking is a proposed development in Edinburgh, felling more than 800 trees to create a new green corridor walking and cycle pathway; a development green-washed by planting 5000 new trees, aka trees moved there from a nursery that may never grow to maturity and do their bit to combat climate change. In other words, a net loss of trees. It is perhaps not surprising to discover that biodiversity is a declining government priority, with expenditure in this area dropping by 42% in 5 years; it now stands at 0.02% of GDP.
However, the good news is that good work is still being done. Local Ranger Services still look after important biodiversity sites, public groups participate in such work both physically and financially, and conservation groups can still celebrate major achievements in habitat restoration and species re-introduction. Similarly, some species have benefited from improved legal protection under EU law, but Boris Johnson wants to see an end to that.
But why does it have to be such a struggle? Surely the science tells us that we need a healthy ecosystem to avoid pandemics, and aren’t we all in this together?
I believe that the answer goes back to the question of the 8 billion hosts; not all hosts are born equal. Covid-19 has proved to be a disease spread by the rich that kills the poor; a president who catches it is guaranteed a place in hospital, a slum resident is not. The rich can afford to self-isolate, the front-line worker cannot. So, for the rich few of the 8 billion it is just a case of hanging out by their personal pool until they can get a private vaccination for this pandemic, and for the one after that, and for the one after that, and… Also, many of them have money invested in mining companies, where environmental destruction comes as standard. Given a choice between green and money, well, money will pay for that emergency bunker and the security guards to go with it.
So, if this explains the, at best, indifference of the rich, what about our elected representatives? There are some good ones who lobby to see the right thing done, but they are mostly mesmerized by the money, and trees do not pay council tax. Decades of cuts have made councils very developer friendly when it comes to planning regulations and decisions; they will enforce the letter of the law, but why should a little less woodland matter?
If we don’t force system change, the system will produce pandemic purgatory.
The non-profit organisation, Platform, commissioned Transition Economics to conduct an analysis of investments by Scottish local government pension funds in fossil fuel companies. The analysis reveals that £194 million was wiped off Scottish council pension funds due to their oil and gas investments crashing over the past three years. This post summarising the Platform report is reprinted from a press release by Friends of the Earth Scotland.
The largest losers were Strathclyde Pension Fund which lost £46,374,450, Lothian Pension Fund which lost £36,077,023 and Falkirk Council’s Pension Fund which saw losses of £34,769,723. These amount to losses of £626 per member of the Strathclyde Fund and £429 per member of the Lothian Fund.
This analysis concluded that, across the UK, local authority pension funds could have lost at least £1.75 billion in value over the past three years as a result of retaining their investments in just nine oil & gas companies.
In 2018 the advisory board for Scotland’s local government pensions began investigating major reform. A full merger was being considered and could improve transparency and make it easier to pursue ethical investments. As this would require legislative change it could be an issue in the 2021 Scottish elections.
Divest Strathclyde is a Glasgow-based campaign for fossil-free local government pensions. Sally Clark from Divest Strathclyde said:
“We have repeatedly presented the Strathclyde Pension Fund with evidence demonstrating the dangers of continued fossil fuel investments and the need to rapidly decarbonise the fund. This loss is the direct result of a conscious failure to act, causing harm to the finances of pension holders by continuing to invest in fossil fuel extraction companies that are poor investments and endanger all our futures through exacerbating climate change.”
“This news is a further demonstration that fossil fuel investments are neither good for the planet nor our pensions. Forward looking pension funds can instead support the transition to a more sustainable Scotland, investing in sectors that will enhance the wellbeing of citizens while ensuring good returns for pensions holders.”
Robert Noyes, Platform, responsible for the data said: “It is well past time for pension funds to drop oil and gas stocks, both for the climate and their future valuation. Funds like Strathclyde, Lothian and Falkirk lost tens of millions by sticking with BP and Shell. They should have listened to divest campaigners. Instead, the burden is being dumped on the public, pensioners and the Global South.”
Losses of Scottish local government funds
Strathclyde Pension Fund: £46,374,450 Lothian Pension Fund: £36,077,023 Falkirk Council Pension Fund: £34,769,723 Tayside Pension Fund: £30,005,131 North East Scotland Pension Fund: £15,780,431 Dumfries and Galloway Pension Fund: £13,506,338 Highland Council Pension Fund: £11,650,109 Fife Council Pension Fund: £2,356,219 Scottish Borders Pension Fund: £1,968,406 Orkney Islands Council Pension Fund: £1,625,133
Shetland Islands Pension Fund were excluded from analysis due to lack of data on direct equity holdings in oil & gas companies
Scottish losses by percentage value of the total pension fund: Falkirk Council Pension Fund 1.69 % Dumfries and Galloway Pension Fund 1.62 % Tayside Pension Fund 0.88% Highland Council Pension Fund 0.66 % Lothian Pension Fund 0.49 % Orkney Islands Council Pension Fund 0.48 % North East Scotland Pension Fund 0.39 % Scottish Borders Pension Fund 0.30 % Strathclyde Pension Fund 0.24 % Fife Council Pension Fund 0.11 %
Divest Strathclyde campaign for the Strathclyde Pension Fund to divest from the fossil fuel industry and invest in environmentally and financially sustainable alternatives.
Platform London is a research and advocacy organisation with a focus on energy system change, that supports campaigns to divest local government pension funds out of fossil fuels.
Friends of the Earth Scotland is: * Scotland’s leading environmental campaigning organisation * An independent Scottish charity with a network of thousands of supporters and active local groups across Scotland * Part of the largest grassroots environmental network in the world, uniting over 2 million supporters, 75 national member groups, and 5,000 local activist groups.
The excellent People and Nature blog has recently published a really useful addition to the debate in the form of a review of a paper on Carbon Capture and Storage by June Sekera, a public policy analyst, and Andreas Lichtenberger, an ecological economist.
Here are some headlines from the report:
Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) systems, touted as techno-fixes for global warming, usually put more greenhouse gases into the air than they take out.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS), which grabs carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by coal- or gas-fired power stations, and then uses it for enhanced oil recovery (EOR), emits between 1.4 and 4.7 tonnes of the gas for each tonne removed.
Direct air capture (DAC), which sucks CO2 from the atmosphere, emits 1.4-3.5 tonnes for each tonne it recovers, mostly from fossil fuels used to power the handful of existing projects.
And if Carbon Capture were to be used at large scale things get much worse.
To capture 1 gigatonne of CO2 (1 GtCO2, just one-fortieth of current global CO2 emissions) would need nearly twice the amount of wind and solar electricity now produced globally. The equipment would need a land area bigger than the island of Sri Lanka and a vast network of pipelines and underground storage facilities.
The original paper – “Assessing Carbon Capture: public policy, science and societal need”, by June Sekera, a public policy analyst, and Andreas Lichtenberger, an ecological economics researcher – is free to download on the Biophysical Economics and Sustainability web site.
Climate crises, Covid-19 and a looming global recession: how many more storms can the N Sea oil and gas industry take?In part one of this report, published in April 2020, Brian Parkin looked at the combined impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and a world economic downturn on the UK offshore oil and gas industry. In this brief second paper, he looks at the emerging trends from the second half of 2020 onwards and how the global hydrocarbons sector will face up to a post-Covid-19 world in which renewables may well begin to dictate the shape of energy things to come.
50… and nearly out
The North Sea oil and gas industry, in defiance of many forecasts and expectations, is now 50 years old. At the time of its baptism, governments were obsessed with balance of payments columns as well as the commitment to the post-war social compact of an economy run at levels of full employment. It was also a shared view that with an unshakeable belief in government intervention and technological innovation, things could be done.
Initial interest in UK offshore (North Sea and UK Irish Sea sectors) lay in the deposits of natural gas and the potential for a reliable and long-term resource of energy for, initially, domestic (household) consumers. The growing estimates from c.1970 onwards also promised a resource that could be extended to industrial space heating and manufacturing processes. Regarding oil, it was clear from early chemical analysis that UKCS crude oil was unsuitable for refining into the Heavy Fuel Oil required for power generation, and so the North Sea offered nothing in the way of breaking energy dependency on indigenous coal- and the National Union of Mineworkers.
However, oil from the Forties- and a little later- the Brent fields provided an ideal crude grade suitable for refining into the required range of transport fuels. The value of this asset though, was not appreciated until the global oil shock of 1972, when a largely Arab dominated OPEC punished the Western economies for their alignment with Israel in the Yom Kippur war.
In terms of petroleum supply security, the North sea has paid off. For the better part of half a century the UK has enjoyed near total security of indigenous supply. Apart from the 1984-85 miners’ strike when the UK government had to fuel the coal- fired power stations with Heavy Fuel Oil- which cannot be refined from North Sea crudes- almost all oil crudes (and distillates for aviation fuel)- have come from the North Sea. And even now, with North Sea oil capacity falling, the UK remains 95% petroleum self-sufficient.
Global oil …passing its prime?
As we have previously noted, all fossil fuels have been under the pressure of a climate consensus to conform to CO2 limits by reducing production as well as emissions from production operations. The response of the oil and gas companies as well as the OPEC cartel has been- with some success- to lobby governments as well as attempting to massage public opinion away from climate concerns. To these ends they have now failed. But as ever resourceful, the oil – and also gas – interests have been redeploying their considerable financial interest elsewhere – albeit grudgingly. After years of ‘scientific’ misinformation and fake data, the oil and gas industry faces an irreversible shift in both public opinion and scientific consensus.
At 2015 the view of the oil and gas lobby was that demand for petroleum would begin to peak in the early 2030’s – albeit tapering off slowly into the future. But by 2019 the industry had significantly changed its forecasts. Even before the combined whammy of the onset of a world economic turndown and the Covid-19 pandemic, BP, Shell, Total, DNV-GL, the IEA and OPEC had come to the uncomfortable conclusion that oil peak demand had already been reached. Big oil exceptions to this forecast have remained as the US giants, Exxon/Mobil and Chevron, who have both continued to set aside some $30 billion investment capital in further oil exploration and developments.
As early as 2016, Shell had established its New Energy Division; a new venture into renewables generation, high capacity batteries, grid management and hydrogen. This has come at the expense of tar sands investment and shale oil extraction and refining. The company has also undertaken a major restructuring in order to free up capital investment for diversification into non-petroleum activities.
Also in October 2019, BP declared its intention to be a zero-carbon operation by 2030. And, in that year, BP entered into a $1.1 billion joint venture with Equinor Energy for the purpose of becoming a major player in offshore wind power. This was with the expectation of offshore wind appreciating six-fold to 190 Gwe installed by 2030. (But just to get things in proportion, the OECD now estimates that globally there will have to be a $6.3 trillion per annum investment to convert energy systems into renewables in order to meet the 1.5oC climate mitigation target for 2030.
The repo-man cometh
With financial data changing almost frantically day by day, it is not easy to reach a reliable estimate of the overall health of the global oil industry. Nevertheless, recent figures show the overall scene against which the North Sea industry fares. But first some raw data:
Oil production million barrels per day (Mbpd) by country 2019 (96 producers)
The global daily production for 2019-20 was 80,622,000 bpd of which 68% was produced by the top 10 producers with an overlapping 44% produced by OPEC member states. The average output for the top 3 producers was 11 mbpd. By the beginning of 2020 the same producers had an average output of 12.3 mbpd – a significant overproduction given the emerging market conditions for the year.
With signs of a global economic recession as early as September 2019, it was clear that at 15.043 mbpd, the US was entering 2020 at a significant rate of over-production. The sustained production rate of the previous year began to depress the world traded price of oil to an unsustainably low level for many OPEC+Russia producers – hence the output war of OPEC to depress output in order to increase prices. But within weeks it was clear that such a strategy was failing – hence the output switch to increase production in order to break the back of the relatively high cost US shale oil sector.
But within weeks of this price/output war, the already global markets were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic – with the second week in April seeing the price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) fall to minus $40 dollars per barrel. After several weeks of price bounces, the world traded price of the Brent and WTI grades settled at just below $35 per barrel. Since then a fitful recovery has seen North Sea Brent begin to trade at around $40 per barrel- a price that barely covers the combined production and development costs of c.$38 pb.
Much regarding the likely fortunes of the North Sea oil and gas industry was covered in the first paper but if we want to examine the drive behind the global plight of the hydrocarbon industries, it would be better to look at the biggest producer and consumer of oil and gas- the USA.
When the bottom of the oil market fell through the floor in 2014 it was the US with some 25% of its oil and gas production from shale ‘plays’ that took the greatest hit. Since then, and not without considerable help from the US Treasury, the US has bounced back to be the biggest hydrocarbon player in the world – and with a Congressional act in 2016, a net exporter of oil and gas into the world market. And prior to the combined recession/Covid crisis, even the shale extraction sector was doing well at an oil price of c.£65 pb.
Immediately prior to March 2020 most US producers could break even at a $46> pb price. But in order to kick-start the many needed DUC’s (Developed but Uncompleted wells) required to maintain medium-term production, an additional $6.00 pb was required. Also, at that time it was reckoned that the bullish confidence of the industry was waning with an estimated 66% of oil company CEO’s of the view that 2020 had seen the peak in oil demand coming and going. Consequently, by April the fall in demand in the US had resulted in a 20% excess in capacity with a subsequent registration in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection orders. If we want to measure the historical scale of this default, then the post-2014 crash of 2016 would be a good comparison:
2016 oil bankruptcy debt $56.8 bn
2020 oil bankruptcy to date $89 bn
Expected 2020 debt $134 bn
Furthermore, on the current market estimates it is expected that a further roll-over debt of at least £100 bn can be expected to the end of the 2020-21 financial year. Also, although the number of individual bankruptcies are so far lower, the capital size per company failure is much higher. In 2016 the failures amounted to $56.8 billion. But in 2020 to date the total is $89 billion and is expected to reach $134 billion by the end of the year. And as each company has been debt financed with no failure insurance, it is reckoned that the banks would be lucky to recover 35 cents in the $US in the event of a winding-up order.
In conclusion, with no foreseeable growth in oil and gas demand and a totally unstable market deterring future field developments, a ‘self-levelling’ market price of <$40 pb- probably struck by the bigger OPEC members and the dominant oil companies, much of the worlds marginal reserve/high cost capacity will be squeezed out. Certainly, the crash to $35 pb is a price that even the bigger and lower cost producers would find it hard to live with. This much was revealed by the leaked news that OPEC’s leading member Saudi Arabia reckoned that a sustained price of $50 pb would be the most favourable price to 2030 in order to allow margins to cover the cost of future field developments.
But whatever, the enduring relationship between US big oil and the military-imperialist project is likely to see the hydrocarbon industry not go out quietly- particularly as the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council – and Exxon/Mobil insist on peak oil as far ahead as 2030. But those the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.
Beyond the North Sea
The economic viability of oil and gas have always been predicated on the myth that all other sources of energy are uncompetitive and/or only so in the distant future. Petroleum, of course is mainly used as a feed-stock for mainly transport fuels – crude oil for refining into petrol (gasoline) and condensates into diesel and aviation fuels.
And by far the largest contributor today of global CO2 emissions derives from petroleum extracted transport fuels. But sticking with North Sea Brent as refined at Grangemouth (Petrochina) or Total’s Humber refineries we see the following product percentages:
(It should also be noted that the Ineos plant in the Grangemouth complex processes methane for conversion into a feedstock for plastics manufacture)
Of course the fate of some 4,000 workers and their families at Grangemouth now hang in the balance with the likely demise of hydrocarbons- both as transport fuels and plastic materials.
In April 2020 the OECD anticipated a year in which at least 1 million oil and gas industry workers would lose their jobs – a calculation which must include many thousands of North Sea workers. But there does seem to be a levelling off – possibly due to a convergence of strategic thinking on the part of OPEC and the oil ‘majors’ that a sustainable price of $45 pd could be struck over the next period – a price that would strike out both the higher cost OPEC members as well as other high cost sectors such as US shaleand most deep water operations.
On the other hand, the anticipated rise in demand for more and more offshore wind capacity – ideal for Scottish waters – along with an expected Compound Annual Growth Rate of matching large scale lithium/ion battery capacity to match incoming wind/wave/tidal and solar units.
The future is full of dangers and hope- and if the rage generated by the threatened loss of 20,000 miners jobs in 1984 could the reproduced many times over again in order to demand a Just Transition for the threatened tens of thousands of oil and gas sector workers, then the future is full of hope.
Mike Cooley, engineer activist, socialist and technical visionary, died aged 86 on 4 September. Mike, once the elected president of trade DATA – the Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians Association, was a dogged fighter for union democracy and the maximum possible degree of union member participation. Here Brian Parkin, Scot.E3 activist, pays tribute to an inspiring trade union ‘leader’ who combined modesty with an urgent sense of the need to overcome worker alienation and redirect production to meeting the requirements of humanity. This article was first posted on the rs21 website.
I first met Mike Cooley at a union young members school in 1968. At that time the world was alight with the prospect for revolutionary change: Vietnam, insurrectionary struggles in France, the women’s movement, Stonewall, the Black Power Olympics, the North of Ireland civil rights movement and increasingly politicised strikes here in Britain – and here, in a posh and stuffy hotel in central London, a quietly spoken, impeccably polite Irish lay union official in a crumpled suit and tie addressed a room full of young workers on why all of these world events were linked to our world of work and the alienated nature of our employment.
Mike was a union official – but unlike most of the others he was an elected workplace rep. He worked as a senior development engineer at Lucas Aerospace. Once a member of the British Communist Party, he had resigned over the increasingly undemocratic, respectable and parliamentary shell that that organisation had become. But he was not in the least inclined to join what he saw as a largely student-based Trotskyist revolutionary left; rather, as he was influenced by ‘Third World’ national liberation struggles, he became a founding member of the Maoist Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxism-Leninism).
Instantly this put him at odds with the official Communist Party, who had long coveted the control of what they rightly saw as an increasingly militant white-collar union. This was partly because Cooley was instinctively a genuine advocate of union democracy, but also because he was openly prepared to work alongside other revolutionary activists (mainly the International Socialists).
The bigger picture
Like many workers in electronic engineering in the early 1970’s, Mike Cooley and his fellow workers found themselves increasingly working in what was an extensive web of ‘defence’ manufacturing. And also, with the early stages of digital engineering processes, they were facing a growing wave of job losses. In anticipation of this threat, Mike, as convenor of the national shop stewards committee at Lucas Aerospace drew up a plan to redirect arms-dedicated design and production to peaceful ends. The ‘Lucas Plan’ grew outwards with the intention of embracing workers in other companies and industries.
At this time, I was a young union rep in a workplace that was to some extent involved in the chain of arms production – but as a member of the Socialist Workers Party, I was strongly dissuaded from getting involved in Lucas Plan activities, which my industrial organiser dismissed as ‘utopian’. Nonetheless, despite my otherwise impeccable commitment to revolutionary discipline, I remained part of the Lucas Plan network. Then in 1980, Mike Cooley wrote his first book, Architect or Bee?: the Human Price of Technology.In the book’s introduction he wrote the words that inaugurated the opening of a Lucas Plan conference: ‘We have, for example, control systems that can guide a missile to another continent with extraordinary accuracy, yet blind and disabled people stagger around our cities in much the same way as they did in medieval times.’
But realising that humanity and vision needed to be united the means of transforming dreams into reality, he rapidly set about establishing a network by which the ingenuity of workers – in conjunction with community groups and radical scientists – could identify essential needs and harness productive technology to meet them. Hence designs and prototypes for portable dialysis machines and heart resuscitation equipment small enough for paramedics to use at the point of emergency need.
Despite the indifference of the union bureaucracy (as well as the Labour government of the late 1970s) to the Lucas Plan – mainly because it was a rank-and-file initiative – Mike pressed on, and in 1981 he was asked to form a social enterprise board for the Greater London Council for the purpose of setting up worker co-operatives aimed at harnessing new technologies for the purpose of training up a new generation of technology enthusiasts – often alienated young people who had received little formal education – dedicated to the application of science to human need.
Throughout his working life, he remained a Marxist, dedicated to challenging and overthrowing the lot of most workers as alienated and degraded labour. He had an infinite faith in the creative capacities of humankind, taking inspiration from wonders of the past such as the huge medieval cathedrals that were in large part the products of worker genius, designed and realised by proto-guilds that would one day become proto-unions.
Within his union, Mike often found himself on the wrong side of an opportunist and undemocratic bureaucracy when it came to awkward questions, not least on the thorny ‘Irish Question’. Born in County Galway, he was a lifelong admirer of James Connolly – a Scottish-born revolutionary who championed the cause of a united and independent Ireland. Fully aware of how the politics of all of this would rankle with the mainly Orange union membership at the massive Shorts Harland and Wolff yards in Belfast, Mike would calmly – often while under quite abusive attack – explain how all workers could never benefit from the British imperialist project that was a Northern Ireland of six counties divorced from the Republic. And this was always done without making one ounce of concession to the Catholic church – which he would then go on to condemn for its denial of abortion and contraception rights.
Also in 1972, at the time of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders yards’ occupation, when both the TUC and the Communist Party called for nationalisation as a panacea, Mike stood up at our union conference and posed another option. Quoting (again) James Connolly, he warned: ‘The police are nationalised, the army are nationalised- and even the hangman is nationalised. And none of them are socialist.’ He was speaking in support of the amendment that the yards should be nationalised ‘under workers’ control.’
I last met Mike at a university conference in 2007. I approached him with some timidity but needlessly so, as he instantly recognised me. As ever he was warm and smiling, and with incredible precision he recalled both the good and the not-so-good times in the union. But what I noticed about him was a total absence of bitterness or rancour – which made me recall that in all those years I had known him, he had never raised his voice nor sworn at anyone in even the most bitter of disputes. And as ever, he was both optimistic and enthusiastic for our collective future.
Later, in his 2018 swan-song ode to humanity Delinquent genius: The Strange Affair of Man and his Technology, he disputed as inevitable the further de-skilling of labour, writing: ‘I disagree. The script for this finale can still be written.’ In reference to the book’s title, and in line with his own lifelong commitment to women’s liberation, he added: ‘And I do mean “man” and not humanity for it is a relationship from which women have been largely excluded – and this to disastrous effect.’
Mike Cooley, engineer, socialist and dreamer, born 23 March 1934; died 4 September 2020
As a contribution to a radical plan for an independent, decarbonised Scotland, Brian Parkin analyses the damaging ways in which successive British governments have restructured the Scottish economy since the mid-twentieth century. A version of this article was first published on the rs21 website.
Part 1: Dreams of development
The post-war settlement that enshrined full employment as a core economic aim saw the British state play a central role in redirecting labour into new post-hostility recovery employment. At the same time efforts were made to revitalise industries through new technological investment and in many cases reorganisation and modernisation through direct state ownership.
Inevitably, this rationalisation, with newer technologies reducing the ‘living’ labour component in many processes, also meant job losses. In regions in which heavy industries predominated the initial impact, in terms of unemployment and outward migration, was to deepen the sense of decline. Hence the persistence in many regions– the West of Scotland, Tyneside, Teesside, Humberside, South Yorkshire and South Wales – of the feeling that much of post-war recovery passed them by.
The Labour technocracy
The return of a Labour government in 1964 saw an attempt to continue state enterprise in creating a modern and competitive UK economy. Highly specialised industry development boards were set up- both to modernise existing industries through targeted capital investment grants- but also to encourage more product diversity with an ever- increasing high technology content.
Regions were also picked out for extensive development and regeneration. Whole industries- coal, iron and steel, shipbuilding, aerospace and textiles were all serviced by development boards or consultative committees whose task it was to marshal the strategic resources of manpower training necessary to ensure competitive recovery. So-called ‘Advance Factories’ and industrial parks were set up on derelict mining or iron-works sites for incoming investment to take advantage of generous grants in exchange for providing high skill employment- and with it, hoped for economic regeneration. Such policies, initiated by the Attlee government, were to be resumed with a greater vigour by the Wilson government of 1964-69.
But whatever the success of such schemes, they could do little to offset the principal ills of UK capitalism – low productivity and sclerotic profit rates. With Labour’s fall from grace in 1969, to an extent due to unpopular incomes (wage) controls and trade union reforms, the way seemed open for a ‘tougher’ Tory government.
The beginning of the end of the post-war settlement
The Tory government of 1969-74 entered office determined to replace the policies of the former Labour government with early trace elements of free market ideology. Incomes policies would persist as would trade union legislation. Although state aid to industry continued, a clear disdain for traditional manufacturing gave rise to terms such as ‘lame duck’ or ‘outdated’ to describe those sectors suspected of harbouring tribal anti-competition cultures. The difficulties in replacing an interventionist strategy with a reckless more laissez faire approach were made clear in the case of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) in what was to become a legendary confrontation between popular defiance and a government determined to let the market decide the future of some 28,000 shipyard workers and their communities.
UCS had been formed in 1968 under the direction of the then Industry secretary, Tony Benn. It comprised five shipyards and was the product of an extensive rationalisation and reorganisation programme overseen by the Shipbuilding Industry Board which provided start-up capital grant plus a £5.5 million interest free loan over three years. At the time of its conception it had an order book of £87 million. The government had a 48.4% shareholding.
At the end of 1970, UCS had experienced some delays in securing orders and in early 1971 the board applied to the government for a £5 million short-term loan. This was declined and the subsequent ‘work-in’ and the massive response in terms of working class solidarity followed by the government climb-down, is now the stuff of legend. The embarrassment of the Heath government was further deepened by an emergency bailout and nationalisation of RollsRoyce which had foundered on the costs of developing a new generation of turbofan commercial jet engines.
Until these two major industrial setbacks there can be no doubt that Tory leadership thinking had begun to depart from the post-war consensus of economic recovery based on full employment. Certainly, before his fall from grace over the ‘rivers of blood’ anti-immigration speech, Enoch Powell (along with Nicholas Ridley and Sir Keith Joseph as members of the InstituteofEconomicAffairs-IEA) had been exerting increasing influence.
The climb-downs at UCS and Rolls Royce were followed within months with the first ever national miners’ strike in the winter of 1972. The strike, ostensibly over statutory wage controls contained within it a highly charged set of political grievances. In 1939 there had been 37,000 miners in Scotland: by 1972 this had dwindled to 21,000. There had been a long held suspicion by the Scottish NUM that since 1946 and the nationalisation of coal, Scotland had been disfavoured in terms of both of coalfield development and capital investment. Another subsequent miners’ strike in 1974 in seeing off the Heath Tory government, also forced the hand of the incoming Labour government to underpin the security of all of the coalfields with The Plan for Coal. Although this agreement did give some initial security, it wasn’t long before the full implementation of a productivity agreement: the National Power-loading Agreement opened up wide disparities in colliery and coalfield performance.
Whilst it is clear that a number of almost classic set-piece industrial confrontations thwarted the testing of Tory ideology it was only to take another two years for a Labour chancellor to seek IMF support in exchange for a virtual surrender to market ideology. In that year of 1976 a Labour government now demanded that the maintenance of a welfare state had to be conditional on the working class accepting both wage restraint and public spending cuts. And as if to demonstrate the awesome power of unfettered markets, unemployment was allowed to exceed one million for the first time in forty years.
Prior to the decisive break from post-war economic strategies that occurred in the mid-1970s, there had been a wide range of industry specific investment programmes aimed at achieving both economic growth whilst maintaining employment at optimum levels. Such programmes took on added significance when they offered the prospect of regional regeneration. As many of the regions then experiencing decline had economies based on either extractive or manufacturing industries, the conventional economic wisdom was to ‘reindustrialise’ them, either by modernising existing processes or by inward investment in the form of newer industries with a higher technology content.
In the case of Scotland, which even in the best of times during the 20th century had experienced net outward migration and persistent poverty, the task was especially difficult. Much of the industrial base was both dated and dedicated to declining markets. The industrial capacity that did offer the prospect of recovery was hopelessly under-invested. Despite genuine attempts to revive certain sectors while using inward investment to maintain employment at acceptable levels, the downgrading of much of Scotland’s industrial capacity has had a shattering effect. Scotland has a small population and a large surface area and can still derive considerable wealth and employment from agriculture, forestry, fisheries and downstream processing, but it was the range of industry, from coal to cruise liners, that had given the country much of its sense of identity.
In an attempt to maintain a primary industrial base, the metal producing sector was marked out for modernisation. Firstly, the Collville steelworks at Motherwell, which had been site surveyed in 1954 for expansion, was renamed Ravenscraig and extensively developed by new state owned BritishSteel in 1967 as a combined iron, steel and hot strip steel mill which at the time was the longest in Europe. The site employed over 13,000 workers and was known as ‘Steelopolis’. The plant closed in 1992.
In addition, the first Scottish aluminium smelter at Fort William, (opened in 1929) benefited from power from the dedicated Lochaber hydro-power station. Still operational it employs 240. Although extensively modernised by British Aluminium in the 1970’s it is now operated by RTX/Alcan. But a further bid to expand a strategic aluminium industry foundered when the Invergordon smelter at Cromarty (opened by state owned British Aluminium Company in 1968 and originally employing 900) closed in Dec 1981.
In order to give Scotland a place in mass production industry, two sites were chosen for new motor vehicle manufacture and assembly:
Rootes (later Chrysler) was chosen for state investment in its plant at Linwood, Renfrewshire 1961. It was further enlarged in 1967. The workforce was incrementally increased from the original 450 Rootes workers by a further 3000 in main assembly plus 2000 in the Pressed Steel plant. The site closed 1981 with loss of 5500 jobs.
BMC (trucks and tractors) at Bathgate first opened 1961. Largely due to the chaotic phases of mergers and rationalisations in what was to become British Leyland the plant closed 1986 with loss of 2300 jobs.
In addition to the above, further grant aided programmes aimed at modernising other established industries – most notably chemicals and textiles – did much to retain employment in traditional industrial areas. Notable projects aimed at modernising the jute and linen mills, not only in terms of new plant machinery and infrastructure, but also in terms of the diversification in yarns towards synthetics increasingly available from a burgeoning petrochemical industry. In areas such as Dundee, this did much to protect employment traditionally undertaken by women.
From command and control to markets
All of the above industrial strategies were predicated on a mixed economy model in which the state had a central and almost entrepreneurial role as technical driver, banker of last resort and planning enabler. To a considerable extent, a degree of market protection would always be necessary for such projects to work. They also required the co-option of the unions and local authorities to ensure the necessary workforce goodwill and motivation.
The subsequent Thatcher governments from 1979 onwards saw the withdrawal of the state from most aspects of industrial and regional strategies. Industrial technical innovation and implementation were to become matters for private enterprise and much state funded R&D activity was terminated. The result was to effectively see off most of the industrial regional programmes resulting in plant closures as part of a de-industrialisation process, which hit regions like Scotland almost overnight.
But as Scottish industry generally was allowed to face increasingly tough market tests, another sector and one of a wider strategic importance to the UK economy as a whole was to see ever-increasing levels of state investment. That strategic sector about which all governments felt best not left to the market was energy. In particular Middle East oil shocks had shown how tenuous the whole issue of security of energy supply had become. In the 1960s, offshore surveys revealed the continuous extent of North Sea gas reserves westwards from recent onshore Dutch gas finds and further exploration in the UK sectors consequently revealed large gas deposits in 1965 followed by extensive oil finds in 1971. But until the oil shock of 1973 in particular, coming as it did between two national miners strikes, the North Sea and its hydrocarbon resources had not commanded much in the way of strategic attention.
It is an irony that the deciding moments that determined over 40 years of expansive state intervention and economic management of the biggest industrial capital investment programme came at a time when the Keynesian orthodoxy of demand management was being abandoned, greatly to the detriment of most of the efforts of post-war Scottish reindustrialisation
Part 2: North Sea Oil and Gas: Straddling the ideological eras
Until the early 1960s, the known extent of the UK’s oil reserves were, in addition to shale oil deposits in Scotland, confined to a handful of small sites in England. Although the extension of onshore coal measures with possible petroleum potential well into the North Sea was understood, there was neither the available technology nor economic incentive to explore these ‘prospects’. But in the late 1950s, onshore gas-field exploration began in the Dutch province of Groningen. In 1959, what turned out to be a giant field was struck there in a sugar beet field.
As the find was located in the strata that formed much of the UK’s coal measures, albeit much deeper, it was only a matter of informed guesswork to assume that such gas deposits could be found west of Groningen in the British sectors of the southern North Sea. It was also clear from deeper boreholes that the strata at deeper levels could probably contain oil.
The strategic importance of such a discovery was at first almost entirely regarded as being a potential source of relief for the UK’s ongoing balance of payments problem. But although slow at first, the British government eventually passed a UK Continental Shelf Act in 1964 securing automatic mineral rights to 200 metres of depth. Then a year later Norway and the UK struck an agreement which allowed exploration to commence. A feature of this agreement is that both the UK and Norway initially agreed to permit exploration and production on the basis of licences allocated by administrative assessment rather than by the more customary practice of auction. The decision arose from a distrust of the oil companies established habits of acting as undisclosed cartels and thereby ensuring licence auctions rarely exceeding the reserve price.
Another advantage of this licensing regime was that it allowed the UK government to favour British companies as well as giving state control over the rate of exploration and production in line with strategic imperatives. To this end a Department of Power was, among other things, charged with an offshore licensing regime with an initial view to ensuring a prudent rate of extraction. But a rapid turn of events was to significantly upgrade the importance of the North Sea and at the same time shift the resource management criteria from one of protracted conservation to one of maximising output.
As Juan Carlos Boué has described, UK governments realised an offshore industry in deep and inhospitable waters would require substantial inducements if the oil ‘majors’ were to be the principal players. Hence a high subsidy- virtually zero taxation environment that by any measure ruled out any market test for what was at best speculative, if not unknown, geo-physical evidence. This meant from the start that the UK government had to be the risk-taker of both first and last resort.
Such a ‘statist’ approach presented no problem for Labour or Conservative governments alike who shared the imperatives of breaking the powers of a largely Arab OPEC cartel with the added bonus of petroleum security and a more comfortable trade balance. And in this approach the UK pioneered a governance model involving state subsidies and minimal tax penalties. Such a model made little sense within a UK economic regime slipping further towards market criteria being the ultimate test- and even less sense when applied to established oil producing countries- yet one that made all-too much sense to the largely western giant oil corporations.
Yet, this fiscal gamble was to pay off when a sequence of strikes proved the possibility of a viable UK offshore industry.
The first event occurred in December 1969 when an exploration well 2/4-1AX drilling 100 miles east of Dundee struck oil. The find proved to be the giant Ekofisk field, which actually lay beyond UK jurisdiction in the Norwegian sector. But weeks later similar oil finds in the UK sector began with the Montrose field confirming commercial promise to the east of Peterhead.
Subsequent events came with a rapid sequence of Middle East conflicts that massively increased the price of imported oil, followed by a second national miners’ strike: both unconnected but seminal moments which concentrated the minds of governments of both persuasions on the strategic matter of energy security. For the incoming Labour government of 1974 there were two major energy initiatives. The first was a major stepping up of the nuclear power programme as a hedge against the miners and the second was a major state intervention in North Sea exploration, extraction and investment. 
The first (under Tony Benn) resulted in the hasty decision to proceed with a nuclear programme based on the ill-fated UK designed Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (AGR) of which two were built and continue to under-perform in Scotland – Hunterston B and Torness. The second was to create two state bodies to oversee the respective North Sea hydrocarbon operations. A British National Oil Corporation (BNOC) in 1975 became not only the oil sectors regulator and licensor – it also became a commercial partner with the option to ‘buy back’ up to 51% of a field’s production in order to then sell it back to the company for selling on to the refineries. BNOC also reserved the right to take out a stake in certain fields which essentially saw the state both stimulating development as well as underwriting risk. British Gas (BG) was set up to carry out similar duties with regards to the gas fields. Initially, in the case of the Irish Sea and Morcambe Bay it actually operated rigs. BG also took on responsibility for the much bigger North Sea operations as well as the downstream duties of onshore gas distribution and marketing.
Although many North Sea oil and gas discoveries were relatively close inshore, in the fairly shallow English waters of the Southern and Central North Sea, the trend as a consequence of progressive exhaustion has seen production move northwards into more remote and deeper water gas fields. Scotland with its share of the Central North Sea and the whole of the Northern North Sea and West of Shetland sector now accounts for over 95.1 % of UK oil and 48.0 % of UK gas production.
Crisis of Markets and Investment
It is evident from the sheer scale of the North Sea oil and gas industry, and the most hostile of environments that it continues to work and develop in, that a project of such technical complexity and vastness could never have got going by private enterprise alone. Without the UK government acting as the risk-taker of last resort, it is hard to imagine usually risk-averse capital venturing beyond ‘the Forties above the latitude of 58 degrees North where the weather is apt to get rough with winds of 125 miles per hour and waves over 100 feet’.
Yet now as more well injection applications are made, in order to enhance well output from the older wells, it is becoming clear that the current rate of extraction is just unsustainable. As established fields deplete alternative reserves must be found further North. But with revenue from falling production and falling world oil prices combine it is likely that as exploration falters then the offshore industry as a whole faces the threat of loss of its critical mass. Between 2011 and 2014 North Sea exploration costs per barrel rose from £4.00 to £22.00 and between 2010 and 2014 development costs rose from £8bn to £15bn. And that was before the oil price crash.
Part 3: Update
That the North Sea industry continued to attract government support was evident from the decision by a Tory chancellor to provide further tax breaks and incentives in the wake of the global oil price crash. But government aid would not last indefinitely if the world market continued to be awash with over-produced cheap oil. But by 2017 it had become clear that the North Sea had been since its inception a net cost/zero revenue operation for HM Treasury.
Subsidy (£ million)
Tax yield (£)
North Sea operators: subsidies and tax yields 2015-17
Nationalisation, resource conservation and democratic control
As the title of this paper suggests, the North Sea oil and gas industry has, unlike probably any other, been able to straddle a transitional phase between two opposing economic ideologies. It has done so because whatever the prevailing ideological wind, governments have always been preoccupied with matters of energy security. But now as a residual neoliberal dogma falters amid Covid-19 and post-Brexit uncertainties it would only be a matter of time before any remaining interventionist notion evaporated.
By 2018 BP, in the light of Forties field exhaustion, sold off its remaining offshore and onshore assets to the Grangemouth owner and operator, Ineos. Shell, facing the depletion of the once mighty Brent field, indicated that it would no longer be investing in any major North Sea activities. This was then followed in early 2020 by Exxon/Mobil declaring a sell-off of all of its North Sea licences and infrastructure assets in a bid to raise $2 billion in liquidity for oil and gas investments elsewhere
According to current estimates reserves lasting ‘well beyond 2055’ and ‘with a total wholesale value of at least £1.5 trillion’ could be realised on the basis ‘of a 28% rise in demand by 2035’. But while such forecasts are often excessively optimistic, it is nevertheless possible that extensive and economically profitable reserves could be exploited well into the future. UK and Scottish governments remain committed to extraction of all economically viable oil and gas. However, the assumption of a 28% rise in demand deserves comment. At a time when the evidence of accelerating climate change is undeniable, it is irresponsible to make policy based to base on rising rates of fossil fuel usage.
Contrary to any previous forecasts the demand for hydrocarbons is set on a downward trajectory as the intersections of global recession, Covid-19 led demand collapse and a growing climate change consensus indicate an irreversible decline in fossil fuel usage. For a high production cost and medium volume North Sea industry, a permanently depressed world oil price can only accelerate its rate of decline.
The oil price collapse of March 2020 onwards could lead to a sequential collapse in UK North Sea operations, which on a central forecast, could mean the loss of some 200,000 jobs (offshore and onshore supply chain) within the next 18 months: some 9% of the Scottish workforce.
The pace of change in both the global and Scottish economies since the inception of the Manifesto project in 2014, have been both rapid and extensive. But in order to discern a trend and identify the strength (or otherwise) of the economy, we have to bear in mind the trajectory of the UK economy as a whole over the past 40 years.
Economic management to markets: a (very) thumbnail sketch
By the late 1970s, Scotland, like other ‘industrial regions’ of the UK was about to be assaulted by the first phase of market ‘shock therapy’. In the philistine mind of the primitive neoliberals, an economy based on heavy engineering, ship building, metals manufacture, textiles and energy extraction, only a dose of economic Darwinism would be fit for who could – or could not – survive the market test. And although such an economic portrait could describe some other UK regions, it all applied to Scotland. The basic core of the economic ‘philosophy’ was that by opening up UK economy as a whole to the reality of ‘market forces’, those sclerotic and sullen elements of the workforce would be ‘shaken out’. Uncompetitive industries would be forced to prove themselves within an environment where management would be forced to re-learn the arts of management.
However, such a strategy failed to take into account the degree to which many industries were marked by years of under-investment. Hence this was an exercise predicated on assumption that the UK economy was structurally strong enough to withstand a little shock and awe.
For some of the UK regions, this proved to be catastrophic. And for a Scotland now hanging on a rapidly declining offshore oil and gas industry – as well as remnant sectors about to face the full-on forces of a post-Covid-19 global recession – the future could be bleak.
Fast-forward and we can survey the results, although at times it was no pushover for the ruling class. The miners fought on for a whole year, and the largely female workforce at Timex, Dundee, stuck it out for eight months. But when defeat ensued, the devastation of working class communities followed.
In any case, the UK economy became within a few years, one of the most open economies in the world and as a consequence became a playground of post-Big Bang speculative finance capital within which it was argued that the market as a force of nature – rather than Tory ruling class malice – was determining an ‘inevitable’ process of deindustrialisation. While industrially dependent regions and sub-regions as a whole took a battering, it was Scotland as a Northern and largely industrial outlier that bore a disproportionately heavy brunt.
The basic evidence of this experience can be found in an accompanying index, but it is by no means alarmist to suggest that a triangulated outcome of a global recession, a post-Covid-19 mass unemployment outcome and the all-but collapse of the North Sea oil and gas sectors, the Scottish economy is likely to enter a maelstrom.
However, since the point is not just to interpret the world, but to change it, I would suggest from the forgoing in which neither corporatist nor laissez faire ‘strategies’ have worked, it is unlikely that any reformist solution will be able to address the social and economic crises that Scotland now faces. So it is time for the bruised but so-far unbroken agency of the working class and its communities to administer a Just Transition away from two centuries of economic chaos and social injustice.
There is evidence of a spirit of defiance. In November 2017, workers at the offshore renewables fabrication yards of BiFab in Fifeshire occupied their workplaces in defiance of closure. Similar actions were underway at the Ferguson shipyard on Clydebank until the Scottish government was forced to nationalise the company. The yard with more or less its original workforce is now engaged in the production of a new generation of hydrogen-powered ferries for the state-owned CalMac company that will soon be running carbon-free ferries between the Scottish islands.
At a strategic level, a new and radical environmental network, Scot.E3, is linking rank and file union activists with working class communities and environmental organisations to fight for green jobs, climate justice and a democratic future. A new chapter in the political economy of Scotland may be about to be written.
 David Edgerton, ‘War, reconstruction and Nationalisation of Britain 1939-51’,Past and Present, 210, Supplement 6 (2011): 29-46; David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History (London: Allen Lane, 2018).
 Distribution of Industry Act of 1946. This empowered the Board of Trade to implement the Advance Factory Programme. An Industrial Development (Scotland) scheme was established in the same year. The programme was terminated in 1976.
 UCS comprised five shipyards: Yarrow, John Brown, Govan Shipbuilders, Alexander Stephens and Scotstoun Marine.
 This extent of this influence was demonstrated by a speech given by Edward Heath at the Selsdon Park Hotel, Croydon in 1967, which clearly indicated a degree of acceptance of IEA market dogma.
 National Coal Board, Plan for Coal 1974. The Plan declared a target of an additional 47 million tonnes per year production from modernised existing capacity plus new developments in the central coalfields. In fact, the Plan led to the acceleration of pit closures in Scotland and South Wales. This was demonstrated by the fact that between the year of the plan (1974) and the Great Miners’ Strike (1984-5), the number of miners in Scotland fell by exactly half: from 21,000 to 10,500. Over the same period productivity rose by 22%.
 The 13,000 Ravenscraig workers came from an area with a total population of 60,000. For a concise history of the plant see: John Cowburn, Ravenscraig Steelworks 1954-1992, firstname.lastname@example.org
 The £37m smelter at Invergordon was constructed on the assumption that with existing hydro capacity plus predicted cheap power from additional Scottish nuclear stations, the plant would be highly competitive- so much so that its construction was sufficient to anticipate enough demand to justify the construction of the Hunterson B AGR station. This in turn was sufficient for British Aluminium to qualify for a low interest loan of £30m. However, delays and subsequent underperformance of Hunterston B meant power charges had risen 31% over estimates which meant that by 1981 Invergordon was expected to make losses of £20m. See: www.rossandcromartyhertitage.org for a brief history of the Invergordon smelter. On nuclear fantasies see: https://www.rs21.org.uk/2020/06/13/not-an-atom-of-truth/
 Dundee was an early beneficiary of the Redistribution of Industry Act with the decision of the NCR Corporation to locate there. This was later followed by Michelin tyres and Morphy Richards, the light electrical appliances manufacturer. The intention of these assisted inward investment initiatives was to make good for the loss of jute mills employment.
 Small sites at Wych farm, Dorset, Formby on Merseyside and Hardstoft in Derbyshire had all produced ‘conventional’ oil from the 1920s onwards. See: Charles More, Black Gold: Britain and Oil in the Twentieth Century (London: Continuum, 2009), pp. 62-3.
 Øystein Noreng, The Oil Industry and Strategy in the North Sea (London: Croom Hill, 1980), pp.39-40.
 Christopher Harvie, Fool’s Gold: The Story of North Sea Oil (London: Penguin, 1995), pp. 225-7, 291-4. Harvie compares the respective extraction strategies of the UK and Norway, generally favouring Norway for opting for a regulated approach to production in contrast with UK rapid extraction emphases.
 Bryan Cooper and T.F. Gaskell, The Adventure of North Sea Oil (London: Heinemann, 1976), pp. 26-8.
 Initially it had been hoped that North Sea oil could also provide a fuel substitute for coal and thus another hedge against the miners. However the grades of oil first extracted proved unsuitable for refining into the necessary heavy Fuel Oil.
 The British National Oil Corporation (BNOC) was replaced by Britoil in 1990 which was to oversee the future wholly privatised oil industry with a ‘light hand’ of licence regulation.
 This arrangement also acted as a subsidy and incentive for the oil companies in that it assured them of a sale subsidy in the event oil falls in the international price.
COP stands for ‘conference of the parties’. Organised by the United Nations, it’s normally held on an annual basis and it is the place where the nations of the world come together to discuss policy on climate action. So to give it its’ full title COP26 is the 26th annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
COP 26 was due to take place in Glasgow in November 2020. However, the actual event is always preceded by a number of inter-governmental meetings. These have not taken place because of the global pandemic and as a result it has been postponed until 2021. The new date is not yet known. At the moment Glasgow is still expected to be the venue.
A history of failure
The first COP was held in 1995 in Berlin. It has taken place every year since then. 2020 will be the first year that a COP has been postponed. In terms of making an impact on greenhouse gas emissions the COPs have been an abject failure. The two most common greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. When COP 25 took place in Madrid at the end of 2019 the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had risen 67 parts per million by volume (ppmv) above what it was when the first COP met in Berlin. To put this in perspective CO2 levels increased by more during the 25 years of COP discussions than they had in the previous 200 years. Methane levels have tripled since 1995. Greenhouse gases act like an insulating blanket over the earth’s atmosphere and are responsible for rising global temperatures. So the massive increase in the amount of these gases in the atmosphere is the reason why the climate crisis is now acute and why rapid action to cut emissions is so important.
The Paris Agreement of 2015
Back in 2015 the COP (21) took place on Paris. The conference ended with an agreement that has since been ratified by 189 out of the 197 countries that participated (The Paris Agreement). Ratification committed countries to developing plans that would curtail global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees centigrade. Those who have not ratified include some important oil producers. Moreover, the USA ratified under Obama but has now withdrawn.
In principle ratifying the Paris Agreement commits countries ‘to put forward their best efforts through “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) and to strengthen these efforts in the years ahead.’ The realityhas been that progress has been negligible. The agreement is essentially voluntary and avoids specific targets. Patrick Bond notes the ‘Agreement’s lack of ambition, the nonbinding character of emission cuts, the banning of climate-debt (‘polluter pays’) liability claims, the reintroduction of market mechanisms, the failure to keep fossil fuels underground, and the inability to lock down three important sectors for emissions cuts: military, maritime transport and air transport.’
Along with committing countries to regular reporting on progress the Paris Agreement also scheduled 2020 and COP26 as a major milestone at which all the countries would need to assess progress. Had the COP gone ahead in November an honest assessment could only have been that the Paris Agreement has been a failure. The failure will have intensified by the time COP26 takes place in 2021. No one should have high expectations that COP26 will take action to address this failure but it is an important opportunity for the climate movement to hold the rulers of the world to account. Success for our side must mean a bigger, stronger, better-rooted movement that develops the strength to insist that governments take action.
COP fault lines
The COP is dominated by the big powers. So in the negotiations there are sharp divisions between the major industrial nations that are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions and the global south, which endures the biggest impact of climate change. These divisions were much in evidence at COP 25 in Madrid. At the COPs and in the run up to them there is also a great deal of activity from non-state organisations. Businesses, NGOs and union federations lobby before the event and can obtain credentials that enable them to be within the main conference areas. There is of course a huge imbalance in resources between the corporate lobbyists and the climate campaigners. Groups that represent women, indigenous people and poor people struggled to have their voices heard within the conference – indeed in Madrid some were excluded for holding a peaceful protest. The climate movement is mostly excluded from the conference zone by barricades and police; we make our case on the streets and in meetings and the counter summit. This will be the case in Glasgow.
Why should we organise for the COP?
From the start the COP process has operated within the domain of market economic orthodoxy. Crudely it has assumed that market forces will drive a move towards less carbon intensive technologies and hence reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There have indeed been significant developments in sustainable technologies – particularly wind and solar. And yet at the same time the big energy companies have also pursued a ruthless drive to exploit new hydrocarbon resources in a way that is completely incompatible with even the most modest targets for limiting global warming.
COP 26 will take place in 2021 in the economic and social aftershocks of a global lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Mobilising for the COP is necessary because the event will be the occasion for a huge onslaught of ‘greenwashing’, aimed at persuading us all that the leaders of the world know best, and that the market, ‘business as usual’, can protect us. Now more than ever we know that ‘business as usual’ is not simply ineffective in face of global crisis, it costs lives. So building for mass protest in Glasgow is necessary, but is only part of the ongoing struggle to win a just transition to a people centred zero carbon economy.
In what we hope will be a series of articles on the intersection of pandemic, lockdown, economic disruption and climate action, Pete Cannell reflects on what a return to ‘normality’ might mean.
It’s so easy in the present circumstance to talk about ‘when things return to normal’. At an interpersonal level this is clearly important and we all look forward to the end of social distancing. However, at the level of society, of politics and economics, it’s another matter altogether.
“In the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.” – Arundhati Roy
The pandemic has shone a harsh light on the way that society operates ‘normally’. It’s clear that while we can all catch Covid-19 we are not all in it together. The impact of the virus is expressed through the distorting lens of the gross inequalities that exist within and between countries. In the UK we are seeing how the impact of neo-liberal policies on the NHS has meant that we have been unprepared for a pandemic, which public health experts have been predicting for a long time. We have a government at Westminster which having failed to prepare as the pandemic loomed then first planned to let it rip in the interest of’ ‘herd immunity’, ostensibly in the name of science, but truly in a vain attempt to keep the economy going. In just a few days they were forced into containment mode through ‘lockdown’ as numbers of infections spiraled upwards.
In the context of the last two decades what the Tory government is doing with the economy is astonishing. Government ministers told us that running the economy is just like running your weekly budget and that cuts in public services and infrastructure were unavoidable because debt must be avoided at all costs. This was always economic nonsense. Yet now the same politicians are injecting hundreds of billions of pounds into the economy. Such has been the turn round that at the daily pandemic briefing Matt Hancock could announce a £13 billion write off of English NHS trust debts as if it were just routine. We’ve been here before. In 2008 our money propped up the banks while real wages fell and social services were ravaged. This time the sums of money are even larger but the intention is the same. In a briefing for The Source, Ben Wray describes how the current bail out is primarily aimed at keeping big business and the banks afloat. Throughout the twists and turns of government policy the objective of maintaining existing relationships of wealth and power has remained constant.
If current economic plans remain on the course that the Tories have set post-pandemic normality will be restored for the 1%. There will be an even greater concentration of wealth and power as mega companies like Amazon thrive whilst small businesses go to the wall. For the rest of us a return to ‘normal’ will mean more austerity, higher prices, shortages of food and large-scale unemployment. This is bad news for all of us and horrifying for the most vulnerable.
As the Coronavirus crisis unfolds the climate crisis continues to deepen. In the short term lower economic activity is reducing greenhouse gas emissions but the government’s economic plan for recovery, for a return to ‘normal’ that bails out the airlines, banks and big energy corporations, will rapidly ramp up emissions again. Over the next few months the climate movement needs to have an intense discussion on the politics of a sustainable path that tackles both the pandemic and sets a course for zero carbon. The terrain on which we make demands has shifted. Self evidently the money for transition is there – the money allocated by the advanced economies to finance the bailout is of the same order as what is needed to build a new economic system based on renewable technology. So right now we need to develop and popularise a set of demands that clearly articulate how the money should be spent.
The North Sea is a good example. With oil and gas prices falling we are likely to see a new wave of job losses and new developments like the fields west of Shetland are likely to stop. Current government plans for a return to normal would see cash going to the energy companies to salvage these projects. Surely we should demand that the money goes to supporting the laid off workers, to a rapid expansion of retraining opportunities in further and higher education and investment in sustainable projects on a large scale.
There’s much more to say about this but I hope this article contributes to a necessary debate about the way ahead. We need clear demands so that we can build mass pressure for action.
Mike Downham reflects on discussion at a recent Scot.E3 organising meeting.
This piece began as a report on a ScotE3 discussion about its forward strategy at an organising meeting on 19th March. The meeting had been planned before COVID-19 had become the over-riding priority. By the time we met, it had. For most of us it was our first Zoom meeting.
Over the week since we met, events have moved more quickly and more significantly than in any of the 4,213 weeks I’ve been alive and aware (too young to be aware of the outbreak of World War 2, and too distracted as a medical student to be fully aware of the Cuban Missile Crisis.). So this report has become an attempt to develop the main points which emerged from our discussion in the light of the subsequent escalation of COVID-19 – an escalation in terms of the spread of the disease, the number of deaths, Government intervention, and the response of communities and activists.
The key points which emerged from our discussion that night were that the COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare the contradictions in the capitalist system; and that increased consciousness of these contradictions among working-class people, already noticeable, has the potential to build to a point where those people will collectively insist on fundamental change.
What are the contradictions in the capitalist system which the pandemic is particularly exposing? Above all, the vulnerability of our health and social care infrastructure as a result of market-led policies over recent years has become blatantly obvious. The NHS has about 5,000 ventilators, and we are predicted to need around 100,000 within the next few weeks – this despite a flu pandemic exercise run by Government three years ago which pointed to the need to increase ventilator capacity. The Government took no action. On top of that it’s now widely known that the Government, as recently as a month ago, was prepared to sacrifice older people to save the shareholders. Though it became politically impossible for them to hold tightly to that strategy, it still informs their inadequate and confused public health interventions.
The economic impacts of the epidemic are likely to be as big for working-class people as the health impacts. Yet the Government’s income-support interventions have been slow to emerge, inadequate and confused. What for example is an ‘essential job’? Essential for who?
Food will inevitably become scarce soon, particularly but not only for those with least money. The official figure for the percentage of food the UK imports is 50%. But this is a figure massaged by the inclusion of foods processed in the UK. If ingredients for the processing are included, the real figure is around 80%. A lot of that comes from Europe. Wholesale prices of the fruit and vegetables we import from Europe are rocketing in the context of the pandemic, some of them have already risen by 100%. Wherever food comes from it has to be distributed and many of the waggon drivers come from central Europe. Homegrown fruit and vegetables are threatened by the shortage of harvesters, most of whom also come from Europe.
What are the signs of increased consciousness of these contradictions? Already many people are expressing lack of confidence in the Government. That, to date, 600,000 people have responded to the call for volunteers to help the NHS is a sign that people recognise just how under-resourced the service is. At this point the Government is arguing that the scale and severity of COVID-19 was unpredictable, but as the facts emerge about their inaction in the face of what became known to them from the experience of China and other far-eastern countries, this argument will be seen through, especially by the new volunteers as they experience working at the front line. The vigorous responses of local mutual aid associations will lead to increased confidence and a growing collective consciousness about the way working class people have been failed, particularly as people lose loved ones and as their economic conditions deteriorate. Workers are standing up for their rights for protection from Coronavirus infection in their workplaces – at Moy Park poultry processing plant, Northern Ireland’s biggest employer, 1,000 workers have walked out.
ScotE3’s primary aim is to contribute to the building of a mass movement to achieve a Just Transition from North Sea oil and gas to renewable sources of energy within a timeframe which prevents catastrophic climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic, despite its devastating outcomes, which have now become inevitable, offers an opportunity for ScotE3 to support the growing consciousness of the way the capitalist system is threatening the very survival of working-class people. We can support the generalisation of that consciousness, so that it extends to an understanding of the urgency of Just Transition. As one of our members put it recently:
Oil & gas need to go the way coal went, but this time without victimising the workers and their communities…The people, if they get the facts, will not allow either the industry or the Government to lead us into a future that condemns our grandchildren.
We are well placed to continue to contribute strongly to a Just Transition movement, despite the restrictions of the pandemic, given our emphasis on providing high-quality information widely available online, and the diversity and depth of the experience of our membership. The pandemic will make it more possible for us to promote radical solutions, above all the need to replace the capitalist system. The COVID-19 pandemic should inform all our activities, the resources we work on, and the politics of the material we publish. The pandemic is the new prism through which we should view everything.