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How green can the Tories go?

Tory leader, David Cameron, is trying to regain support for his party, which most people remember for the 18 years of vicious neo-liberal rule under his predecessors, Thatcher and Major. In his attempt to make the Tories look modern and dynamic, Cameron is taking up ‘green issues’. PETE DICKENSON looks at whether there is any substance behind the rhetoric.

THE STERN REPORT on the devastating economic effects of global warming has highlighted the seriousness with which sections of the British ruling establishment are taking the issue of climate change. In particular, the Tory party leader David Cameron is trying to portray himself as the champion of the environmental cause by outflanking New Labour with a radical sounding programme that includes the possibility of environmental taxes and more regulation.

Socialists will quite reasonably be sceptical about effective action on the environment coming from the leader of a reactionary party that usually stands in the way of progress of any sort and who furthermore is a master of spin, learnt at the feet of Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell. This scepticism was fuelled recently by Cameron trying to burnish his green credentials by cycling to work, but having his chauffeur-driven car follow close behind carrying his briefcase. But behind the spin and rhetoric is it possible that there is real policy substance, that is being driven not by humanitarian considerations, but by the realisation of an impending environmental catastrophe that will threaten long-term profits to an extent not seen since the economic collapse of the 1930s?

How much ‘radical’ content is there then in the Tory proposals? The new Conservative leader made a key-note speech in Olso in April, on a visit to Norway to see the effects of climate change on the Arctic island of Svalbard. This provided an ideal opportunity to be filmed with huskies driving a sledge, but he also went into some detail on his ideas, informed no doubt by his advisor Zac Goldsmith who is a prominent environmental journalist.

In the speech some effective digs at Blair’s green pretensions are made, in particular that the government’s own targets to reduce the greenhouse gases causing global warming will not be met by a wide margin and that output of these gases has actually been rising for the past three years. Another telling point he makes is that last year the UK ended up in a European Union (EU) court after increasing the permitted level of greenhouse gas output by firms and that this year the government has adopted a target that could lead to an even greater rise in industrial emissions. He could also have mentioned that Britain is presently importing the largest amount of coal in its history.

Cameron cites evidence from his trip to the Arctic on the retreat of the glaciers that have been contracting at an ever-increasing rate since 1967. In the speech he quotes the British government’s chief scientific advisor who has estimated that if the Thames barrier were breached just once it would cost London £30 billion, or 2% of UK GDP. Significantly, he makes a series of thinly veiled attacks on Bush, breaking from the Tories’ previous slavish position, by explicitly linking Hurricane Katrina to global warming and dismissing Bush’s idea that new technology can solve the problem.

The Tory leader also points out, in a passage on the need for international partnership, that the US accounts for a quarter of all emissions and that those who contribute to the problem should contribute proportionately to the solution. He concedes that it will not be easy to achieve agreement but, in his opinion, the Kyoto treaty is the way forward: "Kyoto provides a model for international partnership on climate change that should be built on". The hard policy edge of the Tories’ environmental proposals is the introduction of a climate change bill in parliament that will feature binding, annual carbon emission targets, policed by an independent climate change commission. This is contrasted to Labour’s rejection of annual targets and is posed as a more radical policy position.

No actual programme

THE POSITION IS put that "tough and painful" short-term sacrifices will be needed, although what and by whom is not specified, and that to let short-term political calculation get in the way "would be a betrayal of future generations". Not surprisingly, Cameron thinks the solution must be market based: "As Jonathon Porritt has said ‘capitalism is the only show in town’. We need market solutions to climate change; and we need politicians to put the systems in place which will enable markets to deliver green growth". The possibility is also raised though of the need for a new "regulatory and fiscal framework", presumably involving environmental taxes, possibly on cars, and an extension of existing law to control emissions. Another principle put forward, referred to in the quote above, is that of ‘green growth’, explicitly rejecting the idea common in the mainstream environmental movement that a large contraction in the size of the economy will be necessary for sustainability. To demonstrate the alleged feasibility of green growth on a market basis, examples are put forward of firms, such as the US multinational DuPont, that have implemented energy saving and boosted their profits as a result.

Two main questions are raised by Cameron’s environmental proposals briefly summarised above. First, how seriously would any future Tory government attempt to implement them? And second, if they are put into practice, will they be effective in tackling global warming? Before answering the first point, it should be noted that the Tories have no actual environmental programme. The ideas raised by Cameron are just that at this stage, ideas, and it will be another 18 months according to them before definite policies are agreed. However, since Cameron has promoted the environmental agenda so strongly and his credibility would take a huge knock if it was ditched or heavily watered down, let us assume that something similar to that outlined above will become Tory party policy.

To demonstrate the traditions of the Conservatives in introducing reforming environmental laws Cameron cites the record of the 19th century Tory prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who introduced several pieces of legislation in this area. These included the Rivers Pollution Act of 1876 and the Sale of Food and Drugs Act of 1874. The Rivers Pollution Act prohibited the dumping of solid waste into rivers, preventing further pollution by sewage, and made manufacturers liable to render harmless liquids flowing from their works. The Sale of Food and Drugs Act attempted to prevent the adulteration of food by unscrupulous suppliers.

These examples do show that, under pressure, even capitalist politicians can be compelled to take measures to protect the environment. Disraeli’s Tories were adapting to the new situation following the 1867 parliamentary Reform Act, which enfranchised sections of urban working class voters (although still only one third of adult males, and no women, were eligible to vote). A section of the capitalists, mainly larger manufacturers under pressure from their workforce for better working and living conditions, also called for environmental protection measures, partly to gain a competitive advantage over their smaller rivals, less able to bear the costs.

But how seriously would any future Tory government implement environment protection proposals in the 21st century? The level of the annual targets in their proposals, and how rigorously they will be policed, is not specified, only a long-term aim to cut emissions by 60% by 2050. Nevertheless, assuming as a minimum that the Tory target is no less than that currently put forward by Blair in the framework of the Kyoto international climate treaty, but put on an annualised basis, what would be the prospects of achieving it?

Big business resistance

BLAIR ALSO PROBABLY realises that something needs to be done about global warming, but what has happened since he came to power shows the difficulties the Tories would be faced with. Blair claims that the UK Kyoto targets will be met, but this is very unlikely if current upward trends in greenhouse gas output continue. In fact, emission levels only fell in the early years of the Labour government because utility companies were switching to gas from coal burning, which coincidentally resulted in less of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2 ), being produced. The utilities switched over for commercial reasons largely unconnected to any government policy on global warming and now the changeover is completed emission levels are increasing, being driven by economic growth. Blair, of course, is under an obligation from the Kyoto treaty to cut emissions, but has been under intense pressure from big business to water down the commitments – something he has caved into, as Cameron pointed out in his speech.

Ironically, it is possible that Cameron may, to a greater extent than Blair, stand up to the pressure he would come under from the capitalists, whose interests his party traditionally represents. Firstly, his credibility will be on the line in delivering on this issue and, more importantly, sections of big business, particularly those in non-carbon intensive industries, who understand that their long-term profits could be threatened by global warming, may back him. Even getting agreement from sections of business will not be easy though, because all will resist significant reductions in their profits caused by cutting carbon usage, particularly when a recession develops that will put huge pressure on the bottom line. Another aspect of the Tory environmental proposals, levying green taxes, could be very unpopular with their core rural vote, particularly if the cost of running private cars is raised substantially in areas where there is effectively no access to alternative public transport.

Nevertheless, it not ruled out that those, including Cameron, who put the long-term interests of the ruling class first, could prevail under certain circumstances in forcing through legislation that hurt sections of their class. Disraeli did this in the 19th century in order to preserve the basis of bourgeois rule in the long-term (although the effects of his measures are often very exaggerated) and Cameron could use the dense network of family and business ties, which historically link the Tories to the big corporations, to demand loyalty from his traditional supporters. So, assuming for the moment that he succeeds in doing this, and puts through the measures he wants, will they be effective in tackling global warming?

Fatal flaw

THE PROPOSALS OUTLINED above are based on setting annual targets, policed by a new commission, which will be achieved through a combined mechanism of trading carbon permits to pollute and environmental taxes. The emphasis though is on market permit trading through a development and extension of the Kyoto treaty. Assuming that the policing body is given real teeth, will the market methods deliver?

This is the first big flaw in Cameron’s idea because the Kyoto treaty has been a disaster, and has no chance of coming near to its (very modest, cosmetic) target. The market in carbon has collapsed, the price of EU carbon permits falling from €30 to €11 per tonne since April, and the volume of trading diving from 20 million to one million tonnes a day. This means that the cost of polluting remains very low and therefore provides very little if any incentive for firms to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, Francisco Blanch, head of commodities research at the Merrill Lynch finance house, was recently quoted as saying that there are so many permits currently in the market they should be worthless.

Another problem with Cameron’s proposals is that his ideas on green growth do not hold water. Citing the example of one or two firms that have made money at the same time as cutting their emissions proves absolutely nothing about the claimed rosy prospects for green growth on a market basis. If it really was more profitable for firms to switch to a sustainable basis of operation they would all have done it decades ago. Looking at the economy as a whole, using oil pumped out of the ground is by far the cheapest option available and will remain so for the foreseeable future, and will therefore provide the highest profits.

Assuming that Cameron is really serious and realises that permit trading is not working, he could then turn to an approach that would have a better chance of being effective: tax rises on gas, oil and coal, and regulations to force firms to cut emissions directly. (Carbon taxes, except on luxury consumption, would be very regressive, hitting the poor hardest – something socialists oppose.)

Nevertheless, such measures, which have not been completely ruled out by Cameron, would pose the issue starkly because there would be less room for firms to wriggle out of them if they were policed seriously. This would be the real test of the Tories’ resolve on the issue and it is not clear that Cameron would be able to push it through. The capitalists would say: why should we take a hit on our profits unless firms in other countries follow suit, particularly since unilateral cuts in UK greenhouse gases would have a negligible effect on global warming. In these circumstances, it is probable that, like Blair, the Tories would turn to nuclear power as the ‘lesser evil’ since it does not generate greenhouse gases, a position, unfortunately, some on the left are now flirting with as well. Cameron has not excluded the nuclear option, he just says that it should only be considered as ‘a last resort’.

A global problem

IF A WORKABLE international agreement could be reached, where all major polluting countries began to cut emissions simultaneously, spreading the pain evenly between the capitalists, then it is possible that the British bourgeoisie could be persuaded to join in, either by Cameron or by a New Labour prime minister. This of course poses the question of how likely such an agreement is to come about. The need for international action cannot be avoided because global warming is what it says, global, and unilateral cuts in emissions by any one country, even the biggest culprit, the USA, would not solve the problem. It would seem that the issue should be absolutely clear: the long-term costs of global warming, as the Stern report into its economic effects spelled out, far exceed the immediate costs of mitigation. So why have the capitalists found it so hard to come to an agreement?

For one thing, it was much easier in the mid-19th century for Disraeli to take action to tackle environmental pollution because the problem was restricted largely within national boundaries. Further, the antagonisms between countries over trade and the export of capital, and the profits resulting from them, are far greater now, in an imperialist age, than they were then when Britain was the dominant world power and did not need to worry so much about her international rivals.

Since the end of the 19th century capitalism has become a world system based not only on a massive expansion in the trade of goods, but also the export of capital on a huge scale, carried out by competing multi-national corporations. Despite these manifestations of globalisation, the nation state simultaneously has grown in importance as the defender, by force if necessary, of the monopolies that lie under its jurisdiction, as competition for profit between firms based in different countries has intensified.

This is the contradiction, undiminished today, that led to the wars and horrors of the 20th century and makes the international agreement that is necessary to reverse global warming very unlikely. The 500 multi-national companies that dominate the world economy resist fiercely anything that could threaten their profits in the short term, even to a small extent, and look to their ‘home’ countries to assist them in doing this. This is particularly true of US corporations, because America accounts for 25% of all greenhouse gas output and its firms would stand to lose by far the most from any effective action to reduce global warming that ‘made the polluter pay’.

There is some truth in the Stern report when it says that if the costs were spread over 45 years they should be manageable: the figure given is 1% of world GDP per year. (This is probably an underestimate since it ignores, among other factors, the likelihood that world temperatures will rise much more sharply and sooner than current models predict, due to so-called feedback effects.) Nevertheless, even if the costs are two or even three times greater, they could be relatively manageable from the point of view of society as a whole. This cuts no ice with the Bush regime though. Even if the effects on profits could be relatively small if spread over decades, it has refused to engage in any meaningful process that could lead to an obligation to cut emissions. (It is significant that it was Bill Clinton and his ‘green’ vice-president, Al Gore, who vetoed participation in the Kyoto process because it was seen as the thin end of the wedge, even if it did prove to be almost completely ineffective.)

Could this US intransigence change in the future – because without American participation any international agreement would be virtually worthless? After all, the evidence is now irrefutable that a major threat is looming and there has been the experience of Katrina that should have brought home the domestic costs of global warming. Bush however, who represents above all the interests of the big oil companies, did not change policy after Katrina and it is unlikely that he will significantly alter course for the rest of his time in office, although he may be forced to pay lip-service to environmental questions after his recent electoral defeat.

Could policy change?

ON THE OTHER hand, the Democrats try to project a green image: Gore in particular has built a reputation as an environmental campaigner and he may run in the presidential elections in 2008. It is possible then that a president will be elected who sees that something must be done to cut emissions in the long-term interests of the capitalist system, but this does not necessarily mean that effective action will result.

There is a precedent for the USA to participate in international action to tackle environmental pollution when it reached agreement in the 1980s, under UN auspices, to cut out the use of CFC chemicals in aerosol sprays because they were causing the breakdown of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere. This was leading to increased risk of skin cancer for large sections of the world’s population. The Montreal protocol was quite effective in reducing CFC levels, which fell by 77% between 1988 and 1994. So could this be a model for future action on climate change, as many environmentalists think?

Before reaching this conclusion, there are some crucial differences between the two that have to be considered. Firstly, the scale of the problem is entirely different, because the cost of eliminating a single chemical from a production process, when substitutes were already available, was insignificant compared to ultimately replacing the world’s entire energy generating capacity. Second, the cost of removing CFCs affected all the industrialised capitalist countries on a roughly even basis, when GDP per capita is considered. (Even so, the USA dragged its feet for years before ratifying the Montreal agreement, and only did so when one of its chemical corporations, DuPont Inc, made a technical breakthrough that enabled it to dominate the market in CFC substitutes.)

In the case of greenhouse gas emissions the USA is the biggest polluter in absolute terms, as with CFCs, but in contrast to them it accounts for 25% of emissions with only 5% of the world’s population, ie its per capita consumption is five times the world average, and nearly twice the EU emissions per head. This means that if the polluter pays proportionately, as the other industrialised countries insist, the USA will be in by far the worst position, making it very difficult for a future US president who wanted to take action on global warming to use the example of CFCs to support her or his case.

Major obstacle

ANOTHER OBJECTION the US multinationals always raise with regard to action on global warming is the position of China. China along with all other ex-colonial and third world countries was not expected to participate in the Kyoto process in the early 1990s because their output (particularly per head) of pollutants was very small compared to the imperialist countries. Now, however, the situation has changed in China, which has the second largest environmental footprint after the USA. If present trends continue (which is not certain), it will overtake the USA within a few years in greenhouse gas output. The USA insists that any future agreements on global warming must include China, which is emerging as a major strategic rival, whereas the Chinese regime, quite understandably, responds by pointing out that the current problem was caused almost entirely by the imperialist countries, and China should not be penalised as a result.

The opposition by the US multinationals to giving what they will characterise as a free-ride to their main emerging strategic rival will be a major obstacle to reaching any worthwhile agreement on global warming. The US bosses also realise that even if the Chinese government does sign up to an international agreement to cut greenhouse gases, its ability to make it stick is limited. At the moment, China has some environmental legislation as rigorous as in the west, but it is largely ignored on the ground. The wild-west nature of the development of capitalism in China means that local bureaucrats and capitalists operate independently of the central government in many areas and ignore inconvenient laws passed in Beijing.

Nevertheless, it is possible that a future US administration could participate in a continuation of the Kyoto permit trading system, because at the moment there are a whole series of loopholes in it that firms can wriggle through to avoid paying too much. If the loopholes are closed off though they will be very reluctant to take part, and the US government would find it very hard to get past them. Like the situation Cameron or a New Labour prime minister will face here, when the heat is really on, a future US president will almost certainly opt for the ‘lesser evil’ of nuclear power as a way out of the dilemma.

If the true long-term costs of nuclear power are included, including storing ever increasing amounts of nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years, decommissioning power stations, creating a fund to deal with the effects of a Chernobyl-type disaster in the future, etc, sustainable energy sources become comparatively less expensive. However, the long-term costs of nuclear power will be effectively ignored by capitalist governments, so that the profits of the multi-national firms that really control the political agenda will be affected to the minimum extent. Only by eliminating the power of these companies can a sustainable alternative to the nightmare scenario of environmental disaster caused by a nuclear accident or global warming become a reality.

This will require the dismantling of the capitalist system on an international scale, based as it is on the relentless, short-term, destructive pursuit of profit, and its replacement by a democratically planned socialist economy. In such a society the genuine international co-operation that is necessary to tackle global warming will be possible for the first time, something that is ultimately impossible under the capitalist profit system.


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