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Production, jobs and climate change: one story

Drax power station in Yorkshire, the UK’s largest single CO2 emitter and the site of the first-ever climate camp and numerous actions since, this week announced a fall in profits for the first quarter of 2009, due to a collapse in demand caused by the recession.

The power generator’s profits for the first quarter of 2009 were £34m against £150m in the same quarter last year. Demand overall for its electricity was down 6.1%, and most significantly, demand from industry was down 8.2%. Long closures and shorter working at car factories and companies making vehicle parts, was the major factor.

As climate campaigners in Scotland yesterday put out of action a conveyor belt that takes 100,000 tonnes of open cast coal from Glentaggart to power stations like Drax, this profit collapse is something worth thinking about.

It is an excellent example of how a reduction in production of goods, such as vehicles, reduces the need for power. It underlines that only a global transformation in the quantity, durability and materials content of the goods human society produces to meet its needs, can make an immediate reduction in global emissions of greenhouse gases.

However, as long as these reductions take place within the social context of capitalist enterprise, the impact of a cut in production is devastating for those workers who rely on these industries for a living.

Over the same period that Drax experienced its slump in demand, the number of people in work in the UK fell by 271,000, the biggest quarterly drop since comparable records began in 1971. Young people have been particularly hard hit, with the unemployment rate in the 18-24 age group reaching 16.6%, its highest point since 1993. The highest rate of unemployment is in the West Midlands, the UK’s manufacturing heartland, where 9.3% of people are now out of work.

However, new car sales rose this month, as a result of the government’s scrappage scheme. A total of 157,149 new cars were registered in July - an increase of 2.4% on the July 2008 figure, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

The government itself admits while the scheme MAY deliver a small reduction in emissions as a result of people buying more fuel efficient cars , the real purpose was to boost the car industry.

And it won’t reduce emissions. As a report from the Campaign for Integrated Transport explains: “Technical improvement in engine efficiency is vital, but it cannot meet the [government’s climate change] targets alone, not least because the fuel saving from more efficient vehicles will of itself lead to an offsetting increase in travel. It needs to be said quite simply that transport will not effectively contribute to carbon reduction unless the growth trends in private car use and air travel are changed....”

The reality is that we cannot unpick the economic devastation that capitalism is wreaking on people’s lives and livelihoods from its destruction of environment and eco-systems. They are an interconnected whole and need to be tackled in that way.

Workers who occupied the Vestas wind turbine plant in the Isle of Wight and car workers in South Korea who took over their plant and fought pitched battles to defend jobs, have everything in common though the products they make couldn’t be more different.

Both struggles raise the central issue of who owns and controls production. While these resources remain in the hands of shareholders who demand year-on-year profit increases, there are no real prospects of tackling climate change or the misery of mass unemployment.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
7 August 2009

David Douglass, former branch secretary, Hatfield NUM says:

The climate campers who are making coal  their number one target are essentially ignorant of the facts on climate change and global warming and the central causes of it.  They take a wildly eccentric view of mining, considering it to be some form of vivisection, that we are hurting the earth, by mining coal and other minerals. While they join protests under the heading of ‘saving jobs’ in ocean wind turbines, they call for and try to achieve shut downs of coal power stations, open cast mines and deep mines. The only realistic approach to the contribution coal makes to global warming, and coal isn’t the worst offender by the way, is clean coal technology. They hate the idea of clean coal technology, because it might work and allow mines and mining to continue. These are Thatcher’s grandchildren, still middle class and privileged, still autocratic and they still hate the miners, so mummy and daddykins will be so proud.

Penny Cole, Environment editor, A World to Win says:

The Welsh and Scottish climate camps were against opencast mines. The Welsh camp was joined by local residents fighting expansion of a site right next to their homes, which is already damaging their health and quality of life.

The expansion of mining in the UK these days is mainly open cast, where coal is dragged out of the ground at minimum cost, offering minimum employment opportunities and with scant concern for people or the environment. In the first three months of this year, the amount of coal dug from UK opencast mines increased by 15%, and coal imports also increased by nearly 13%.

There is no plan for significant investment in deep mines in Britain. What’s more, there is no intention on the part of energy corporations to seriously invest in clean coal either. It is just a smokescreen behind which New Labour ministers can hide whilst allowing new coal-fired power stations. Not to say that improved ways of using coal are impossible for ever – but the capitalist class won’t do it if it reduces their profits.

Clean coal is just one of a number of optimistic scenarios governments rely on, so they can continue to push action on climate change further into the future, when it is needed now.

The problem we are all facing – which unites workers and climate campaigners and millions of public sector workers now facing a jobs massacre - is the impossibility of making any progress, on any front, within the existing system.

Dave Douglass is firing at the wrong target when he rants against climate activists but says not a word about New Labour. Climate change is not a middle class fantasy – it’s a scientific fact. New Labour won't base energy policy on that fact, however. New coal-fired powers stations are being built in the interests of the corporations, not in the interests of British miners. I think we know how much the state, including the New Labour government, cares about them.

The miners’ year-long struggle showed in stark terms, that any group that challenges the status quo, will face the full force of a violent state. The climate protesters have also had a taste of that, including the activities of the intelligence services, just as the miners did.

The discussion we had at the climate camp in Wales was about  the challenge of ending the capitalist system and establishing the kind of democracy where decisions are taken in the interests of the majority. There was no support for Thatcherism or New Labourism and there were people there of all ages and classes. That's not to claim we worked out all the answers - but at least we were trying to move things forward, not remain trapped in the past.

As far as A World to win is concerned, we’re not against clean coal – but we are against fantasy clean coal as a way of avoiding energy planning to reduce carbon emissions.

Peter Arkell, co-author Unfinished Business – the miners’ strike for jobs 1984-5 says:

Clean coal technology was being developed in UK at the time of the miners’ strike as far as I remember, and the centre of development is now is South Africa, I think. Like most of these issues, carbon capture, which involves turning the CO2 into liquid, and the removal of sulphur dioxide in the chimney, and other technologies too - both emitted during the burning of coal in power stations - is expensive but possible, and feasible only under socialism. There is a state-owned clean coal-burning power station in Germany, but as far as I know, the energy it produces is expensive. Also, of  course, coal can be chemically changed into other essential organic compounds without releasing much CO2, and will always be worth mining for that reason alone. In the recent spat between Arthur Scargill and George Monbiot, the latter said, as far as I remember that the clean burning of coal was an impossibility. My guess is that he is wrong - whatever you burn produces CO2 in large quantities and it must be an option to carry on burning things for energy production if it can be made clean, at least until other ways of harnessing the energy from the sun and wind are practical.

Ray Rising, co-author Unfinished Business – the miners’ strike for jobs 1984-5 says:

From my perspective I am yet to be convinced that the science has been developed to assure long-term use of coal as non-endangering fuel. But I do have belief in science to resolve the contradiction. Obviously the drive to profitability by capital generally seeks the easiest solutions (cheapest under prevailing world order). But the green standpoint (general planet sustainability), cannot be our sole or over-riding criteria in all conditions.

Hypothetically, if a nation state was to initiate a political regime change that sought socialist policies and subsequently the corporate/imperialist regimes were, in attempting to oppose and starve this nation state of power/heating/food/production, then in the short term I would support the use of coal or whatever to maintain their chosen social order/revolution irrespective of the short-term detriment to the planet. We have to remain flexible on general scenarios whereby political precedence would need to stand opposed to imperial diktats whilst explaining this stance and seeking longer-term answers that could only be introduced with international/social co-operation.

Corinna Lotz, A World to Win secretary says:

It's great that people feel strongly about the green/clean coal debate. It truly poses fundamental questions. Can today's generations - "Thatcher's children" and "Blair's children" - to bring the story up to date - come together to confront the common enemy - the capitalist system and the state which keeps it functioning?

The problem of what energy source - coal, nuclear, wind, wave - is best or cleanest is truly a secondary issue. It is not human beings who are the problem, as James Lovelock (Gaia theory) would have us believe. The real issue is the system - corporate-driven global capitalism. Its drive for growth and production is carried out not for need but for short-term profit. There is no concern for the livelihoods and health of those who create profit or the future of the planet. It is the reckless drive to pillage the earth's resources which causes ecological devastation. And it was the need to crush organised trade union opposition to the rule of profit that led to destruction of the mining industry and miners' jobs.

Eco-campaigners, miners, former miners and all those who are in conflict with the capitalist system - must urgently see their common interests and not be split amongst themselves. We need to create a system which devotes massive resources to create clean, safe fuels in the context of a not-for-profit, co-operatively owned economy and a truly democratic state.

Gerry Gold, co-author of A House of Cards says:

Rather than criticising the climate camp activists, Dave Douglass would be better advised to recognise that trades unionists, local communities and climate activists have a common cause - bringing to an end the social, economic and political system in which companies extract profit from their mining operations irrespective of its impact on the communities living close by, or ecosystems on which we all depend or on the workers they employ.

Ffos y Fran coal mine in Merthyr Tydfil is owned by a joint venture company between The Miller Group - 'the UK's largest privately owned housebuilding, property development and construction business' and Argent - another property developer which claims to 'support our major projects with speculative development and world class public realm.' The catastrophic decline in domestic and commercial property values surely increases the company's dependence on its profits from coal. The joint venture company has a contract worth £150 million with RWE nPower for the coal.

The Scottish Resources Group (SRG) owns the Scottish Coal Company Limited which is the largest coal producer in Scotland and the largest opencast coal mining company in the U. K. It is part owned by Palmaris, a capital investment company whose income is now solely derived from Scottish Coal. SRG is 'a significant owner of strategic land across the central belt of Scotland with some 22,000 acres under ownership' and provides 'what is believed to be the one of the largest heavy earth moving fleets in Europe'.

Climate activists have a pretty good idea of where the problem lies and what needs to be done.

The Scottish Climate Camp's website invited people to join them 'to take direct action against the root causes of climate change and ecological collapse. This summer the struggle against a capitalist system intent on extinguishing life on the planet will hit central Scotland.'

They say 'In a time of epoch-making economic and environmental change, we're going to be making direct changes for the better. We'll be taking control of our lives, of our society, and standing up for what we believe in. We refuse to believe the greedy polluters and financiers when they say it's just not the right time to clean up their act. We'll clean it up for them!'

'The Camp will be a living example of collective, imaginative low-impact living, full of practical solutions. Its not just about plastic bags and light bulbs any more, these things isolate us and distract us from the real problems. Instead, we will work together to build strong, sustainable and powerful communities.'

That's an excellent starting point for building towards the critical mass of a global movement that can challenge private ownership, transferring the world's resources to common property so that decisions about production and energy generation can be determined democratically, informed by science rather than profit.

Fiona says:

This is a great discussion. To defend Dave Douglass for the moment, it should be realised that he is in fact a) against open-cast mining and b) that he never recognised anything other than the need for "TUs, local communities and climate activists" to come together in the common cause of bringing down the current social, economic and political system. Following link is to an interview about his involvement with climate camp last year. But also ranges over issues to do with the state and capitalism.

James says:

I think we can all agree that there's little point in getting bogged down in discussing which energy sources are least or most polluting until such time as we can do something about it.

Until then, it's a matter of discussing which tactics are appropriate in achieving change. I don't see how shutting down power supply a challenge to big business - unless it is by the power workers themselves.

If I can be a little reformist for a moment, there must be some effort towards getting public authorities to invest in renewable energy and support co-ownership.

Danny The Red says:

I didnt rant against British Coal and New Labour and the Tories and opencast, and a thousand and one other things on this occassion, because this was a two paragraph responce to the Climate Camp's anti coal campaign. Ive ranted against the other things all my life as is well known. The NUM holds a position of being against open cast coal mining where drifts and shallow (deep) mines can mine the coal, which is much of the time. Weve campaigned against open cast in favour of traditional mining. The Climate Camp doesnt take this position, they are against coal mining per sae. 60/70 million tonnes of coal come into Britian per year, equivilent to all the mines John Major closed in 92/3 equivilent to all the unemployed miners and our kids who have followed us into the mines and the NUM. We call for 'fair trade' on coal imports, union rights, ILO recognised safety and health provisions, and decent wages or no imports.

The climate camp doesnt take that position, it is against all coal, native or foriegn, union or non union, safe or unsafe. British Coal has no long term faith in the industry, has no plan for expansion into the billions of tonnes of coal reserves we know about, and possibly billions we dont. We call for the renationalisation of the coal and energy industry under workers control, they call for its total closure. They have no intention of listening to us or adopting any of the demands of the mining communities.

We support clean coal technology, which is being developed at this present moment at my own colliery Hatfield Main. It will extract 100% of CO2 and 98% of all other emissions. It is a vision for a clean coal future world wide but the government gives it no support, for the simply reason they hate the miners as much as the Tories and it seems the climate camp do. We support sustainable energy sources which are not themselves damaging to the environment, such as the land based turbines in national parks and unspoiled natural environments on moors and mountain, so beloved of the climate campers. Offshore and on brown field sites OK but more particularly for the development of Solar and geo-thermal. But only clean coal can make that link and transition. The Climate Camp does not have a socialist perspective or composition.

Penny Cole, Environment editor, A World to Win says:

The National Union of Mineworkers is right to fight for clean coal and the survival of what is left of their industry - that is their job and AWTW supports them. But as I pointed out in my first comment, the expansion in coal at present is of open-cast and imported coal. More coal-fired power stations will not lead to any increase in mining jobs in Britain. There are no profit-driven market solutions to climate change OR to the problems facing miners. We need new democratic structures, that work for sustainable energy in practice, and not just in words. In that framework, we can unite many differing interests to tackle the problems of both climate change and jobs. The urgent challenge is to stop wasting our time trying to get the capitalist state to reform itself on our behalf, and focus instead on this revolutionary transformation. That's what AWTW will be saying in our presentation at the London climate camp "Composting the Capitalist State".

James says:

The Climate Camp are coming at the issue from a different angle, but may reach the same conclusions as the NUM, AWTW, etc.

I agree with Penny's statement:

"We need new democratic structures, that work for sustainable energy in practice, and not just in words. In that framework, we can unite many differing interests to tackle the problems of both climate change and jobs."

But am confused about the last bit:

"The urgent challenge is to stop wasting our time trying to get the capitalist state to reform itself on our behalf, and focus instead on this revolutionary transformation"

The transformation involves making transitional demands - fighting for reforms that will make the difference in tipping the balance of power towards working people - as well as the self-activity in building institutions to serve our needs.

What interests me is how much the "actually existing" cooperative movement could assist with the development of clean coal technologies. I am aware of cooperative renewable energy developments, and don't see why clean coal would not be a worthwhile investment for the cooperative group.

This last thought struck me as I listened to Ian Lavery speak at the Miners' Gala this year.

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