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Why being green does not mean being poor

Climate Justice Collective’s Alex Granger dispels the myth that investment in renewables is behind rising energy costs
July 2012

Protesting at British Gas headquarters

Again and again, energy companies – and the politicians, think tanks and corporate media in their pockets – hammer home the message that being green is going to mean being poor. The energy industry's claim is that renewables are more expensive than fossil fuels; inaction on the climate is justified under the auspices of bringing down the bills, while inaction on fuel poverty is justified under the auspices of cooling down the planet. These lies, told in order to maintain business as usual, have recently come under increasing pressure from some in the environmental movement who are keen to stress that fuel poverty and climate change arise from a common cause and must be tackled together.

However, much of the environmental discourse in the public domain falls trap to the industry's spin. A recent post on the Guardian Environment blog by Duncan Clark offered a plea for caution within the environmental movement around calls for cheaper energy. As one of the groups criticised in this blog – the Climate Justice Collective – ('a new climate change direct action group') we felt the need to respond.

Our bills are not being driven up by the cost of renewables but, rather, by the rising cost of fossil fuels. According to a recent report by the government's Committee on Climate change, the investment in low-carbon energy accounted for just 7 per cent of the rise in the cost of energy between 2004 and 2010 (pg 6). 64 per cent of this price hike was caused by the rise in the wholesale price of gas (pg 4).

In his blog post, though, Clark attempts to use this same report to support his insistence that renewable energy is more expensive than polluting alternatives. According to Clark, the report tells us that renewable subsidies and carbon taxes will add more to bills than rising gas prices in the coming decade. But this is simply false: the report says that low-carbon measures will add £110 to bills by 2020, in comparison to £175 from rising gas prices (pg 5).

The report in question does, as Clark points out, predict that low-carbon investment will account for 20 per cent of domestic electricity bills by 2020 (pg 17). But the report was written prior to the release of recent research from the LSE, which forecasts that the cost of wind power is set to dramatically fall in the next few years. Secondly, even if the report's prediction is accurate, this does not support Clark's conclusion that renewables are more expensive than fossil fuels. The rising price of fossil fuels has been the main driver of bill rises in the past decade and is set to continue escalating. Even if the cost of renewables was to make up a fifth of electricity bills by the end of the decade, this does not mean that bills would not have been higher should we have replaced this new low-carbon energy with more fossil fuels. Clark seems to ignore the introduction to the report, which explicitly states that the evidence 'disproves' the claim 'that future huge investments in low-carbon capacity will drive very dramatic increases in energy bills by 2020' (pg 6).

In all, Clark's blog fails to give us any reason to think that avoiding climate change must inevitably lead to higher energy bills. But the problems don't end there. The view pressed throughout seems to be that people are in a position that would allow them to choose to pay more for their energy, should they be persuaded of the benefits of renewables. Our mission, says Clark, has to be to 'make people care sufficiently about climate change that they're prepared to pay more for energy '. Is the suggestion here really that the millionsof people that have to choose between heating and eating in the winter should, in fact, be choosing between heating, eating and investing in clean energy? When rocketing energy costs threaten your life and livelihood how could anything – even the threat of global climate catastrophe – persuade you that you should be paying even more for your energy?

The problem is that the rule of the market makes energy access dependent upon ability to pay. This means that the people who are in a position to pay more for their energy – wealthy individuals and powerful corporations – have their excessive and intensely polluting consumption habits subsidised by the poor who are left to freeze. No-one is saying that the solution here is cheaper bills for all. The point is that we need to fundamentally change the way that our energy system – and the economy and society at large – are organised so that energy decisions are made not on the basis of profit but, rather, on the basis of securing people's rights to heating, eating and other essentials.

What many environmentalists are starting to realise, particularly in light of the latest global failure at Rio+20, is that addressing climate change will require systemic overhaul in this same direction. It is now the energy companies, not politicians, that call the shots, as is evidenced by recent exposés of the Big Six exercising influence over the government through lending staff, informal consultations and buying access to secret lobbying meetings. The energy companies' business-models are built on fossil fuel extraction as this is most profitable for them. So, as long as the energy companies retain their monopoly power and influence, politicians will keep on the fossil fuel bandwagon. And, as 'conventional' modes of extraction become more difficult, fossil fuels will keep on getting more polluting and more expensive.

The profit-driven fossil fuel economy is the root cause of both climate change and fuel poverty. As long as our energy is a commodity designed, first and foremost, to generate private profit, our needs for warm homes and a safe environment will be sidelined. But what if communities reclaimed control, begun to generate their own renewable energy and distributed it according to need, not ability to pay? In fact, this is already happening across the country in the form of energy co-ops springing up everywhere from Brixton to Brighton, Bristol to Manchester. By building our own alternatives like these in the context of a growing broader movement for the radical reorganisation of society along democratic, fair and sustainable lines, we can make a start on tackling both poverty and climate change together.

Building a movement with the numbers and relevance necessary to take on this task, however, means rejecting an environmentalism that refuses to call for cheaper energy for those being deprived of their basic needs by rising bills. As well as swallowing the lies of the fossil fuel industry, this type of environmentalism can only alienate the very people we need on board, ensuring that the twin crises of rising bills and rising sea levels will just keep getting ever-deeper. Instead, we need a climate justice approach which acknowledges the shared systemic causes of environmental destruction and poverty and sees the pursuit of ecological goals and social justice as inseparable.


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Guest 5 July 2012, 16.21

I’m sorry but I think you’re wrong. Though many of your criticisms of the energy industry are justified, this article spectacularly misses the bigger picture.

We in the west will have to give up some of material wealth and shrink our economies in order to lower our ecological footprint. For us in the west becoming green does mean becoming poorer.

Here’s the correlation between GDP and ecological footprint:

What we need to aim for is the bottom right hand corner on this graph:

(Currently the only country that has reached that point is Cuba, though Costa Rica comes out best in the NEF’s happy planet index)

This is the logic behind the principle of convergence and contraction. We in the west must share our wealth with the rest of the world to ensure sustainability, and realise that good lives don’t have to cost the earth.

That is the only sound solution which will meet the key goals of social justice whilst also reducing our ecological footprint

Steppenwolf 7 July 2012, 21.12

Disagree with the disagreement, since it is based on the presumption of the continued dominance of medieval capitalistic economics and their exploitative destructive and undemocratic institutions.

The truth is material wealth can be produced in abundance, and especially base necessities, with minimal negative ecological impact IF this is based on a sustainable for-need basis as determined by both individuals and communities democratically.

That’s not how national economies run today (or ever have, despite what various fraudulent regimes have claimed). Instead, today, people are exploited and manipulated into buying things that are sub-quality and don’t last, and don’t even really benefit from (all while the majority in the world is forced to starve and live on far less than what they deserve) due to the exploitation of labour and the drive of dictatorial profiteering agencies to accumulate ever more wealth and market control at everyone else’s expense.

The proof here is, while all national economies have been capitalist-dominated in various forms (again, despite what various fraudulent regimes have claimed), we see that the most practical socialistic-influenced ones, like the highly unionized social-democratic-oriented ones in Nordic Europe, have been the most successful overall in cleaning up their acts and reducing their eco-footprint, as well as maintaining the highest living standards and greatest degrees of liberty on the globe.

Dave Timms 9 July 2012, 22.10

Nice article. I actually don’t think Alex Granger and Duncan Clark are very far apart.

One really exciting impact of renewables is their ability to actually drive down the price of fossil fuel generated power. Once they’re built (which obviously does cost money) their output is virtually free. This means when they are generating the renewable power is the cheapest thing in the wholesale electricity market, driving down the demand for fossil-fuel generated power and thus its price.

So, far from pushing up the price of electricity the renewables are actually pushing it down.

This Bloomberg article sets out the dramatic impact that renewables are having in Germany in driving down the price of power and challenging the whole way the power market works.

pascoe sabido 30 July 2012, 14.18

And in response to the first disagreement, I think it’s how we define ‘poor’ – what do we measure poor and rich by, GDP? Purchasing power? Purchasing what?

Without spouting new economics at this, it’s difficult not to: beyond an average of £15,000 per head per year, increasing a country’s GDP does not increase wellbeing ( We’re stuck in a system of measuring consumption in an age where we need to reduce consumption – I’d hope we therefore do get poorer, and instead attach value to other measurements, like time (see timebanks as a way of reciprocal exchange using time as a currency –

We’re lacking a conversation around valuing what matters – the social and environmental, as well as just the economic. And by what time-lines are we talking: current neoliberal economics rewards short-termism, despite its long-term ludicracy even on only economic terms. We’re all going to be incredibly poor if we don’t deal with climate change.

Without this, the meaning of rich and poor, what being made poorer means (WHO is poorer – is this not a question of redistribution?) and how we accept or reject this, is dishonest and will only continue our current economic model.

Comments are now closed on this article.

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