Sunday, 24 April 2016

“Green” Capitalism builds Big Solar: Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Written by David Schwartzman and first published at Capitalism, Socialism, Nature Journal

A recent news headline reported: “Wind and Solar Are Crushing Fossil Fuels, Record clean energy investment outpaces gas and coal 2 to 1.” Should we welcome this trend, or focus only on the fact that capitalist-driven solarization is fraught with problems?

In his article, “The Ouarzazate Solar Plant in Morocco: Triumphal ‘Green’ Capitalism and the Privatization of Nature,” Hamza Hamouchene provides a very thoughtful and thorough critique of how capitalist-driven creation of renewable energy infrastructure is lacking social management and planning. Further, the article points out that while such large projects in the Global South should prioritize the elimination of energy poverty, in this case in Morocco and North Africa, this is not apparently the plan. These challenges should thus be on the front burner for ecosocialist intervention in ongoing class struggles in energy transition.

In an earlier article, Hamouchene critiqued an even bigger solar project on the drawing boards, Desertec, on precisely the grounds I warned twenty years ago in my Solar Communism article where I noted: “plausible scenarios of continued neocolonial subjugation of the “south” under the rubric of promoting solar energy are conceivable (e.g., a Saharan photovoltaic network controlled by transnationals supplying power to Europe under highly unequal arrangements of exchange)”, although the actual plan has been to build a huge concentrated solar power infrastructure much bigger than Ouarzazate, rather than photovoltaics in the Sahara. Such a project could potentially supply the current global electricity consumption on less than 6 percent of the Saharan land area.

Nevertheless, I have some disagreements with Hamouchene regarding the following statements in the Ouarzazate Solar Plant in Morocco article.
“One needs to say it clearly from the start: the climate crisis we are currently facing is not attributable to fossil fuels per se, but rather to their unsustainable and destructive use in order to fuel the capitalist machine. In other words, capitalism is the culprit, and if we are serious in our endeavors to tackle the climate crisis (only one facet of the multi-dimensional crisis of capitalism), we cannot elude questions of radically changing our ways of producing and distributing things, our consumption patterns and fundamental issues of equity and justice.”
Yes to the last sentence, but the first is problematic. Surely we cannot replay the history of fossil fuel consumption driven by fossil capital. Carbon emissions come from the actual burning of fossil fuel, a physical process. This is the prime driver of the climate crisis, to be sure, a result of the historical use of this fuel as the energy source in the reproduction of capital. I cannot imagine what would have been the alternative to fossil fuels’ “unsustainable and destructive use” while still consuming fossil fuels, except in a rapid transition away from these fuels in a solar transition.
“It follows from this that a mere shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, while remaining in the capitalist framework of commodifying and privatizing nature for the profits of the few, will not solve the problem. In fact, if we continue down this path we will only end up exacerbating, or creating another set of problems, around issues of ownership of land and natural resources.”
Well if this “mere shift” can be accelerated, as climate science tells us is imperative to have any remaining chance to avoid climate catastrophe, with the majority of humanity living in the Global South bearing the heaviest impact, then such a shift to renewable energy could have a stupendous positive result: the end of energy poverty in the Global South and the capacity to bring down the atmospheric carbon dioxide level below the safe upper limit of 350 ppm, preventing climate catastrophe!

And yes, ecosocialists and the movement for climate and energy justice should not accept this transition while remaining in the capitalist framework. On the contrary, we should use this unprecedented opportunity to end the rule of capital on our planet.

We are now confronting a clean energy transition that is still too slow. And only when a more robust renewable creation is coupled with rapid phase-out of fossil fuels—starting with the highest carbon footprint ones (i.e., coal and natural gas because of methane leakage to the atmosphere) and tar sands oil—will there be any chance of avoiding climate catastrophe. There is every reason to believe that a full transition with these characteristics cannot be generated in the capitalist framework. The Military Industrial Fossil Fuel Complex must be dissolved, both as the main obstacle to both a solar energy transition as well as to end of the rule of capital itself.

While ecosocialist class struggle is still too weak to prevent the deficiencies in these big solar projects, and as the global climate and energy justice movement gains strength, then the opportunity to create a sustainable and just solar transition will grow. But the creation of a wind/solar energy infrastructure should be welcomed now even with all the problems pointed out by Hamouchene. We cannot wait for the end of the rule of capital to start building this renewable infrastructure; it will be too late.

About the author

David Schwartzman is Professor Emeritus, Howard University (biogeochemist, environmental scientist, PhD, Brown University) and an active member of the DC Statehood Green Party/Green Party of the United States. He runs with his older son Peter Schwartzman.

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