Friday, August 07, 2009

Production, jobs and climate change: one story

Drax power station in Yorkshire, the UK’s largest single CO2 emitter and the site of the first-ever climate camp and numerous actions since, this week announced a fall in profits for the first quarter of 2009, due to a collapse in demand caused by the recession.

The power generator’s profits for the first quarter of 2009 were £34m against £150m in the same quarter last year. Demand overall for its electricity was down 6.1%, and most significantly, demand from industry was down 8.2%. Long closures and shorter working at car factories and companies making vehicle parts, was the major factor.

As climate campaigners in Scotland yesterday put out of action a conveyor belt that takes 100,000 tonnes of open cast coal from Glentaggart to power stations like Drax, this profit collapse is something worth thinking about.

It is an excellent example of how a reduction in production of goods, such as vehicles, reduces the need for power. It underlines that only a global transformation in the quantity, durability and materials content of the goods human society produces to meet its needs, can make an immediate reduction in global emissions of greenhouse gases.

However, as long as these reductions take place within the social context of capitalist enterprise, the impact of a cut in production is devastating for those workers who rely on these industries for a living.

Over the same period that Drax experienced its slump in demand, the number of people in work in the UK fell by 271,000, the biggest quarterly drop since comparable records began in 1971. Young people have been particularly hard hit, with the unemployment rate in the 18-24 age group reaching 16.6%, its highest point since 1993. The highest rate of unemployment is in the West Midlands, the UK’s manufacturing heartland, where 9.3% of people are now out of work.

However, new car sales rose this month, as a result of the government’s scrappage scheme. A total of 157,149 new cars were registered in July - an increase of 2.4% on the July 2008 figure, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

The government itself admits while the scheme MAY deliver a small reduction in emissions as a result of people buying more fuel efficient cars , the real purpose was to boost the car industry.

And it won’t reduce emissions. As a report from the Campaign for Integrated Transport explains: “Technical improvement in engine efficiency is vital, but it cannot meet the [government’s climate change] targets alone, not least because the fuel saving from more efficient vehicles will of itself lead to an offsetting increase in travel. It needs to be said quite simply that transport will not effectively contribute to carbon reduction unless the growth trends in private car use and air travel are changed....”

The reality is that we cannot unpick the economic devastation that capitalism is wreaking on people’s lives and livelihoods from its destruction of environment and eco-systems. They are an interconnected whole and need to be tackled in that way.

Workers who occupied the Vestas wind turbine plant in the Isle of Wight and car workers in South Korea who took over their plant and fought pitched battles to defend jobs, have everything in common though the products they make couldn’t be more different.

Both struggles raise the central issue of who owns and controls production. While these resources remain in the hands of shareholders who demand year-on-year profit increases, there are no real prospects of tackling climate change or the misery of mass unemployment.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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