Socialist Alternative

protestors marching with ISA at COP26 in Scotland

“Climate Jobs: Building a workforce for the climate emergency” (Review)

The recent publication of ‘Climate Jobs: Building a workforce for the climate emergency’ by the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group (CACCTU) is a timely contribution to the discussion on environmental policies that appeal to broad layers of the working class. Building on its previous pamphlet One Million Climate Jobs (2014) this is a more extensive booklet, enhanced by an online ‘technical companion’, which provides references, modelling and more detailed explanation of some of the issues.

The book is a welcome antidote to ‘doomerism’ that has infected much of the climate movement since the failure of COP26. It offers practical solutions that provide jobs and security to millions of people already affected by the climate emergency, based on a rational plan that requires public ownership of key sectors of the economy. 

A national climate service

The central demand of the original One Million Climate Jobs pamphlet was the creation of a National Climate Service, directly employing workers to do ‘green jobs’. The substance of this demand was adopted in all but name by the Corbyn leadership of Labour in its 2019 manifesto under the title of a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, overseeing the creation of ‘at least one million well-paid unionised jobs in the UK’ through a combination of public ownership of key industries, such as energy, targeting public investment into ‘green’ technology, apprenticeships and retraining for workers in transition.

The new booklet looks in detail at what could be achieved in each of the key sectors of energy, homes, transport, industry, land use and recycling. Lastly, it asks how workers might raise these demands in the workplace. The authors are all trade unionists, environmental activists and academics specialising in a particular field. 

With regards to the chapter on energy, there is a detailed examination of how much electricity generated from renewable sources will need to replace fossil fuels to power industry, keep the lights on and heat our homes. The targets are immense, but achievable. The authors estimate that to transition fully to renewables, 1,374 terawatt hours per year (TWh/yr) are needed to meet current demand but with energy saving measures such as insulation and more efficient appliances this could be reduced by around half (700 TWh/yr). They detail how a combination of wind, solar, tidal and hydroelectric generation could easily achieve that by 2038, without the need for nuclear or untested carbon-capture technologies.

Some of the most significant progress in tackling climate change could be more efficient use of buildings, particularly through better heating and insulation of homes. Heating our homes uses between 300 and 370TWh/yr and the authors estimate this could be slashed in half within 10 years by replacing boilers with new heat sources and fully insulating existing stock. This would require a mass street-by-street retrofitting of every building. It estimates that a plan of this scale across the UK could create an additional 2 million jobs by 2030. The authors concede that some new technology, such as heat pumps, is not suitable for all homes and they are critical of a large-scale conversion of gas supplies to hydrogen, which they correctly regard as an attempt by the energy industry to maintain ‘business as usual’.

Transforming public transport

The authors point out that transport is now the biggest source of carbon emissions in the UK. Excluding international aviation and shipping (huge contributors themselves) transport is responsible for 27% of all emissions. Perhaps the biggest challenge to achieving significant change is the normalisation of private car use as the most desirable way to travel, with 76% of all UK households owning a car and many more than one. The authors call for a huge expansion of public transport to get people, as well as freight, out of individual vehicles and on to trains, buses and trams. One tram in a major city is thought to replace around 40 cars on the road!

Moving away from private car use will not be easy, not least because the capitalist economy depends on a myriad of daily short (and not-so-short journeys) that include getting to and from work, the school run, shopping and leisure activities. While the Covid 19 pandemic has reportedly seen an increase in remote working and home delivery of goods, the vast majority of workers in factories, shops, education institutions and in caring environments must still travel and need the infrastructure to do so. Never has the need for an integrated green transport system been more pressing and the authors estimate a massive reduction of around 108 megatonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) per year and the creation of 100,000 new jobs in rail alone if the investment and infrastructure to bring it about is put in place.

What is abundantly clear, however, is that simply replacing petrol and diesel cars with electric vehicles (EVs) will not solve the problem of how to create a sustainable transport system. There are two main reasons for this: increased demand for electricity in competition with other sectors; and demand for resources for batteries far outstripping what is currently accessible, most of which involves crippling exploitation of the global south for mineral resources.

Any planned transition cannot dodge the need for a move away from mass private vehicle ownership to socially or community owned vehicles for public use. Although  electric trains, buses and trams would be unable to replace all transportation immediately, the authors propose community sharing of a sustainable number of EVs through car clubs and publicly available vehicles linked to smartphones. Such a proposal is not difficult to envisage through the nationalisation of companies like Uber.

A green transition in industry

With regards to heavy industry and manufacturing, a vast amount of carbon is emitted because of the heat necessary to create the primary materials of concrete, steel, aluminium, copper, plastics, chemicals and oil refining. Globally, the steel industry alone is responsible for 11% of annual CO2-e, while plastic generates 2.5 tonnes of CO2-e per tonne, plus a further 2.7 tonnes of CO2-e if that single tonne is incinerated at the end of its life. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is currently being promoted by both industry and governments as ‘the answer’, but as the authors point out, ‘after 30 years of development it has barely progressed past the basic research or demonstration stages and therefore cannot deliver rapidly enough or at sufficient scale to provide the levels of mitigation agreed by national laws and international declarations’. In other words, it is a busted flush being peddled by the ruling class to maintain business as usual.

While some new industrial processes, such as electric arc furnaces to replace coal or coke-fired blast furnaces to smelt steel are available, the main emphasis in industry needs to be on development of alternatives to concrete and steel in construction and reduction of single use plastics in manufacturing. Crucially, however, re-thinking the purpose of industry away from a capitalist model of production for pure profit towards one that meets social need is likely to reduce significantly the amount of unnecessary products and have the biggest impact upon the level of emissions.

The chapter on land use focuses on the problems associated with intensive farming in the UK, especially meat and dairy, and its relationship to the global food system which is dominated by giant multinational corporations. The authors highlight the fact that just four companies now control two thirds of world seed sales and three of these are also in the top four who control 70% of global agrochemical sales. In retail in the UK, supermarkets dominate 95% of food sales with three-quarters bought from the biggest five; Tesco alone accounts for over a quarter of the market.

Much could be done in the UK to reduce the level and impact of emissions through less intensive methods, reduction in chemical usage and a shift away from meat and dairy towards more sustainable food production. A revival in domestic horticulture (fruit and vegetables), for example, which now accounts for only 1% of UK land use and has fallen by a quarter over the last 30 years, could have a significant impact in reducing the amount imported (over half) as well as in cutting the emissions linked to shipping and road haulage. Alongside such measures a National Nature Service, employing around 70,000 workers to restore the depleted landscape and increase biodiversity could create stimulating jobs dedicated to recovery of both rural and city environments.

The chapter on reduction and management of waste goes to the heart of a key problem associated with capitalist production; the stimulus to produce goods in vast quantities, often for single use, is to make profits rather than to fulfil a social need. There is no incentive, therefore, to manufacture commodities that last or can be repaired or recycled without having to be remanufactured (for a profit!).

The authors point out that local councils currently have the job of managing the monumental amount of waste generated in the UK and only 45% of this is recycled or composted. Incineration is widely used as an alternative to landfill, but this produces its own emissions and excess heat that is greater than coal-fired power stations. They propose the creation of around 83,000 jobs coordinated by the National Climate Service that take a collective, community-based approach to repair and refurbish more goods as part of a ‘circular economy’. 

“Climate struggle is class struggle”

In the final chapter, the authors urge activists to raise the issue of climate jobs in our workplaces and popularise how some of the proposals in the booklet could be implemented both to reduce carbon emissions in each sector and support the transition to a zero-carbon economy. They urge workers to become active in both local and national campaigning that links issues around job security to the need for strategic and transformative change, and cite the Lucas Plan for alternative manufacturing developed by workers at Lucas Aerospace in 1976 as an example of what could be achieved.

Although the pamphlet doesn’t fully explore its significance, the Lucas Plan serves as a crucial example of the role working class people can play in challenging and eventually replacing the destructive rule of capitalism, and what can be achieved if production were based on democratic control and human needs, rather than profit. 

Ultimately, Climate Jobs: Building a workforce for the climate emergency stops short of demanding the measures necessary to break the power of the capitalist class whose interests are protected by the Tories, as well as social democratic governments around the world. While correctly highlighting the source of the problem and what could be achieved with rational planning, it dodges the issue of how the energy companies and how those that manufacture and supply the carbon heavy goods and food products can be brought to heel. While correctly raising the issue of public ownership of energy, transport, and some key industries, it avoids the question of how the power can be wrested away from those currently in control, except by reference to government ‘intervention’, coordination and regulation through the National Climate Service. 

Socialist Alternative members are active in both the Trade Unions and the climate movement and, where possible, we seek to link the minimum demands for jobs and security to the maximum demand for a socialist transformation of society. This booklet provides some useful resources for making those links. We should add, however, the fundamental need for workers to realise their potential as the only force capable of breaking the power of the capitalist class.