By Chris Thorley, Socialist Alternative South West
Rishi Sunak has recently announced a U-turn on pledges by previous governments, which were intended to help the UK meet carbon net zero by 2050. This includes weakening the plan to phase out gas boilers by 2035 and delaying the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars (previously set for 2030) by five years. The Tories have an appalling record on climate change and 2050 was always far too late a target for net zero in any case.
The Tories have no concern for working class people or the environment. Governments around the world are almost universally failing to meet climate targets set out various climate summits, and recent COP events have not provided much hope that this will change. Sunak’s announcements show just how far down the list of concerns the climate is to his government.
Sunak claimed that the changes to policy on achieving net zero were being made as it was not right for working families to face rising costs due to the transition. It is worth pointing out that Sunak’s government does not have the same concerns about working families when it comes to giving workers proper pay rises or protecting trans children from discrimination. These cynical attempts to pit struggling working-class families against concerns for the environment is a tried and tested tactic of the capitalist class. We are often told that transition to renewable energy will be costly for the taxpayer or that it will lead to job losses.
Sunak’s announcement has received significant backlash from the political establishment. Even some Tory MPs have criticised Sunak and there are rumours that letters calling for a vote of no confidence could be sent if the changes are pushed through Parliament. However, these concerns are not due to these figures caring about the environment either.
Tory MPs who are worried about Sunak’s plans are fearful about how they could lead to an even larger Conservative loss in the next general election and further radicalisation (particularly among young people) on the issue of climate. Additionally, capitalists around the world are starting to realise that increased climate devastation poses a threat to their ability to generate ever increasing profits as raw materials are destroyed and parts of the world become uninhabitable. Of course, this devastation will (and already does) hit the working class in those countries far harder than the capitalists – while their profits may suffer we are already seeing working-class people paying with their lives.
What would a ‘just transition’ look like?
Sunak’s concern for the working class is clearly disingenuous, but it also plays into the idea that the only way the climate crisis could be tackled is by working people shouldering the burden. This is simply not true – but it is the capitalists’ preferred option. In our programme on climate change we refer to a ‘just transition.’ Unlike the Tories’ plans, our programme would be centred around a planned socialist economy, which would include retraining and retooling workers in fossil fuel extraction and production, to renewable energy production, for example. It is vital that companies be publicly owned and democratically controlled, for decisions regarding the environment to be made by the working class instead of rich CEOs and politicians who care more about profits than our future.
There is a history of struggle around such demands, including the 1976 Lucas Plan. When workers were faced with the prospect of 16,000 job losses at British manufacturer Lucas Aerospace, they drew up a plan to diversify the product range of the company into socially useful products such as solar panels, heat pumps and wind turbines, and saving their jobs. Overall there were 150 ideas for products, some of which still haven’t been adequately explored under capitalism. The Lucas Plan showed both how workers can be retrained for jobs in renewable energy and a glimpse of what is possible in a democratically controlled workplace.
We see the tactic of pitting workers against the climate being used all over the place. In Nuremburg, Germany, employers such as Siemens attempted to use concern for the climate to justify job cuts and factory closures. In response, our members (Sozialistische Alternative) launched a campaign called Klimaschutz heißt Klassenkampf (Climate Struggle is Class Struggle). The campaign challenged greenwashing propaganda attempted by Siemens, which pitted climate activists against workers and raised our demands for a just transition. Our members were therefore able to bridge the divide between workers and climate activists and put forward demands linking keeping jobs with the climate.
It is clear that only under socialism can a transition to net zero be achieved. Such a transition would require a huge investment in renewable energy and public transport and the creation of green jobs. Sunak’s U-turn on already inadequate net zero plans show that no capitalist has any intention of delivering what is truly needed. The fight for a better future for the environment and for workers are part of the same struggle against capitalism.