Richard Lane: The sanctity of growth is blocking our future

Contributing to our special week of coverage on the Climate Emergency, Richard Lane from Extinction Rebellion Glasgow says that if the economic bottom line continues to be growth, climate action will not get close to tackling the extent of the ecological crisis we face

THERE can’t be anyone now who doesn’t appreciate that we’re living in a period of ecological emergency. Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Strike for Climate movement have successfully shifted the political consensus from a sort of non-committal lip-service to the point where denying the crisis puts you beyond the pale.

We have heard declarations of climate emergency from the parliaments of Scotland, the UK, France, Ireland and 549 local authorities worldwide. But let’s be clear-eyed about this: these declarations represent political decisions about what will go down well with the public, not a binding commitment to tackle the problem. They are a symbolic gesture, but it would be a different kind of narrow-mindedness to deny that symbols have meaning. 

Cynics love to point to Scotland’s target to meet 100 per cent of its energy consumption from renewables - by using an annual figure it hides the fact that much of the renewable energy generated here is traded out to the rest of the UK whilst non-renewable generation still does much of the heavy lifting at times of high demand. The danger is in presenting that target as an endpoint or a solution, rather than a symbolic milestone. So it is with Climate Emergency.

READ MORE: Government in an age of Climate Emergency: Is it time for carbon budgets?

The real challenge is to get politicians to change their default setting, which for the past half-century has been ‘grow the economy’. The left sees it as the way to improve social welfare, the right as a way to preserve social order. Experience this century has shown us that it does neither. Nicola Sturgeon’s declaration that the SNP would bring about a Green New Deal in Scotland, made even as Extinction Rebellion activists were occupying the streets of London, included the determination that the policy would make Scotland a wealthier nation. Robin McAlpine in his article for CommonSpace has ably highlighted the untenable position of the SNP in trying to support the Growth Commission whilst tackling social and environmental breakdown.

There’s no doubt that we need something like a Green New Deal. The list of jobs is long: our housing stock is in no state to get us to a carbon neutral world (and that includes most new builds happening even now), we need to electrify transport and heating, install more renewable generation - but the biggest, clearest and most difficult demand is that we need to simply consume less. Reducing our ecological footprints to something like a fair share of the planet’s resources will be a bump, but if that doesn’t happen, nothing else will work. Growth will wipe out every efficiency gain that we hear trumpeted in the media. Despite diligent incubation from a generation of economists and politicians, the Green Growth unicorn is yet to be hatched from its jewelled egg.

Growth and profit are the default strategies for business as they are for governments. Let’s not forget that economic growth is even written into the UN Sustainable Development Goals - a contradiction that should elicit daily facepalming from all of us. Faced with a huge challenge, the instinct is to treat it as an opportunity for expansion. If we financialise the problem, the current thinking seems to be, we can use the same ingenuity that has made some people incredibly rich to solve this problem too.

READ MORE: Helen Smith: If this is a Climate Emergency, developers can no longer be allowed to destroy natural habitats

The complexity of the issue is certainly no barrier. To use an example from my area: the problem of maintaining a secure electricity supply was historically a state concern. Now ‘liberalised’, the problem of co-ordinating this is a huge logistical and legalistic undertaking, far too complex for a single simple trading market in which electricity generators simply sell to consumers. The response to this complexity? More markets. A flood of separate trading markets has been created: day-ahead, half-hour day-ahead, intra-day continuous (base, industrial peak, extended peak and off-peak), the base and peak front markets (month, quarter and season), the balancing market and the capacity market (on pause following an ECJ ruling) - and then there’s the trading of Renewables Obligation Certificates and ancillary services for things like frequency and blackstart. After all, you can’t have too much of a good thing.

To me, this seems an absurd response. It makes as much sense as if 17th century Venice had decided to use its skills in glassware against the Barbary pirates raiding for slaves. Opportunism is far too often confused with problem solving. The shiny disruptive new energy companies harnessing digitalisation and smart technologies to innovate and decentralise within the energy sector are endlessly lauded. We have pilot innovation projects into local energy, home retrofitting, demand responsiveness, and energy storage, and of course we need intelligent analysis and evidence driven policy. But as long as the top priority is the bottom line, these efforts are just doodling in the margins of the problem that faces us. Renewables can obviously compete economically with conventional generation (sunlight is cheaper than coal), but the problem of intermittency and managing the infrastructure is an expensive one to crack, and no amount of money-go-round will change that.

Achieving carbon neutrality is entirely technically possible. Achieving it with (global) social equity is a challenge. Achieving it with global social equity whilst staying within all our other planetary limits will be difficult. But achieving all of this with growth is impossible.

Richard Lane is long-time campaigner on environmental and social justice issues and an activist with Extinction Rebellion Glasgow. Having been a company director and chair of a small renewable energy NGO he is now studying an MSc in Renewable Energy at the University of Strathclyde.

Picture courtesy of Education International

COMMONSPACE FORUM 30 MAY: Climate Emergency: How do we turn words into actions?