The green face of capitalism

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The green face of capitalism


How can we stop an unjust change to green energy? Nick Dowson asks if a market approach will just mean more of the same problems.

I have seen two films in the past year about the effects on human lives of new green projects in Spain. Alcarràs is a sad story of a family of peach farmers in Catalonia. They are losing their homes to make way for solar panels. As Bestas (The Beasts) is a darker story about the human problems of a new wind farm in the Galician hills.

These new stories show us the changes in the real world, as we introduce new green technologies. A new economy is coming but it is not clear if it will result in a move away from fossil fuels or more energy expansion.

Nothing changes

When there is a new market, businesses look to make a profit, and to capitalists climate change is no different. We may think it all seems good. We need fast change and if capitalism is the only way, why not?

But we are not sure yet if the global market economy can make the changes needed to stop the climate crisis. And if the global market economy can make the changes, it won’t be a change that works for people. In fact, it seems that the new green face of capitalism is repeating the problems of the old face of capitalism. This means control by the big businesses of the Global North, not taking care of local communities, taking away the homes of Indigenous groups, making big profits, and millions suffering in poverty through increases in energy bills.

But it’s worse than that. Emily Grubert is a civil engineer and environmental sociologist. She calls it the ‘mid-transition’, we are in the middle of a big change. Thea Riofrancos is a researcher and activist. She says, ‘We still live in a fossil capitalist world but we are preparing for a world of renewable energy and zero emissions. They happen together at the same time.’

Green neoliberalism, no thanks

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is very, very rich because of oil. As I write this, it is host to the UN climate talks. Sultan Al Jaber is the chairperson. He is the head of its national oil company Adnoc. He has a lot of good things to say but he still keeps oil going.

This is an example of climate capitalism. It makes big green promises but it is really interested in profits. It includes wind, solar power, and electric vehicles but also biofuels, carbon credits, carbon capture, ‘green’ hydrogen, and more. Climate capitalism uses billions of dollars to pay for them but there are also real-world impacts. Very often it uses land without real agreement, and it does not usually share with local people.

Carbon credits are a problem. At best they allow polluters to continue polluting, but many of these projects also seem to make deforestation worse. At the same time, Indigenous peoples are losing their homes.

When there is no real climate finance, it is easy to make poorer states and communities accept the projects. Fadhel Kaboub is an economist. He spoke about recent deals to use big parts of Africa for carbon credit projects. ‘If the polluters are saying “We will not pay for climate reparation” ... the only possibility for African governments is to choose carbon markets.’

In the US, Joe Biden’s 2022 Inflation Reduction Act gave $400 billion to support green energy and electric vehicles, including mining to make batteries. It also shows us some of the problems with subsidies: it gives help to households for heat pumps but there are big price increases because with so few companies there is little competition to keep prices low.

An electric trolleybus on the Grand Pont bridge in Lausanne, Switzerland. KEITMA/ALAMY

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Wrong choices

At the same time, the EU has given billions of dollars to create a new market for green hydrogen – this is not really very helpful as we need more renewables and electrification. And there are millions of dollars for fossil fuel companies for carbon capture projects. This just gives us the idea that we can continue burning fossil fuels.

Merry Dickinson is a campaigner with Biofuelwatch and Stop Burning Trees. She lives near the Drax power station in Yorkshire, UK, it is an old coal plant. It now burns wood and it is the UK’s biggest emitter of CO2. She says, ‘The UK government said they were going to stop giving money to biomass in 2027. Biomass uses trees, plants, and waste for heating and electricity. But the UK government are looking at giving money for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. The problem is that there is not enough carbon capture or storage.’

A Drax power station executive is on the UK government’s Climate Change Committee. It recommended the technology in the UK’s carbon budget in 2020. At the same time, the government in Canada supports wood pellet manufacture. This is where some of the power plant’s fuel comes from.

The interest in putting electric cars on the road is a good example of how turning us into green consumers is not giving a clear picture of the green transition. The plans to manufacture electric vehicles stop us from seeing the solutions we can already use now, like supporting public transport and making it easier for people to walk or cycle around cities. At the same time, electric cars will need a lot of mining to make batteries. This is not true of electric trains and trolleybuses,


If the state is creating markets, isn’t it a good idea for people power to create a transition that works for all of us? We will need to build the transition democratically. Rosemary Harris is Oil Change International’s Senior North Sea Campaigner. She says, ‘We need an end to fossil fuels as part of a just transition to a clean energy economy with good jobs for workers and communities. The people most affected should lead the transition.’

There will not be a just transition with endless growth everywhere – instead we should make a good living for everyone the most important thing. Making better use of the resources we have will be very important, improving public transport, recycling energy, plans to really increase energy efficiency, and building rooftop solar. We need to stop doing some things too – like making weapons – but how do we create a market for doing less? A just transition will also need to rebuild public services and build a more caring economy.

Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz is senior programmes officer for Latin America at War on Want. Muñoz says we need to involve workers in the transition. For example, Brazil’s trade union, the CUT, supports the move from fossil fuels but questions the way they are organising the new renewable sector. Another example is Costa Rica’s publicly owned renewable energy system. It includes national and regional organisations and many co-operatives all working together.

Pressure from ordinary people is so important says Thea Riofrancos, the activist. She sees many reasons to hope. Firstly, more and more people are against mining projects, including transnational and North-South alliances. ‘As Indigenous people, communities know more about their rights under international law, … that is a big change.’

She is also happy to see more attention to ownership in the energy transition. She talks about how many big ‘green capitalist projects’ have failed, including offshore wind plans in the UK and the US. They said no to government contracts because they wouldn’t work for them. ‘The big question is, why do we need to pay socially for the costs of the transition, but also make sure the capitalists make a profit?’.

Lavinia Steinfort is a political geographer and activist. She works on energy democracy at the Transnational Institute. She says, ‘With the development of transition technologies under public ownership and democratic control, ecological damage could be a lot less and the social benefits much more.’

Climate change is an urgent problem but it is not the only ecological problem we have. Simply changing our energy technologies will not solve the crisis of capitalism.

Merry Dickinson, the campaigner in Yorkshire, UK, says, ‘In Yorkshire there are problems in health and care services. We need housing insulation. There are many opportunities for decarbonization.’ We just need to say goodbye to the businessmen and take back the power.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)