The Climate vs The Market

Merrick, 20th March 2007ce

In the run-up to their demonstration at Exxon’s UK headquarters, Campaign Against Climate Change held a panel talk in London earlier this month titled ‘Is ExxonMobil the World’s Worst Climate Criminal?’. You’ve got to suspect they kind of had their answer ready in advance, but still, the panel looked interesting and it would surely provoke good discussion.

As well as CCC’s national co-ordinator Phil Thornhill, it featured:-

Mika Mina Paluello from oil industry researchers Platform,
Claire Fauset from Corporate Watch,
Jeremy Leggett, ex-Greenpeace, now CEO of Solar Century,
Derek Wall, Male Principal Speaker of the Green Party,
Martin Empson from Respect, and
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment minister.

You couldn't agree with everything all of them said, but they were all largely informed and considered speakers. Except Chris Huhne.

He was very clear that we don’t really want anything that has any government coercion, that he believes – like really believes – in the power of the markets to sort things out.

He talked of how the markets can respond, how some companies are being dinosaurs while others are dynamos. Nice and catchy, don't you think?


His example is Ford the dinosaur versus Toyota the dynamo, because Toyota are building a petrol-electric hybrid car, the feted Prius. You probably already know about it. Toyota have bought massive publicity for it, and of course we all want to carry on with our carbon intensive lives so we love a business-as-usual techno fix like the hybrid.

But the Prius is not an economical car. Huhne’s simply wrong about that.

The American car industry is organised around petrol engines. Even though diesel gives around a third more miles to the gallon and the engines last three times as long, for America petrol is how it has to be and any solution to an automotive problem has to has got to be a bolt-on rather than a redraft.

Hence in the 1980s they dealt with taking lead out of petrol not by having a redesign but by inventing the catalytic converter. Most car journeys are under five miles, too short to get a catalytic converter warm enough to work.

Also, catalytic converters require platinum - a metal rarer than gold - as an essential material. But it doesn't matter that it's an ineffective anti-environmental expensive solution, it's good because it doesn't affect the way the USA runs its automobile industry. Profit is the goal, rather than the best use of resources.

By the same token, climate change 'solutions' for the car industry have to be petrol orientated. The Prius, and its supposedly fuel saving ways, gets lower mpg than many diesel cars. In fact, it's worse than many petrol cars.

Toyota say a Prius gets 51mpg. In real on-road driving - rather than Toyota’s testing labs - it's actually about 38mpg. But even the inflated claim, as George Monbiot notes,

would be hardly cause for celebration. In 1983, the standard Peugeot 205 managed 72 mpg on highways...

I know Toyota can do better than this. How? Because it did, then quickly shelved the results.

In 2001 Toyota unveiled its “Earth-friendly ES3 Concept Car” at the International Frankfurt Motor Show. The ES3, it maintained, could travel for 100 kilometres on 2.7 litres of fuel, which means 104 miles to the gallon, or twice the efficiency of the Toyota Prius. The press loved it, and carried scores of articles about how the company had managed to reconcile fuel economy with a snazzy design. It did much to position Toyota as the great green hope of the car industry.

And then? The ES3 was never seen again. It appears to have been nothing more than a stunt.

Toyota, as we’ve seen, claims that its “ultimate aim” is “zero emissions”. But to aim at a target you have to be facing in the right direction. Toyota has turned its back on a genuinely efficient design and built its green image around a car that’s 40% greyer than an ordinary, mass produced model manufactured 23 years ago.

Moreover, over 97% of Toyota's sales are not Priuses. Toyota export more than three times as many of their gas guzzling SUVs, such as the RAV4. They’re currently advertising a new model in responsible carbon-conscious style: ‘The New XT-R - A RAV4, But Meaner’.

At the end of February they announced plans to open a new factory in the USA producing 150,000 of their Highlander SUV a year, starting in 2010. The Highlander is now available as a hybrid, yet compared to a normal car its fuel economy is appalling, achieving only around 30mpg.

Next year’s Highlander model has just been unveiled, and Toyota has made use of its ability to improve fuel economy. By making the same vehicle consume less? ‘The 2008 Highlander is significantly larger, roomier and more powerful than the vehicle it replaces. Yet its fuel efficiency will be virtually unchanged,’ cooed the press release.

A company that was a ‘climate change dynamo’ wouldn't be creating over a million SUVs a year and building factories to make even more, let alone using improvements in efficiency to make even bigger SUVs instead of reducing consumption.

The hybrids aren’t a change in their policy to something sustainable, it's Toyota's equivalent of BP getting a new sunflower logo or Tesco petrol stations stocking rainforest-destroying sugar-derived ethanol. It's a decoy to buy legitimacy and deflect criticism and regulation.

It doesn't take much investigation to know this stuff. Much of it is laid out in considerable detail in George Monbiot's book Heat. Several other points from Heat were news to Huhne too. I was dismayed to think that a Shadow Environment Minister, accorded all the media time you’d expect for someone in that position and who has to come up with credible and effective policies on how the UK can deal with climate change, hadn't read the foremost work on the topic.


The idea of carbon rationing came up; a proposal that government sets a maximum emission for the country and we each get a share. This could be tradeable, so if you want to pollute over your allowance you buy spare off someone who has emitted under theirs.

It’s an idea that’s swiftly gaining ground. In any kind of enforced austerity, the people affected have to not only feel it’s for the greater good, they have to feel it’s fair. Sharing out carbon rations equally has such clear justice to it as an idea it is garnering support from some surprising high establishment places, including Environment Secretary David Miliband.

But not his opposite number in the LibDems, though. Huhne said he was against it as it would take too long to implement. This is nonsense. In the Second World War we moved to a rationed economy in a matter of months. It could certainly be done a lot quicker than one of the main things he advocates, which is wait until a general election, vote LibDem and see if they do any good.

He said it would be unfair as there could be an old woman living alone in a poorly insulated and draughty old house that had huge heating bills. He described the imaginary house in great detail and explained as if to kindergarten children why it would take more fuel to heat it.

He went on and on, varying his tone so it stayed phonetically interesting, not rushing so we felt he was reasonable, yet giving sentences with clause after clause so there was never a point at which a panellist felt there was a natural break and could cut in to challenge him. It was like listening to Just A Minute, only with a peculiar mix of it being deathly dull and politically infuriating.

I wish now I'd given in to my urge to shout 'has someone got a full stop for this man please?'.

By the time he got on to a list of acronyms for the various names for proposed carbon ration schemes I was thinking of heating the room by dousing him in petrol and setting him on fire.

The point of his five minute ramble could have been demolished with a single sentence. Have a massive programme of installing insulation to cut demand for fuel, starting with the poor, and just as we give pensioners a winter cash bonus for their fuel allowance, give them a carbon credit.


He later told us how, ‘we should move towards sustainable aviation; what that means is making sure total emissions from aviation don't go above present levels'.

No it doesn't. Sustainable means doing something in a way that can be sustained. It means not using something that can't replenished or replaced, not doing something that denies our ability to do it indefinitely.

Huhne's personal made-up definition presumes that today's level of aviation is optimum. It is not. It burns huge quantities of fossil fuel. A jumbo jet’s emissions for 80 seconds are worse than the average Briton's electricity for a year. There is no alternative aviation fuel, it burns kerosene at altitude so that the impact on the greenhouse effect is far worse than burning the same fuel on the ground. Put bluntly, unless we’re talking about hang gliders or maybe airships, ‘sustainable aviation’ is an oxymoron.

There's a need to seriously reduce long haul travel and freight and make our lives more localised, said someone from the floor. Would the LibDems support a moratorium on the building of new runways?

Huhne said that there was a contradiction in the questioner's perspective, wanting a localised life and yet a 'big central ban on things'.

This was the point where I realised Huhne’s position wasn't based on ignorance or stupidity. That had been generous of me. It was deceit and lies. The 'contradiction' he pointed out isn't a political or logical flaw, it's Huhne playing a word game. And he surely knew it. It was a way to deflect the question and try to make the questioner appear stupid. Why? The only answer can be that he did not want to address the point.

Why would that be?

Because we'd hit something that had a real evident need for strict regulation, and Huhne wants to avoid that. Striving to simply leave the markets alone seems paramount to him. Even when - as his unwillingness to face this question proved - the markets need to be reined in, he won't do it. His belief in the free rein of markets, therefore, is not based on evidence of it working well, but on his faith and blind allegiance.

'I don't want to see things run from some office in Whitehall,' he explained.

Hello? He's an MP! He volunteered to run things from an office in Whitehall!

What is central government for if not to co-ordinate a national response to massive problems confronting us all that need the implementation of new rules?

‘It's not up to us to ban flights,’ he said, ‘it's up to the individual to decide if they want to spend their carbon on heating their house or if they'd prefer to use it on a flight’.

Er, 'spend their carbon'? That would be an allusion to supporting carbon rations. The ones he refuses to support.


Huhne says we don’t want targets because ‘if there’s one thing Labour have shown us it’s that it’s very easy to have targets’ and that actually hitting them is something else. He’s right. For three consecutive manifestoes Labour promised a 20% reduction in carbon emissions by 2010. They’ve actually delivered an increase.

Contrary to what Chris Huhne suggests, this isn’t an argument for having no targets, it’s an argument for giving them teeth. Without set limits and penalty/reward, how else are we going to achieve swift and serious carbon cuts? Asking nicely?

We have to do it very quickly and, much as I instinctively recoil from massive industrial projects and government coercion, they are the only way it can be done. Serious and swift new-build renewable energy sources coupled with a comprehensive mandatory programme of reducing consumption are our only solution that squares up to the problem. Anything else will be too little and too late.

This month Environment Secretary David Miliband made a new pledge to reduce emissions by 60% by 2050.

But the science is clear; we have to stay under a rise of about two degrees above pre-industrial levels if we are to have any solution in our hands. After that, forests die and burn, peat decomposes, and the biosphere will release more carbon than humans. That will, in turn, cause other bits of the biosphere to release more.

To stop this runaway phenomenon, we have around 30 years to have a global cut of 60%. If it’s to be done fairly and equally, it means today’s over-emitters – that’s us in the rich nations – need to cut by 90%. A 60% cut by 2050 simply won’t be enough.

Miliband said that ‘people could look back [on] March 2007 as a turning point where the politics of climate change caught up with the science’. Not if he has his way and keeps hanging on to 60% by 2050 instead of 90% by 2030. Anyone who, like him and Huhne, is suggesting less than 90% is putting their political ideology above the scientific reality. Those of us calling for the 90% cut aren’t extremists, we’re merely asking for what the science demands.


The science also dictates that we count all our carbon emissions. The new Climate Change Bill, like the Kyoto Protocol before it, has loopholes big enough to fly a 747 through. Fly every 747 through, in fact; aviation and shipping are simply not counted. We just pretend that they don’t exist. The government is aiming for a 60% cut by 2050, yet if their gleeful predictions for aviation increase are realised, by 2050 aviation will account for 91%-258% of our total permitted emissions!

First thing should be to stop encouraging aviation with cheap flights and new runways. Second thing should be to factor in aviation, shipping and anything we do that actually produces emissions into our totals.

If we’re to get a handle on lowering emissions, we have to first know who is emitting how much. Here, as ever, we run into the problems of voluntary schemes. There is no compulsion, so almost nobody does it.

Christian Aid’s Coming Clean report observes,
there are agreed CO2 disclosure standards – some of which the UK’s Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) uses already – but it is currently up to individual companies as to how and when they are used. Only 16 of the FTSE 100 companies have adhered to these standards and disclosed in their annual accounts or parallel environmental reports how much CO2 they emit in the most basic of categories – their direct emissions (fossil-fuel fired central heating in offices and shops, and fuel used in their own vehicles).

What else should we count from beyond our shores? When, say, Doc Martens are based in the UK but close their factory in order to open one in China, sending all designs and orders from the UK, then shipping the boots to the UK for UK consumption to make profit for UK people, it’s a strange mind that thinks China bears full responsibility for the emissions involved.

We essentially shut down our manufacturing industries and shipped them off to places with lower wages, and few if any considerations for workers rights and environmental standards.

Also, there are the things we draw profit from without consuming. According to Coming Clean, once we take into account the foreign investment of UK companies, we’re actually responsible for 12-15% of global emissions.

Still, even if Miliband’s figures and dates were right, a simple pledge is useless. If we miss that target, who’s going to come back and reprimand him in 43 years? Even the Climate Change Bill’s proposed five year target means there’ll be a change of government before anyone has any knuckles rapped. Labour have spent ten years blaming everything on their Conservative predecessors; it’s a hoary old trick that will be used by every government to blame the last lot for missed targets.

But more importantly, we don’t have that sort of timeframe. It’s the next twenty years that are crucial in giving us the serious chance of staying under a two degree rise and avoiding catastrophic runaway climate change. Only four lots of five-year targets. We need to start with gusto now, rather than spotting in four years that we’re off course. With, say, annual targets we wouldn’t be so far off course and the cuts won’t pile up just ahead of the deadline. The sooner a cut happens, the greater its effect on the climate.

It’s amazing seeing politicians of all shades trying to out-do each other on climate change policy. For those of us who remember the battle grounds of the recent past – who can be cruelest to immigrants, for example – this is particularly welcome. It’s proof that, despite the gargantuan success of Take That’s comeback, some things in this world can move in the right direction. As far as the politicians’ choice of issue goes, anyway. The gladiatorial style means they undermine any good ideas the others may have instead of adopting or supporting them. If ever there was a need for a grown-up united political front in our lifetime, this is it. But despite the encouraging noises, they’re still tinkering round the edge.

As Tony Blair says, ‘The truth is, no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially in the light of a long-term environmental problem’. So let’s make it a short-term problem. Let’s make the people with the plan be the people who are judged by the results. Let’s have annual carbon emissions targets, and let’s make them legally binding.

For as long as there’s no penalty and emitting activities are profitable, increases in emissions are inevitable. For swift, decisive and radical action there has to be incentive and compulsion. It means regulation. A carbon ration scheme might seem clear and even popular, but imagine if it were only voluntary; even those of us who approve would be unlikely to join in if everyone else wasn’t.

Let’s be clear; a 90% cut is going to mean forever foregoing some things that we really like having. Such serious reduction cannot be made in easy lifestyle-choice changes. It has to be swift and collective. It has to include all relevant industries. It means hard, loophole-free regulation.


The Liberal Democrats’ policy paper Setting Business Free say LibDems 'start with a bias for market solutions'.

Why? Me, I start with a bias for effective solutions.

The market means the rule of wealth. It doesn't matter if things bring justice, peace or sustainability as long as they bring profit. The accumulation of monetary wealth is the aim. It's presumed that making profit is not just intrinsically good, but that it trumps other considerations.

In terms of climate change, we have to tackle the notion of perpetual economic growth head-on. That growth essentially translates as increased consumption of resources. It is fossil fuelled. Freemarket solutions, always seeking profit (ie increased consumption) are highly unlikely to be the answer.

Setting Business Free evolved into Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrat Manifesto for Business, which said government should ‘encourage environmental sustainability, both in production processes and in consumption pattern,’ but (as in ‘I’m not racist but’) there is already too much regulation and LibDems want to ‘set business free’.

It’s one thing having that stuff from the top of the party, but I think I expected better from Huhne simply because of his job title. This is the Environment guy! When he's in opposition! If this is where he starts from, imagine where we'd be once lobbyists and Cabinet rivals had diluted things!

But that's not going to happen. They’re not going to get into power. Which is even more reason for them to make a principled stand where those in power readily yield.


Michael Meacher knows he's not going to be elected leader of the Labour Party but he's standing because he represents certain priorities that whoever does win should address. By the same token, if the Environment guy from the no-hope opposition party can't speak up for the environment, what hope is there in all of Parliament?

They're the Liberal Democrats! They haven't got a hope in hell, so they can say what they want. They've room to push for serious solutions that would change the status quo and deliver something fairer and saner. Yet they seem to squander their position on out-freemarketting the other big parties and deluding themselves they can form a government.

Of course, any places where they do get a taste of power they shake off their green ideals as if a particularly diseased dog had shat on them.

But at least for balance or expertise, you’d think they’d have economists in Treasury posts and appointed someone with an environmental calling as Environment person. But let’s look at – or rather, look for – Huhne’s green credentials.

He got a first from Oxford in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He was a City economist, then an economics journalist before he moved into politics. His time as an MEP was spent on the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee. Once he became an MP, he was the LibDems Treasury spokesperson. His wife is Chief Economist at the Department of Trade and Industry.

The man's an economist, a believer in the free market above all. His deliberately crooked logic shows his adherence to the goodness of the market is faith rather than reason. He is no different from David Cameron, Gordon Brown or Melanie Phillips. They use the language of concern to distract and delay proper response to climate change because they have an overriding need to help rich institutions get even richer.

Things that need government action are fobbed off with word games, twists or voids of logic, baseless assertions and contradiction. He can't be doing all that unknowingly. As a trained journalist he knows how to use words and construct arguments. As a trained economist he believes in the pre-eminent need to serve the market. So the business of government is not to bring a fair and just society for all. It is to hand over the running of the society, even governance itself, to the private sector and the markets.

Despite the extremity of his position, its double standards and obvious fallacies, he got to carry on. He’s a pro, he knows how to speak. That measured matey tone meant anyone cutting in would’ve seemed ranty and mad. He dominated (funny how the rest of the panel didn't stand up to speak), and it worked not just on the panel but the chair too. Anyone else who rambled for two minutes got cut short. But Huhne knows how to deliver his stuff so people are afraid to cut in. They would feel bad, and look bad too, thus undermining the point of interrupting.


Although perhaps it wasn’t totally down to Huhne. The meeting’s traditional structure gave no proper opportunity to confront such glossy domineering. It’s the format we see and accept in parliament, Any Questions, Question Time and elsewhere, yet it’s geared to discouraging proper discussion. It’s about panelists out-talking the opposition and audience revering the panel.

The panel speak, then questions are taken from the floor. There's no opportunity to challenge assertions. If the respondent on the panel came out with something untrue, there's no picking them up on it. There's a presumption that the biggest repositories of knowledge and all the best analysis are on the panel, that there's nothing someone on the floor could know that was unknown to the panel.

If it's a matter of fact, of misinterpretation or - as with Chris Huhne - deliberate hoodwinking, you can't correct it. It makes it easy to avoid answering a question and hobble democracy.

Maybe I've spent too much time with properly democratic anarchist collectives who use consensus, but I think the room should hear anything pertinent and relevant, that we're looking for a synthesis of the best ideas and they could come from anyone or everyone in the room.

Jeremy Leggett's amazing assertion that rooftop solar panels can generate more power than we presently use needs backing up. He referred to 'the work BP did' as his source. He’s made this claim before, in his book Half Gone. There, he cites the source as being a leaflet BP put on filling station forecourts called 'Solar Energy: Brilliantly Simple'. There is no science behind the claim at all. It's a load of bollocks made up out of thin air by BP's PR people.

As a humble audience member I was in no position to point that out, and so a lie was perpetuated and a truth left unsaid.

Leggett, incidentally, owns a solar panel company.

His pro-WalMart point got a firm slapdown from Derek Wall. This was seen as unsporting bad form, as if all the panelists are in the same game and should be chummy. Fuck that attitude. It’s great when people who are on opposite sides of serious life and death issues behave as if it’s actually the case.


At the end the chairperson rebuked Claire Fauset. Despite the fact that she had spoken less than anyone else on the panel, she was told that these things shouldn't just be about challenging corporate power.

Er, you invited someone from Corporate Watch and the Camp For Climate Action, two groups with an explicitly anti-corporate agenda. What did you expect them to say? The meeting had been called as a plug for Campaign Against Climate Change's demonstration at Exxon's headquarters!

Also, the people from Respect, the Green Party and the LibDems were allowed to say why their party's policies were great and give little baby-kissing tangents on why we should vote for them, yet Corporate Watch's representative wasn't supposed to speak on her perspective and policy?

And it could scarcely be more relevant. Claire Fauset herself has criticised

the classic free market line that the market will solve social problems through each actor acting selfishly in its own best interests. But since this is the dominant paradigm, shouldn't we then be seeing a society with greater equality and less environmental destruction? Instead, as the New Economics Foundation argues, "in everything from the massive corporate scandals to anti-trust cases to serious environmental degradation we see all around us, it is obvious that Adam Smith's famous 'invisible hand' cannot be relied upon to bring us successful or sustainable outcomes".

What has instead been created is massive concentration of wealth, entrenched divides between rich and poor globally and irreversible damage to the ecosystems our future depends on.

Many pressing social and environmental problems have very clear, though complex, solutions such as reducing consumption, paying a price that reflects true costs and extending regulation. Market-based 'solutions' distract us from this. If society's primary approach to tackling major social and environmental problems is to enable the powerful interests that caused the problems to profit from their resolution, then the very intention of solving these problems is subsumed to the interest of profit.

Corporate power is the dominance of big capital. It is the large corporations who know the score yet are pushing the climate denial industry. Others know the score and are firing off decoys like a few solar panels on their petrol stations or carbon offsets, not to change anything fundamentally but to buy legitimacy and make us back off so they can get on with their carbon emitting ways. Corporate power is a key component - arguably the key component - in the engine of climate change.

If we don't tackle corporate power we won't tackle climate change. The fact that it’s a much harder task doesn’t mean we should settle for something that is easier but won’t actually work.