This changes everything

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

Just Transition Commission Interim Report

The Just Transition Commission began its work in 2019.   Established by Scottish Ministers its remit is to advise on how just transition principles can be applied to climate change action in Scotland.  It is tasked to complete a final report with recommendations for Scottish Ministers by January 2021.  The Commission published an interim report on 26th February 2020.

Commissio interim cover

The interim report has four main themes:

  1. Planning Ahead
  2. Public engagement
  3. Bringing equity to the heart of climate change policies
  4. Opportunities and the need for immediate action

The report notes that since the Commission began its work both the Climate Change (Emission Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act and Scottish National Investment Bank Bill include reference to just transition principles. However, it is critical of a lack of action by the Scottish Government and highlights opportunities that have not been taken.  The closure of the coal-fired power station at Longannet is cited as a case where the local community in Kincardine contest the view of Fife Council and other agencies that the closure was well managed and socially just.

There is a strong emphasis from the Commission on the need for strategic vision that cuts across sectors and for government leadership and direction.   It contends that the task of making strategic progress across sectors

… cannot be left to enterprise agencies or indeed companies themselves. There is a crucial need for Government leadership.

Further, it argues that the Scottish Government shouldn’t wait for its  2021 report before acting, stating that

We firmly believe that all decisions taken by Government in the year ahead need to be made with a view to supporting a just transition for Scotland. We don’t want Government to wait for our final report to begin planning how a just transition will be achieved.

It notes that current planning approaches are insufficiently rigorous and suggests that all Scottish Government funded investments should be prioritised against inclusive, net-zero economy outcomes.  Planning is essential if we are to avoid the kind of unjust transition that has characterised previous major economic transitions.

While arguing for a much more proactive role for the Scottish Government the interim report doesn’t make recommendations for how a state energy company could be used to drive transition. It’s to be hoped that the final report will say more about this.

While it is critical of lack of action and leadership from the Scottish Government, the interim report is weak on the role of public ownership and democratic engagement.  The former is largely neglected while the latter is viewed in terms of  consultation – there’s no real sense that system change is on the agenda.  This is most evident in the way that the report approaches North Sea Oil and Gas.  The  oil industry’s  Vision 2035 and associated roadmap are mentioned without criticism.  The truth is that aiming for the  North Sea to become the ‘first net-zero carbon hydrocarbon basin’  means continuing extraction and carbon capture and storage on a massive scale.

‘Just Transition’ was prominent at COP24 in Katowice – developed by the workers movement and climate activists – it has been partially co-opted by corporations and government agencies.  It’s critical that the climate movement defends the radical core of the concept.  If social justice is not central to transition then it will not be possible to build the scale of social mobilisation that is needed and the risk of a climate catastrophe is magnified.  Here in Scotland we need to put social justice at the heart of our actions as we build the climate movement and mobilise for COP26.  The Just Transition Commission is asking for civil society to submit their views as it works through 2020 and prepares its recommendations for Ministers.  We should do that.  But even more important is raising the level of mobilisation so that the pressure for action becomes irresistible, system change is on the agenda and corporate greenwashing is exposed as a desperate attempt to cling on to business as usual.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Public transport use in Scotland in decline

The decision by the Scottish Government to extend free bus travel to under 19 year olds is a small but positive step.  However, the latest Transport for Scotland Report published yesterday (27th February 2020) shows that the number of bus journeys undertaken is continuing to fall while car usage is rising.  The steepest fall in bus use is in the Highlands and Islands while the decline is least in South East Scotland.  The data in the report doesn’t break down regions by public transport provider but the relatively small decline in the South East is almost certainly a result of increased numbers using publicly run Lothian Buses.

In 2107 transport accounted for 36.8% of Scotland’s total greenhouse gas emissions.  Cars were the biggest contributor accounting for almost 40% of the total.  Cutting the use of polluting car transport is a critical part of shifting to a zero carbon future.  Simply replacing petrol and diesel by electric would put huge pressure on natural resources that are in short supply and whose extraction causes major environmental damage.  The answer must surely be a comprehensive, flexible and well connected public transport system that has electric buses as a key component and is free to users.  There is good evidence that low or free fares results in a massive increase in public transport use.

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One of Lothian’s new 100 seat Envrio400XLB buses.  CC-BY-SA 4.0

Solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en!

Sunday 1st March, 2pm – 3pm at the east end of Princes Street, Edinburgh (opposite Balmoral Hotel)

Scot.E3 has called a protest in solidarity with indigenous land defenders in the Wet’suwet’en territory of British Columbia.  They are protesting against the construction of a new gas pipeline across their land.  The construction project breaks the Canadian constitution, however, the protests have been met with harsh repression by Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  There has been solidarity action across Canada.

At a time of climate crisis we should be phasing out oil and gas.  The Wet’suwet’en protesters are in the front line of our common struggle for a sustainable future.

‘It’s a whole damn army up there. They’ve got guns on, they’ve got tactical gear on. They look like they’re ready for war.’
– Wet’suwet’en hereditary Chief Woos (Frank Alec).

Donate to the Unist’ot’en 2020 Legal Fund

More information at the supporter toolkit site 

Canadian Facebook Page

UK Campaign Facebook Page 

At the time of writing the Edinburgh solidarity event has been cohosted by: Friends of the Earth Scotland, Young Friends of the Earth Scotland, People and Planet Edinburgh, rs21 Scotland, Edinburgh Youth Climate Strike and Extinction Rebellion Edinburgh

There is also a protest in London at Canada House on the same day.

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Climate Learning Week

UCU, NUS and other organisations have got together to produce themed resources on the climate crisis.  The aim is to get as many schools, colleges and universities as possible using the resources in the week 10th – 14th February.  The resources are relevant and useable at any time and we’ve added the link to the Resources page on this site.  If you are a student or work in education do check them out and think about how they can be used in your institution.

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Climate emergency – a model motion

New Year 2020 is a critical time to be taking the campaign for climate action into our workplaces.  Below we’ve pasted a model motion that can be used or adapted in your own workplace context.  (You can also download a PDF here and a Word version here.  If you have already raised a similar motion in your workplace we’d love to hear about it and would be pleased to share the text (with permission) so that others can build on your experience.  We think there’s a particular case for developing clear policies in education, from school through to university, and would be really interested to get feedback on particular demands and actions for the education sector.  Please send feedback to triple.e.scot@gmail.com 

Draft model motion 

This (branch/region/committee/trades council/union/conference) notes the urgent need for action on the climate emergency, both in response to existing negative impacts such as extreme weather, fires, droughts, floods and loss of habitat and species; and to avoid the catastrophic and irreversible climate damage which people increasingly realise the world is on course for, after the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

We recognise that big business, the military and the richest individuals are responsible for the vast majority of climate change, yet the global working class and poor are disproportionately at risk. A just transition (that protects the lives, livelihoods and rights of the poor and disadvantaged) to a decarbonised economy is not only right, but is the only way the movement against climate chaos will secure the mass support needed to win, and avoid a rich minority protecting themselves at the expense of the planet and the vast majority of people.

We congratulate the school students striking around the world for real climate action and welcome the decision of the TUC to support them and call for a solidarity stoppage. We note that many workers did strike on 20 September 2019, despite Britain’s repressive legislation, by campaigning to pressure employers not to apply sanctions to climate strikers.

We note that there is discussion about the possibility of making Friday 1 May 2020, traditionally International Workers’ Day, also a climate strike. We note that the UN ‘COP’ climate change conferences have become a major focus for campaigners, that COP26 will be taking place in Glasgow from 9-20 November 2020, and that many organisations are already making plans.

We resolve to:

  1. Publicly state our support and solidarity with the climate strikers and the wider movement for rapid and effective climate action
  2. Invite climate strikers to speak at our meeting
  3. Educate our members about the climate emergency
  4. Give practical support to the climate strikes, without adults taking it over. This will include asking schools and local authorities to commit to imposing no sanctions against striking students, promoting the strikes on social media, encouraging members to attend, taking our flags or banner if agreed with the strikers. If requested, it could include co-hosting events, providing sound systems, staging and stewards, using our public liability insurance, help with press releases or police liaison.
  5. Support workers joining climate strikes and maximise member involvement
  6. Work with other local labour movement and environmental organisations to arrange discussions locally and within workplaces about practically how workers and unions can learn from 20 September, join climate strikes or show solidarity
  7. Promote through the labour and climate movements the idea of making 1 May 2020 a climate strike as well as International Workers’ Day
  8. Organise to make COP26 in Glasgow, 9-20 November 2020, a major focus of campaigning for effective action on the climate emergency
  9. Call on employers and local authorities to declare a climate emergency and involve workers and communities in planning, implementing and monitoring to rapidly achieve zero carbon emissions, including ending investments in fossil fuels
  10. Call on employers to recognise union green/environmental reps and give them work time for their activities
  11. Create climate action groups at workplace level and within union structures
  12. Look for opportunities for unions, communities and the climate movement to work together, for example for improved housing and public transport
  13. Call on unions and the TUC to back the climate strikes, call and build action
  14. Call on our union to carry out a major exercise to understand the potential positive and negative impacts of the climate crisis and responses to it on employment
  15. Campaign for a legal right to strike and to repeal all legislation that makes it harder to strike over climate
  16. Discuss what climate-related demands to include in collective bargaining, including ones which could be the basis of a lawful “trade dispute” under current legislation and to call on our union to produce guidance on this
  17. Ensure that unions are visible as relevant and useful organisations within the climate movement and that participants are encouraged to join a union
  18. Demand massive public investment in the jobs required to address climate emergency, including massive improvements in renewable energy, housing and public transport
  19. Send this motion to our local trades union council, up through our union structure, and to local SNP, Labour Party and Green Party branches

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Energy efficient housing

The announcement by Paul Wheelhouse that the Scottish government will work on new regulations to ensure that new homes use renewable or low carbon energy sources for heating is a small but welcome step in the right direction.  However, the timescale for action is disappointingly unambitious; the new measures are not planned to be implemented until 2024.  Setting a much shorter deadline would send a message to private sector builders and local authorities that ‘climate emergency’ is exactly what it says. In housing, as elsewhere, action needs to be take place on the shortest time lines possible.

Let’s up the pressure for a mass public programme of retrofitting existing houses to be energy efficient.  This is a necessary step and in addition the climate jobs and the improvements in living conditions that it would generate would have a massive impact on people’s attitude to the climate emergency and what needs to be done.  It would be just transition in practice.

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Passive House, Image CC BY SA 3.0

Housing and climate action

One of the workshop streams at the Scot.E3 conference in November was devoted to housing. This report is from Mike Downham who was one of the facilitators of the discussion.  

  1. Housing in Scotland is a disgrace – from the Muirhead tower blocks to new-build. A participant from Hungary, who has been in Glasgow for a year or so and has had extreme difficulties in finding somewhere to live and which is affordable to heat, said that Scotland’s housing compares very badly with Hungary’s, which at least has thick walls. “You’ve got to do something about it”.
  2. Student housing. The Universities are supplying student housing which is unaffordable except for wealthy students, mostly from the Far East, and make it difficult for most students to find less expensive accommodation. There has been a lot of public criticism about students having such high quality housing, while many citizens are homeless. But the reality is that the majority of students have huge difficulties in finding housing they can afford to rent and heat. It’s not unusual for them to end up on someone else’s sofa.
  3. Commodification of housing since 1980 is at the root of the housing crisis in Scotland. Housing policy has been primarily aimed at growing the national economy, instead of housing being recognised as a human right.
  4. What we can do together towards a just transition in Scotland’s Housing:
  • Demand that Councils bring building standards up to passive-house specifications and replace building control jobs lost in the name of austerity, without which new housing can’t be adequately inspected. These changes are perfectly feasible for Councils.
  • Put pressure on the Scottish Government to ensure that the new Scottish Investment Bank will direct enough funding to build the new houses needed (this is urgent – the Scottish Investment Bank Bill is going through parliament now).
  • Put pressure on Pension Funds to invest in housing.
  • Support grass-roots protest as demonstrated by Living Rent’s support for Muirhouse tenants, which started with door-knocking to get all tenants’ views.
  • Suggest to XR that they target some of their direct action on grass-roots projects such as Muirhouse
  • Suggest that grass-roots projects such as Muirhouse deliver their demands to the COP 26 – to both the formal and the alternative meetings.
  • Keep in our sites the eventual objective of a National Housing Company through which communities will choose the type of housing, local facilities and green species they need
  1. Climate is just one part of the wider argument – so the challenge for the Climate Movement is to build links with all other movements concerned with social injustice.
  2. “We need to close this down” – just as we would have no hesitation in doing if there was a proposal to build an asbestos factory at the end of our street. Though this was said in respect of the climate polluters, the fact that it was said in a discussion on Housing, Health and Fuel Poverty suggests that it should be our approach to all forms of social and planetary injustice.

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Image (Construction of the Passive House) CC BY SA 2.0 from Sustainable Sanitation Alliance  

 

Energy from Waste

On of the issues that came up in discussion at the recent Scot.E3 conference was ‘Energy from Waste’.  There is large-scale investment in this technology taking place across the UK.  We agreed to produce a briefing on the topic.  What follows is the text of the first draft of the briefing.  We are also developing further resources that will be added to the Resources page on this site.  We’d welcome comments on the text and ideas for useful resources that we could link to.

There are a large number of Energy from Waste (EFW) projects planned across the UK.  By the end of 2017 there were nearly 120 EFW proposals at various planning stages. Sixteen of these are in Scotland. In this briefing we take a critical look at Energy from Waste and ask whether it has a place in a strategy for a zero carbon Scotland.

Energy from Waste Projects

At first sight, the term ‘Energy from Waste’ appears to be all things green. It suggests a new and rational way of ‘treating’ the ever-growing mountains of waste that are an inevitable by-product of our throwaway society.  It invites the idea of a ‘green energy’ that has been derived from what would otherwise be a possibly harmful and long-term environmental problem. When the alternatives proposed are either a long-term toxic and smelly and unsightly landfill problem or a health-threatening incineration route, then EFW appears to be a sensible choice.

Behind the EFW hype, which many UK local authorities have accepted, there is a fog of confusion regarding the most optimal waste management solutions; whether they be recycling or minimising the production of waste at source – both options are ruled out by market driven/low cost and value-for-money economics.

Landfill

Since 1945 the volume of disposable waste per household in the UK has multiplied threefold. Over the years, the local authorities have traditionally chosen landfill disposal as the preferred waste ‘treatment’ route.  However, landfill, demands considerable land acreage and depth and entails significant public health risks as well as potentially long-term hazards for the environment. Aside from smell and vermin nuisance, landfill sites- even the best managed ones- constitute over time- a high risk of biological and toxin leaching into surface soils and ground-waters.  Methane from decomposition also adds to greenhouse gas emissions.

For all of these reasons, waste management authorities have either been incentivised away from landfill by grants for recycling- or more often – ‘disincentivised’ in the way of increasingly punitive landfill taxes. First introduced in the 1970’s, landfill taxes have been subsequently reinforced by EU directive-and as alternative waste ‘treatment’ technologies have fallen in capital cost, so landfill taxes have risen.

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Landfill tax per tonne

2010      £63.00

2018      £88.95

2019-20 £94.15

Tax policies make EFW-type waste treatment strategies appear attractive- particularly because in exchange for a penalty for handling waste, there is an income from generating electricity.

EFW technologies

There are a number of EFW technologies on offer but all share the same objective of converting solid (or in some cases, liquid/sludge) waste into energy for the production of electricity.

Typically, an EFW plant is based on an incinerator chamber into which is fed solid waste.  The upper walls of the chamber comprise water-filled tubes in which super-heated steam is produced for a steam turbine that in turn produces electricity.

Steam is also captured from the waste feed system. If the plant is fitted with what is called a ‘back-pressure’ steam turbine, then high-pressure hot water can be distributed to local industrial and residential heating networks in what is called a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) system.

However, as such plant is typically fed unsorted, or semi-sorted waste with a low calorific value, the combustion process will be ‘boosted’ with an additional combustion element in the form of natural gas or diesel oil. Less typical EFW technologies with little application to date, are the various gasification processed that involve the digestion of biological waste- usually food or agricultural wastes which are then converted into a ‘bio-gas’ which via a gas turbine is converted into a higher electricity output. In some processes, the waste is heat-treated anaerobically – i.e. in low oxygen conditions- (pyrolysis) to produce a synthetic ‘natural’ gas.

All EFW systems discharge exhaust gases. The principal emission is carbon dioxide but there are also emissions of nitrogen dioxide.  Quenching water can contain uncombusted toxins and  solid wastes in the form of light ash or clinker have to be disposed of safely.

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Image M J Richardson, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/5668478

Renewable energy?

EFW systems add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere through the process itself and also through large-scale transport of waste to the incinerators (mostly by road).  They are a response to the perceived problem of landfill rather than tackling systems that produce unrecyclable waste.  To operate efficiently EFW plants require a continuing supply of waste at or around current levels.  Scotland produces around 1.6 million tonnes of combustible municipal waste per year, if current plans come to fruition this means and awful lot of capacity chasing a very finite amount of waste. Local authorities could be tied in to contracts to supply waste for the next thirty or forty years.   This could pose a real threat to the commitment to recycle plastics and other recoverable materials out of the waste treatment stream. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency notes that EFW is not a renewable energy source but claims that because it can be substituted for fossil fuel electricity production it forms an important part of the Scottish Strategy for sustainable energy!

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Alternative Strategy needed

Energy from Waste is not green and not sustainable.  It undermines attempts to reuse and recycle and it has a significant carbon footprint through transport of waste to centralised sites and through the greenhouse emissions from the burning of waste.

Investment in Energy from waste should be reallocated to genuinely sustainable technologies aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which also provide opportunities for jobs in construction and better opportunities for long-term employment.

Further reading

For further information on Energy from Waste go to www.scote3.wordpress.com and click on the Resources tab in the menu.  This briefing is one in a series produced by Scot.E3.

Disaster Environmentalism

The People and Nature blog has just published three really thought proving articles.

The first ‘Disaster environmentalism looking the future in the face’ takes a critical look at recent writing by Rupert Read, Jem Bendell and others that argues that civilisational collapse as a result of climate change is inevitable and for approaches to dealing with collapse that require ‘deep adaptation’.

The second ‘Disaster environmentalism: roads to a post-growth economy’ is a contribution to the debate on Degrowth.   It argues that ‘“Economic growth”, as manifested by global capitalism, is completely unsustainable. “Green growth”, or “socialist growth”, are no substitutes. Our challenge to the economic system must open the way for a society based on human happiness and fulfillment, values completely at odds with – and distorted and defaced by – the rich-country consumerist ideology that helps to justify ever-expanding material production’.

The final post ‘Disaster environmentalism: what to do’ explores the political implications of the positions outlined in the first two posts and takes a sharp look at the politics and practice of social change.

Taken together the three posts are an important contribution to debate in the climate movement and recommended reading for climate activists.

Typhoon Ondoy Aftermath

Typhoon Ondoy Aftermath CC BY-NC-ND 2.0