Written by Les Levidow
Hopes for decarbonising Britain have recently focused on the Labour Party’s plan for its next government. In May it promised to issue no new licences for oil or gas exploration in the North Sea. In June the Labour Party set out its ‘clean energy mission’ for the UK to expand renewable energy, with ‘a clear road map to decarbonisation’, so that the entire economy can ‘accelerate to net zero’. Is it really such a plan?
Its claims have several grounds for doubt, in particular: that the plan perpetuates fossil sources for the foreseeable future, depends on dubious techno-fixes, perpetuates obstacles to renewable energy substitution, greenwashes a high-carbon future, subordinates the labour movement to high-carbon capital, and so pre-empts a socially just, low-carbon transition. These roles are played in several ways, as outlined here.
Perpetuating fossil fuels alongside renewable energy
After the Labour Party announcement, relevant trade unions criticised its plan for ‘betraying workers’, especially for lacking a credible plan to provide substitute jobs. Although this criticism is valid, it made the Labour Party promise look greener than in reality.
Campaigners protesting against the new oilfield in Dundee. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian, 29.06.2023
As eventually became clear, ‘no new gas or oil’ means no extra licences after the general election; this plan would allow the Rosebank and Cambo oil fields to go ahead. As academics have written, large reserves of oil and gas are already covered by existing licenses; companies are deciding which ones to develop. Once a company starts using a licence, it takes three decades to produce new fossil fuels, which may continue for several decades more. Fossil fuel producers already have enough licences to generate enormous GHG emissions for the next half-century and beyond.
The big energy producers may extend a high-carbon future for several reasons. The current regime has a basic objective to maximise the economic recovery of oil and gas. Fossil fuels continue to enjoy state subsidy, and gas prices set the overall energy price. So cheaper renewable sources accrue super-profits rather than undermine fossil fuels, especially within a profit-driven system.
Moreover, total energy usage will predictably continue to rise. This trend will be reinforced by the Labour Party’s promise for measures to increase ‘economic growth’, which generally entails more energy usage. By default, renewable energy may largely continue to supplement fossil fuels rather than replace them, thus doing little to reduce GHG emissions.
Alternatively, for a true decarbonisation plan, a government could limit some fossil fuel source which are already licensed, alongside new policies to reduce overall energy usage. Likewise it could direct any economic growth at low-energy forms which incur lighter environmental burdens and bring greater societal benefit (probably with lower corporate profits). Such alternatives have been promoted under various concepts such as a ‘well-being economy’ or ‘post-growth economy’. This potential future is pre-empted by the Labour Party’s plan.
Accepting profit-driven energy distribution
Last year Keir Starmer undertook that the next Labour government would create Great British Energy (GBE), a publicly owned energy company. According to the Party’s energy mission, GBE would be ‘a new, publicly-owned clean generation company, that will harness the power of Britain’s sun, wind, and waves to cut energy bills and deliver energy security for our country’. In early 2023 Ed Miliband floated a proposal for the government to establish its own assets for generating renewable energy and so supplying local energy distributors.
Yet simply producing more renewable energy would be inadequate, for several reasons. The national grid has lacked adequate investment to promptly incorporate new sources of renewable energy, so connections face delays of 15 years or more (according to a BBC report). Even as such sources are connected, profit-maximising firms keep the super-profits from renewable energy rather than pass on the lower cost to consumers.
To realize all the societal benefits, it would be necessary to impose an energy price cap geared to renewable energy, as well as to establish public-interest distribution companies, as advocated by a CommonWealth report. Likewise Labour for a Green New Deal promotes a conference motion which advocates ‘Democratic public ownership of the whole energy system, including: Nationalisation of energy transmission and distribution; energy supply; the UK operations and infrastructure of fossil fuel companies…’
Such a policy would depend on mobilising mass support against capitalist interests in the energy sector. Otherwise a profit-driven high-carbon system will continue, as in the current Labour Party policy.
Relying on dubious technofixes
When the Labour Party undertook to issue no more licences for gas or oil, there was a reassurance: “But Labour would continue to use existing oil and gas wells over the coming decades and manage them sustainably as we transform the UK into a clean energy superpower.”
Credit: Cathy Wilcox
How could such a role be compatible with long-term fossil fuels? It could not be, unless clean energy merely supplements fossil fuels (as explained above). Or unless we indulge techno-optimistic fantasies for greenwashing fossil fuels (see CACCTU briefing). Along those lines, the Labour Party mission would “Invest in carbon capture and storage (CCS), hydrogen, and long-term energy storage to ensure that there is sufficient zero-emission back-up power and storage for extended periods without wind or sun, while maintaining a strategic reserve of backup gas power stations to guarantee security of supply.”
This grandiose mission implies that CCS eventually would decarbonise natural gas into hydrogen and so provide a ‘zero-emission’ fuel. The hydrogen per se might be so at the point of use. But the promotional language conceals routine methane leakages at the extraction stage, alongside energy inputs and other difficulties in capturing the carbon, in order to produce so-called ‘zero-carbon hydrogen’.
Most CCS projects have failed, removing no carbon from the atmosphere. They have been most viable as CO₂-Enhanced Oil Recovery, i.e. injecting CO₂ into partially depleted oilfields to force out more oil, thus undermining the climate objective. Relative to CCS, biological methods are a more effective means to sequester carbon but are commercially less attractive, offering no pretext for perpetuating fossil fuels.
The Labour Party mission also promises ambitious targets for ‘green hydrogen’, i.e. electrolysing water into its hydrogen and oxygen components. As an energy medium, this lacks credibility for at least two reasons: The conversion would be much more expensive and energy-intensive than directly using the renewable electricity necessary to produce it. And the available renewable electricity will have competing priorities within an overall electrification of energy usage.
All those technologies remain unproven at scale. They provide a deceptive basis to reconcile fossil fuels with decarbonisation and thus to justify delay in real climate action. Nevertheless such technofixes have been promoted by a long-time cross-class alliance between the ‘Energy Unions’ and the fossil fuel industry.
Credit: ‘Trade unions bosses back UK hydrogen jobs boom’, 2020,
The Hydrogen Strategy Now campaign flies the Union Jack, patriotically allying the ‘Energy Unions’ with energy bosses
Many workers in the industry remain unconvinced that such fixes can address their employment needs, according to a 2023 report by Platform and FoE Scotland. This scepticism indicates the potential for political alliances to organize around truly low-carbon alternative futures.
Reinforcing energy bosses’ leadership
The Labour Party mission invokes an imperative for the UK to compete more effectively in a global race towards decarbonisation. Keir Starmer has warned that some nation…”is going to lead the world”, that “competition is fierce”, that it’s “a race we have to win”. Trade union leaders have reinforced this narrative in fossil fuel sectors.
As the Greener Jobs Alliance has cautioned us, this nationalistic narrative sets up an ‘us vs them’ rivalry with other countries. It obscures the need for international cooperation to share, improve and supply renewable energy, especially to replace fossil fuels. Likewise the narrative pre-empts workers’ solidarity across countries.
The nationalistic narrative is worse than simply a mistake. Fossil energy companies and trade union leaders have been jointly promoting dubious decarbonisation technologies, subordinating workers to their bosses. The Labour Party reinforces this cross-class political alliance. The Party’s mission undertakes to stimulate private investment, perhaps through public-private partnerships, thus extending the neoliberal model. In parallel the Starmer regime has silenced or eliminated Left-wing voices in the Labour Party, thus demonstrating its loyalty to capitalist interests.
As a superficial reassurance, the Labour Party mission undertakes to facilitate ‘a green just transition’. It aims to ‘Ensure a just transition that addresses regional imbalances and ensures that no workers or communities are left behind’. It claims to draw on the “vast experience from across the labour movement and beyond”.
Yet the Labour Party mission pre-empts means for the labour movement to shape its own future. Such alternatives have been promoted globally by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), such as its programme for a public-interest, low-carbon energy future. The Labour Party has promised ‘a green just transition’, yet this accommodates high-carbon capital.
Analogous inconsistencies have arisen around the Labour Party’s London Mayor Sadiq Khan, as shown by Simon Pirani. The Mayor describes himself as a ‘climate activist’, setting targets to reduce London’s GHG emissions, yet his actions have accommodated high-carbon business interests. His last election manifesto promised to establish “a not-for-profit company providing a comprehensive range of energy services”, which could have displaced fossil fuels; yet this promise became reduced to a partnership with Octopus Energy.
He has abandoned the congestion charge for evening travel. He has accepted high-carbon developments such as the Silvertown Tunnel. Moreover, his surveillance agents have spied on environmental activists and excluded them from public consultation events, thus demonstrating his true role as a climate anti-activist.
Tory politicians and Right-wing newspapers have derided the Labour Party policy as ‘a Just Stop Oil plan’, again making it look greener than the reality. As shown here, its ‘clean energy mission’ is deceptive in several ways: it perpetuates fossil sources for the foreseeable future, depends on dubious techno-fixes, perpetuates obstacles to renewable energy substitution, greenwashes a high-carbon future, subordinates the labour movement to high-carbon capital, and so pre-empts a socially just, low-carbon transition. Among other policies, these will generate mass opposition to the next Labour government.
'We need a green deal right now', demand climate protesters as they disrupt a major education speech by Sir Keir Starmer, Credit: ITV News, 6 July 2023
No worries: The Labour Party leadership has denounced climate protests that might be effective and has endorsed strong criminal penalties. Its next government will retain the Tories’ legislative powers for deterring, repressing and criminalizing protest. No surprise there: Keir Starmer has been loyally serving the UK security state since long before he became Labour Party leader. He has been justifiably called ‘a cop in an expensive suit’, thus an elite role model for his Shadow Cabinet members and London’s Mayor.
Alongside significant differences between the main political parties, they share a long-term commitment to perpetuate fossil fuels and to protect them through political repression. With this realistic account of the Labour Party, we can better discredit its ‘clean energy’ plan, prepare protest against its next government, and create alliances for an alternative future.
Biographical note: Les Levidow is a member of the Green Left within the Green Party of England and Wales. This article draws on general points from his new book, https://bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/beyond-climate-fixes
from the book are summarized in this short article:
“Technofixes or solidaristic commoning? Our climate strategy must combat the 'technofixes-plus-markets' fraud”, The Ecologist, March 2023,