The following piece is submitted by Nikola Bryce of the Workers Party Writers Group as a contribution towards the development of our policy in this area.
Net Zero is a class issue
Climate change: real or imaginary; a cyclical phenomena of nature; man made; or a nefarious scheme conjured up by Davos where we become the carbon that needs reducing. Wherever one stands on the climate change debate, net zero is here to stay.
Net zero is a working class issue. Trying to make ends meet is a Sisyphean task for millions in the UK. A workers’ standard of living has been assailed from all sides. An unprecedented wage stagnation following the 2008 banking crash has left British workers £11,000 worse off per year, whilst Covid led to the biggest economic contraction in recorded history.
Prior to NATO’s proxy Ukraine war, inflation was at a 30-year high. However, it is now at a 40-year high according to economist and commentator Liam Halligan. This has further eroded the value of wages, leaving workers struggling to find the money to pay for overpriced necessities such as heating, shelter and food in order to boost the insatiable appetites of corporate capitalism’s profiteers.
The Resolution Foundation in March 2023 stated: “… Nobody who’s alive and working in the British economy today has ever seen anything like this, and the toxic combination of low growth and high inequality has left poorer households particularly exposed.”
The tale of two classes
Rishi Sunak’s net zero backtracking might be down to the lack of political chutzpah to face working class Britons at the next general election with what the Guardian has referred to as “the political consensus of net zero” – or he had a sudden attack of common sense. Regardless, the U-turn, whilst seen by many who can afford net zero as a betrayal, was a welcome relief by those who cannot.
The Energy Act (EA) 2023 was supported by all wings of the Westminster Uni-Party system. Rushed through Parliament with the kind of scrutiny Cleopatra applied when burying her hand in a basket of figs, there were only two hours to debate a 426 page legal document and 146 amendments with no debate on the Third reading due to a packed agenda.
Working class Britons cannot afford net zero as it currently stands. Poverty in the UK has more than doubled in the past thirty years. Fifteen million homes currently do not meet net zero’s revised 2035 energy EPC ‘C’ rating. Whilst there are schemes available to help low income households and homes in fuel poverty by offering energy efficient home improvements, there are still 7 million UK citizens living in fuel poverty.
The Guardian reported recently, that following the Tory abandonment of the zero carbon homes standard: “About 1.5 million homes are estimated to have been built without these low carbon fittings since 2015…” and “saved house builders £15 billion by the most conservative estimate.” This gives us some sense of the colossal figures involved in project net zero.
Many are potentially under threat of being criminalised by the EA ‘23. The National Review reported: “… Property owners who fail to comply with new energy efficiency rules could face… up to a year in prison and fines of up to £15,000.”
Sunak’s U-turn on home and car owner net zero compliance by 2030 may only have suspended the crack of the judges’ gavel for another five years. We are reassured by the net zero pundits of grant schemes to help out with costs. Whilst Sunak’s U-turn increased the heat pump grant of £5,000 to £7,500, the £150 million pot remains the same, excluding thousands of would-be applicants.
Whilst one Scottish Green MP described Sunak’s net zero U-turn as “… devastating for the people of the UK…” and “nothing short of evil.” The MailOnline reported in August 2021, Dr Bradbrook, a leading light in Extinction Rebellion, when questioned about her car and whether it was electric said: “No, because I can’t afford it. But if somebody wants to give me £5,000 you can convert my car to electric… I don’t have the money at the minute.” News outlets reported in April 2023 the good Doctor was still driving a diesel car.
Please sir, can I have some more?
Net zero has exposed a gaping fissure of inequality within British society. Cocooned in Westminster, MPs receive a salary of £86,584 plus expenses, £131,431,46, the highest claim from April 2022 to March 2023. Whilst families across the country are struggling to put food on the table, an MP can claim an overnight food expense of £25. This whilst 800,000 thousand children in poverty did not qualify for a free school meal according to the Child Poverty Action Group as reported in June 2022.
Caroline Lucas MP’s recent fulmination in the Guardian against Sunak’s U-turn said he had: “… managed to unite businesses, the energy sector, car manufacturers, environmental groups and the general public against him.”
Recent research carried out by Virgin Media O2 found that: “More than a third of workers in the United Kingdom are only one paycheck away from serious hardship…” Finding an extra few thousand quid inclusive of any government grants or schemes for an electric car, heat pump and other carbon neutral accoutrements is an impossibility for millions in the UK, even with the fear tactics of fines or incarceration.
The metropolitan elite who hold dominion over the corporate media and the graduate class employed in positions of influence in many of our national institutions that shape, disseminate and dominate the net zero narrative may concur with Ms Lucas, but many of the general public living in breadline Britain, whilst agreeing climate change needs addressing, cannot afford it.
Transport: The good, the bad and the downright immoral
Following the launch of Ulez in April 2019 to September 2021 close to a million Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) were issued. Whilst the scheme generated £224,633,003 in 2022 it has also generated a lot of anger and resentment with nearly 800 cameras damaged or stolen. Those with non-compliant cars and motorcycles pay £12.50 per day when travelling in the Ulez zones in central London and the outer boroughs. Brighton is now exploring the introduction of Ulez whilst Birmingham and Glasgow have launched their own versions of a Low Emission Zone (LEZ).
The Tory government are currently employing the economic model of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ to our national rail network. A rip-off system of rail franchising which simultaneously sees tax payers forking out billions in rail subsidies whilst paying the highest rail fares in Europe.
Transport is currently responsible for 20% of global greenhouse emissions. Rail is the cleanest, fastest, lowest CO2 emitting form of transportation apart from walking or cycling. To put this in context, taking the Eurostar to France rather than a short haul flight will cut your journey’s carbon footprint by 97%.
From 2021 to 2022, 990,000 passenger journeys took place, serving commuters and cross-country travellers. The government backed rail franchise scheme is the cash cow that keeps on giving to these train companies. Were it not for the rail companies’ aspirational goals of lowering safety stands, cutting vital staff, ticket office closures and effective wage cuts for rail workers along with prohibitive ticket pricing, bad service and cancellations, more journeys would be made by train and not by car. Even diesel trains which are still in use are, according to Martha Lawrence, senior railway specialist at the World Bank Group are: “more energy efficient and generate lower emissions per passenger and per ton of goods than almost all movement by road and air.”
Whilst the government imposes costly net zero targets and punitive Ulez schemes on its citizens, many who are already financially crushed, railway bosses are handing 65% of their taxpayer generated profits to shareholders, whilst according to the RMT: “between 2006 and 2022, the train operating companies invested just 1% of the money spent on the railways.”
Most of Europe’s rail networks are publicly owned. Rather than tending to the financial welfare of shareholders, their profits are ploughed back into, amongst things, cheaper fares. To renationalise the railways would in the scheme of things cost little given the state already owns Network Rail, franchises would not be renewed.
An efficient, affordable, nationalised railway system where the profits are ploughed back into the industry along with further investment as promised following the HS2 debacle, will not only make a massive impact on net zero, but on the economic development of the country as well as UK citizens’ daily lives.
Whilst unsurprisingly, the nationalisation of our key public services is popular across the voter political divide, it has fallen on the deaf ears of those in Westminster. The key companies that should be nationalised as a matter of urgency in order to have a measurable impact on net zero are water, transport and energy.
All aspects of UK energy from source to retail should be encompassed in this transition and as such we should look at the following:
- Nationalising the big 5 energy retailers is estimated to cost under £2.85bn. If £3bn of British taxpayers funds were made available for the Bulb bailout they should also be available for nationalisation.
- Adopting a tried and tested Norway style petroleum policy. We Own It suggests: “Tax the oil giants (BP and Shell) permanently at 56%, the same rate as Norway (makes us billions). For every £100 Norway collects in tax on barrels of oil from the North Sea, in the UK we only collect £8.”
- We Own It along with the TUC have suggested a state owned company to generate renewable energy that could: “invest in our wind and water power while creating jobs, boosting the economy and returning a profit back to us… Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, New Zealand, France and Iceland, all have one.”
- The UK is virtually the only country in Europe to have a fully privatised, transmission grid. We Own It suggests: “Bringing the energy grid into public ownership” saving 3.7 billion a year, paying for itself in 7.5 years.
Prior to privatisation in 1989 water companies had zero debt. By the end of March 2022, their total debt according to The Conversation, a not-for-profit journalism project published in June 2023, stands at £60.6bn, in part: “… so that investors could repay themselves part of the original cost of buying the water utility.” In this report, Thames Water, the UK’s biggest water firm, serving a quarter of the population, is given as an example of the current “archetype” model of investors in UK water companies.
“Taken over in 2007… by an Australian investment bank, debts increased over the next ten years from £3.2 billion to £10.7 billion. The proportion of assets funded by borrowing increased to over 80%, while the company paid out dividends of £2.5 billion. The company has previously said that it has a ‘strict, performance-linked dividend policy monitored by Ofwat’.” All this whilst losing the equivalent of up to 250 Olympic size swimming pools every day from its pipes. This is akin to a legalised mafia racket: taking over a business; squeezing as much cash as you can from it; running up debt; resulting in the business being run into the ground.
The Environmental Agency in July 2022 announced: “…the country’s largest ever investigation into environmental crime, involving all the companies, where we are looking at whether they have knowingly and deliberately broken the law in relation to the treatment and discharge of sewage.”
Thames Water is reported by the Daily Mail to be now, “£14 billion in debt following interest rises.” It was reported in June 2023 by the BBC to be: “…in talks to secure extra funding as the government says it is ready to act in a worst case scenario if the company collapses.” There are financial health fears of four more water companies.
Much of the country is angry and fed up with the water companies and their pollution pays practices which rewards CEOs and shareholders for their abject failure. Our rivers and seas are not the property of these water monopolies to pollute at will, receiving a judicial financial slap on the wrist with fines amounting to less than a chief executive’s salary. Good water management is crucial in: reducing carbon emissions; protecting communities from flooding; sewage pollution of coastline and rivers; and our ecosystem.
If the government allows such morally obscene practices to continue and does not nationalise these key industries so inextricably linked to their net zero and climate change targets; choosing instead to allow these corporations to gorge themselves in the British taxpayer funded treasury trough whilst penalising a beleaguered working class Britain; it cannot install any confidence in their commitment to net zero.
Familiarity and contempt
Shining a light on our nationalised industries, illustrates an apathy and disinterest of the government in changing key areas of corporate Britain that could generate meaningful change whilst meeting our international commitments in the fight against climate change. Instead, they choose to protect the interests of corporations and their shareholders.
There is a major imbalance in the net zero debate. All voices in the UK need to be heard and represented, not just those who shout the loudest. Throwing tantrums, pulling publicity stunts, dominating the media which sucks the air out of the voices, views and the experiences of vast swaths of the country is de rigueur for those who control the narrative. We’ve been here before, it’s all too familiar, just replace “gammons” and “little Britons” with “climate change deniers.”