Cost of Living Campaigns Should Fight for a Green Transition
The climate crisis can’t wait.
by Kai Heron
16 August 2022
Those of us living in the UK are paying double what we did this time last year for our energy bills. In October, bills will almost double again to £3,582. Next year, they’ll surge to over £5,000. For those on minimum wage, that’s more than a quarter of their annual salary.
But not everyone is suffering from the high price of energy. In the past month, oil and gas giants BP and Shell reported record profits of $8.5bn and $11.5bn respectively. Centrica, the owner of British Gas, recorded a massive 500% increase in profits for the first six months of the year, from £262m last year to an incredible £1.34bn this year.
Spiralling energy bills are part of a broader stagflationary environment. The Bank of England predicts the UK is heading for a recession comparable to if not worse than the 2008 financial crash, with inflation topping out at 15%. Demonstrating whose interests the bank defends, it has urged workers not to fight for inflation-matching pay rises. Workers must suffer so that capital might live.
Already foodbanks can’t keep up with demand, parents are skipping meals to feed their children, household energy debt is up 150% since autumn, and plans are being made to provide ‘warm banks’ for those unable to heat their homes this winter.
This all adds up to what Marxists call a crisis in the ability of the working class to reproduce itself within capital’s circuits of accumulation. For at least the past 70 years, capitalism in the global core maintained a relatively high quality of living for its workers by super-exploiting the Global South. That ‘solution’ is no longer working, and capitalism everywhere is exposing itself to be what in truth it always was: a predatory system that exploits the majority in the interests of the few.
Two promising campaigns launched this month to fight the cost of living crisis. The first, Don’t Pay UK, is calling on consumers to cancel direct debits to energy suppliers unless bills are reduced to affordable levels by October. The second, Enough is Enough, is fronted by prominent individuals and organisations from across the left of the labour movement and social movements, and promises to combine mass rallies with strike solidarity actions and community organising.
Over 100,00 people have signed up to Don’t Pay UK’s pledge and 250,000 people signed up to Enough is Enough in the two days following its launch. Given that Keir Starmer’s Labour has put more effort into purging its left flank than improving the lives of workers, this is good news.
Even so, it’s notable that neither campaign has sought to draw connections between the cost of living crisis and the other crisis that’s been in the news this year: ecological breakdown. 40C weather. Towns without water. Droughts. Wildfires. Crumbling infrastructure. The climate crisis is here, now, and inescapable. A crisis in the reproduction of the working class within capital has collided with a crisis in the very conditions of life on earth as we know it. Here are six near-term ideas that cost of living campaigns should support to help build a world in which humans and non-humans alike can flourish.
1. Build free and expanded public transportation networks.
The majority of commutes in the UK are taken by car. That’s due in part to convenience, but partly because public transport is so expensive. In fact, in March, London, Manchester and Birmingham were ranked the three most expensive cities for public transportation in Europe.
Expanding public transportation networks and making them free would reduce car journeys into cities, dramatically reducing emissions and particle pollution. It would also mean commuters wouldn’t have to pay for the pleasure of going to work.
Close to a hundred cities across the world already have free public transport. In 2020, Luxembourg became the first country to offer entirely free public transport. Spain recently introduced free train travel on selected routes to help commuters with the cost of living crisis. Even in the US, a country not known for its public transport networks, cities are embracing free public transportation. There’s no reason why similar policies couldn’t be implemented in the UK to tackle both global heating and the cost of living crisis.
2. Expand no-car zones in cities and better cycling infrastructure.
Studies show that free public transport isn’t enough to make people give up the convenience of commuting by car. To reduce car usage, free public transport must be combined with prohibitions on car travel in selected areas. As we saw with small-scale no car areas after lockdown, with cars off the roads, pedestrians and cyclists have reclaimed the streets and breathed new life into our cities.
The bike is a cost of living and climate crisis fighting machine. Maintaining a bike is easier and cheaper than maintaining a car, produces no emissions and creates far less particle pollution. Cycling is also often faster on congested city streets, and is proven to have mental and physical health benefits.
Though many UK cities claim they’re building infrastructure to support cyclists, cycling lanes are often hilariously unfit for purpose or downright unsafe. There’s also poor infrastructure for those wanting to make journeys between cities and suburban or rural areas: cyclists are frequently forced to take dangerous A-roads or B-roads where close passes at high speed are common. The UK’s cycling network is just 12,739 miles long, less than half of which is off road. The Netherlands, meanwhile – which is a sixth of the UK – has a network that’s 21,748 miles long. It’s no surprise, then, that while just 2% of journeys in the UK are taken by bike, 27% are in the Netherlands.
3. Rollout publicly-funded housing insulation and heat pumps.
The UK has some of the most poorly insulated housing stock in Europe, which means it takes more energy to keep us warm throughout the winter. After travel, heating our homes is likely the most carbon intensive thing we do.
This month a Guardian investigation found that adding insulation to lofts, wall cavities and windows could more than halve a household’s energy bills and annual emissions. But successive governments have refused to implement retrofitting policies at scale, citing its supposedly prohibitive costs for the taxpayer.
Instead, last year the Tories set out plans to give homeowners financial support to install heat pumps. In theory, heat pumps are an efficient and lower energy way to heat homes, and have become pivotal to the UK Climate Change Committee’s scenario for reaching net-zero, which requires 27.2 million households to have heat pumps by 2050.
But there’s a catch: heat pumps work best in homes with properly insulated lofts, walls, and windows – something most of Britain’s housing stock doesn’t have. In fact, at the rate heat pumps were installed last year, it would take over 600 years to meet the UK Climate Change committee’s scenario for net-zero.
4. Transform our food systems.
It’s not just energy bills that have been hit by inflation. The average food bill has risen by £454 a year as prices of staples hit a 14-year high. This is driven in large part by industrialised agriculture’s reliance on synthetic fertilisers produced through the Haber-Bosch method, a fossil-fuel intensive way of creating the nutrients plants need to grow. The global food system’s dependence on this process means that as the cost of natural gas rises, so too do our food bills.
Intensive industrialised meat production and excessive fertiliser and pesticide use in monocultural farming systems has also been linked to severe ecological harms. Fertiliser runoff into streams and waterways leads to algae blooms that can kill entire ecosystems. Industrialised farming has reduced flying insect numbers by 60% in 20 years, and bird numbers have also declined dramatically.
Any meaningful response to the climate crisis will have to transform today’s agricultural systems. Today’s high price of fossil fuels, and the associated high cost of food, should serve as the impetus to move away from fossil fuel reliant and ecologically destructive farming towards more sustainable, regenerative, alternatives that reduce food bills and challenge the idea that we need to work to eat.
This should be done on several fronts. First, today’s monocultural fossil fuel dependent systems should be replaced by agroecological farming practices. By implementing region-specific methods that integrate livestock and cropping and incorporate crop rotations featuring nitrogen-fixing legumes, Europe could feed its projected population in 2050 without feed imports and with reduced synthetic fertiliser use.
Second, urban farms should be encouraged. Initiatives such as Edinburgh Agroecology Co-op at Lauriston Farm, London’s Kentish and Bristol’s Grow Wilder project and London’s Spitalfields City Farm connect communities with their food, reduce emissions associated with shipping, sometimes reduce food costs, and encourage more people to grow some of their own food using whatever space they have available.
Third, local authorities should consider integrating edible plant varieties into public spaces. This practice provides food freely to everyone and educates people about food provisioning. While initiatives like this currently don’t operate at scale, they nevertheless challenge the idea that our food should be a commodity rather than a right.
5. Nationalise energy companies.
Even before the current energy crisis, polling found that more than half of the public would support the nationalisation of energy firms. Nationalisation means firms would be obliged to provide an affordable service for consumers rather than maximising shareholder value. It could also help to speed up decarbonisation efforts through what’s known as a cap and adapt strategy.
Nationalisation alone, however, wouldn’t necessarily put communities in control of energy systems or empower them to make decisions about how to balance affordable energy bills with the necessity of a green transition. Here, experiments in community owned energy, such as those conducted by Scotland’s Community and Renewable Energy Scheme or Wolfhagen, Germany, are instructive. Wolfhagen’s energy supply is 100% renewable and community members benefit from cheaper energy bills to boot.
6. Introduce a four-day work week.
Though it might seem impossible to imagine a four-day, 32 hour work week, the five-day, 40-hour week most of us have today was itself unimaginable for many before workers fought for and won it.
A four-day week would clearly be beneficial for workers, but there are good reasons, even within a capitalist system geared towards maximising worker exploitation, to abandon the five-day week. Studies suggest those who work 55 hours a week perform worse on some tasks than those who work 40. Evidence also suggests productivity increases, rather than decreases, when a four-day week is implemented. What’s more, the think tank Autonomy suggests that a four-day week can reduce emissions by as much as 16%.
These ideas aren’t radical. They’re modest, near-term, reformist interventions that would make a material difference to people’s lives in the here and now. They should be welcomed and adopted by campaigns fighting the cost of living crisis, because the climate crisis simply can’t wait.
Kai Heron is a lecturer in politics at Birkbeck College, University of London.