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Cooking the Books: ‘I’m Not Going First’

’I don’t want UK to be at the forefront of tacking climate change, says Osborne’, ran the headline in the Guardian (28 September) reporting on an interview George Osborne gave just because last year’s Tory conference. His exact words were:

‘I want to provide for the country the cheapest energy possible, consistent with having it reliable, in other words as a steady supply, and consistent with playing our part in an international effort to tackle climate change. But I don’t want to be the only people out there in front of the rest of the world. I certainly think we shouldn’t be further ahead of our partners in Europe.’

Given capitalism, and given his position as a member of the government of one of the many states into which the capitalist world is divided, his logic was impeccable. If Britain alone imposed stricter conditions than its rivals on releasing CO2 from burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere, this would increase the cost of energy to firms producing in Britain and undermine their competitiveness on world markets. The governments of other states follow the same logic. So nothing effective gets done to tackle climate change.

The main source of CO2 emissions is the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) to power industry and transport and to provide heating and lighting. The trouble is that different states have access to fossil fuels more, or less, than others and each wants ‘the cheapest energy possible.’

So, any international scheme to reduce CO2 emissions that involved, for instance, cutting back on burning coal would disproportionally effect states for which this was the cheapest source of energy. It would increase the cost of production across their whole economy and make its products less competitive. The government of a state in this position will therefore oppose or seek to delay or water down any such scheme.

The same applies to oil. Of the fossil fuels burning gas emits the least CO2. So, a scheme to favour this at the expense of burning coal or oil would favour states with easy and cheap access to gas.

It is these conflicts of interest between capitalist states with different energy supply conditions that is preventing agreement on doing any effective to reduce even the rate of increase of CO2 emission let alone the absolute level.

It is also why no one state is going to unilateral measures to do this. Greens who campaign for their government to be ‘out there in front of the world’ on this are being naïve. Any government which did this would, by undermining the competitiveness of its industries, provoke an economic slowdown with increased unemployment and so likely be voted out of office.

Global warming is a world problem requiring a world solution. This is not going to happen under capitalism. Something may well be attempted, but it will be too little, too late. The only framework within which the problem can be solved is where the Earth’s resources have become the common heritage of all. Then there will be no capitalist vested interests standing in the way nor any market forces working against a solution.