The world is in a state of frustration and flux.
From the rise of Trump and the growing threat of the far right in the UK, to Brexit and the paralysis of Parliament – we see writ large the consequences of a generational failure of politicians who have ignored the real life concerns of the people they are elected to represent.
That frustration and flux shows no signs of abating and in no arena will the calls for action grow louder than in energy and around climate change.
In France, the Yellow Vest movement has taken to the streets, decrying the increasing cost of living, their pivotal grievance a tax on fuel. On our shores, the Extinction Rebellion protests have brought London to a standstill and show how angry people are about the lack of Government action on climate change.
On both sides of the Atlantic, that political inaction has led to the rise of a new generation of politicians – like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – revitalizing and reinvigorating the Green New Deal, an idea and movement initially grown out of the financial crash over a decade ago.
GMB represents tens of thousands of energy workers in traditional energy industries – we were formed as a gas workers’ union – so you might expect me to debunk the Green New Deal and argue for the status quo, but I won’t. In fact, I welcome it.
Decarbonisation is a good idea. I have kids; I want the planet still to be here for them when they’re old and grey, and for their kids too. It shouldn’t be seen as radical to want an energy solution that reduces emissions, creates decent jobs, keeps the lights on and the economy moving and doesn’t fleece the average bill payer. It should be political, economic and moral common sense – alas it is not so to the current UK government.
Instead, we have a pie in the sky announcement from the Chancellor that the government plans to ban natural gas for central heating in new homes. Underneath the soundbite, there is no detail about how that could practically be achieved because – rather blindingly obviously - people still need to heat their homes. When it comes to existing stock, GMB members would love to fit a new boiler in every home in the UK. But, practically, that would mean spending thousands per household and then, with electricity three times as expensive as gas, risks trebling heating bills. Imagine the reaction of the Gilets Jaunes to that?
Insulating homes is pound for pound the cheapest and quickest way to achieve rapid and meaningful UK emissions reductions. Where is the government plan for that? The number of homes being insulated has fallen by over 90%.
The UK needs a fleet of new nuclear power stations to make emissions reductions a reality. Nuclear is efficient and it’s clean, it creates jobs and keeps bills low. Government policy on this has become a farce. Instead we are investing in a system of costly electricity interconnectors to carry energy from other EU countries to UK homes. It makes no sense.
Ultra-low carbon green gases, like hydrogen, can be produced and stored when we have more wind-generated electricity than we need rather than, as we do now, paying wind generators not to produce. We can utilise hydrogen in our existing gas infrastructure protecting jobs and making gas cleaner. That combined with investment in storage could be game changing.
We all want to see more green collar jobs – their creation is possible - but right now they are just not materialising. We risk continuing down a perilous route where we increase the proportion of renewable energy in the mix but the jobs don’t follow, hollowing out communities and seeing bill payers subsidise inefficiency in production and jobs overseas through their bills. By 2022, the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimates that each UK household will contribute £10 per week on their bills to pay for renewables subsidies – that’s money from people’s pockets to create jobs in multi-nationals overseas.
BiFab in Fife is a case in point. It is a manufacturing company that should be a hub for the low carbon economy with well-paid, highly skilled jobs that would drive the local economy. Instead its yards lie empty, many of its workers laid off, because billions of pounds worth of contracts – for turbines to be based off the coast of Scotland - have been awarded to overseas companies. A painful irony is that a number of the successful bidders are backed by state support in their homelands, while our government refuses to intervene or to invest and we continue to import fracked gas and dirty fuel from regimes with less than stellar track records on workers’ rights. BiFab isn’t an isolated incident, it’s become typical of the sector and as a result the vast majority of cash spent on renewables in this country has passed our economy by - wind turbines manufactured in Scandinavia, transported to Britain on Dutch barges and connected into our grid with Chinese cables.
Rather than fearing the move to decarbonisation, UK workers and unions would embrace it if the opportunities associated with it were realised, but when you look at the state of the sector and the lack of government action now, as an energy worker would you be willing to take a leap of faith on a ‘just transition’ based on the promises of politicians? Union members will be sceptical of any change until it looks like a real plan for jobs, livelihoods and communities.
Our members care about saving the planet, as much as anyone, but they do not react well to flippant quips like “there are no jobs on a dead planet” – often made by those in positions of personal economic security and comfort – when it’s their jobs on the line or their bills that can’t be paid.
In the 1930s, political will, leadership and large scale government investment changed the course of US history and forged a new political and electoral coalition with working people at its heart. The same potential exists now to unite Green New Dealers and the labour movement around the economic, not just climate, necessities of decarbonisation.
Tim Roache is the general secretary of GMB