COP26 Part 2

Ending Fossil Fuels: Why Net Zero is not Enough
By Holly Jean Buck
Published by Verso, 2021 Paperback, £12.99 rrp

Review Tim Barton

Here is a warning, from Bill McKibben’s recent Guardian piece on fatalism and hope, ‘without swift change, we will pass irrevocable tipping points: winning slowly on climate is simply another way of losing’. There is much local communities and councils could do to accelerate progress, and whilst individuals and small communities taken alone are way too little, in aggregate we could make the difference. 

Hastings & St Leonards has had numerous ‘green energy’ schemes proposed, both within the council and within the wider community. However, thus far it has not been possible to get everyone on the same page, so that between NIMBYs, liberalised national development rules introduced by the Conservative government to restrict municipalities’ ability to control ecologically and socially problematic construction, highly problematic financing issues, and a general lack of focus and cooperation, our community is clearly not pulling its weight. This is an issue in most of the UK, and certainly globally.

By the time you read this, COP26, our latest chance to address these issues, will be over and analysis of its failures and, hopefully, successes can begin in earnest. However, the signs are not good. For example, the UK 2021 autumn budget cynically cut tax on short-haul flights by 50% only a fortnight before the conference began. This, and other measures announced by Sunak, were described by Green MP Caroline Lucas as a ‘climate-shaped hole at the heart of this budget’. If Johnson is true to form, these cuts will be reversed in the next budget and sold as a ‘win’ for COP26 whilst merely bringing us back to the same position the government took up until October, and a million miles from ‘net zero’ CO2 emissions by 2030, 2040, 2050 or indeed ever. But, I would be very pleased to be proven wrong.

Meanwhile, Holly Jean Buck is back with a new book, advocating for an even more stringent goal, under the banner ‘net zero is not enough’. For her, ‘net zero’ is cruelly optimistic both, as a target and as a sufficient solution. She pushes for a planned end for fossils fuels, with a goal of ‘negative emissions’. A detailed ‘phase-out toolbox for the 2020s’ is proposed in the book’s latter third, suggesting nationalisation, moratoria, ending subsidies, denying permissions for further extraction, and out-right bans. The Indigenous Environmental Network is quoted as having ‘for generations’ noted that ‘the most impactful and direct way to address the problem is to keep fossil fuels in the ground’, and quite rightly concluding that ‘we can no longer leave any options for the fossil fuel industry to determine the economic and energy future’.

Her views are nuanced, so, for example, whilst advocating nationalisation programmes, she recognises that the success of  such programmes in helping us reach lower, zero, or negative emissions targets ‘hinges on the integrity of the governments involved’, and on the agreement and support of global corporations – neither things we can remotely take for granted.  

Naturally, achieving ‘decarbon-isation’ at any level sufficient to address the scale of the problem needs to go far further than merely looking into ‘fossil fuels’, it must also address, for example, methane emissions from livestock, deforestation, and industrial agriculture. Buck does not address these aspects, but any hope of ‘net zero’, far less of negative emissions, would need to go a lot further than curbing the fossil fuel industry. But her target here is to highlight how ‘net zero’ subtly and destructively ‘shifts the focus away from production’, and the need for ‘deep cultural transformation’ to succeed in reaching pretty much any useful target.

In addressing alternatives and transitions, she has much to say about ‘new clean energy structure’, and addresses, too, what she calls ‘renewable disenchantment’, especially around industry, media, and NIMBY propaganda against wind-turbines. Thankfully, this book, unlike her previous work, does not waste time advocating ‘geoengineering’ as a ‘solution’. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have much to say about things like decentralisation, and human-scale methods of supplying local energy. The Highlands and Islands of Scotland, for example, have a growing number of land-based council owned wind farms. This is a model needed here in Sussex too, and it is feasible for Hastings & Rye to commit to and supply locally generated and owned onshore energy. The government also need to make smaller rooftop turbines, which can be more genuinely ‘sustainable’ than the large hi-tech offshore turbines, with their globalised manufacture, industrial productivist ideology, and un-green resource demand (including the high-energy conversion fuels, primarily oil, coal and gas).

Reaching global agreements for sufficient action to avert the worst of the coming storm looks unlikely. COP26 may have helped, or may once again have disguised non-solutions under a patina of media-friendly expressions of goodwill. Pick up the weekend broadsheets to follow the autopsy on the elites’ little holiday to Glasgow. And, just as with Parliamentary elections, do not forget that change needs to be aggressively sought between these high-level conferences, and that we cannot afford to just wait for ‘next time’. In the 1990s a movement emerged under the banner ‘Think globally, act locally’, and it was aligned to an anti-capitalist radical agenda for change that was explicitly ‘green’. This now more than ever needs a reboot, and we could start in our own community here in Hastings.


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