Supply and demand

We are addicted to fossil fuels, so the news that European oil and gas supplies may be interrupted by the current global geopolitical situation linked to the unravelling humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is focusing minds.

‘Something must be done’ before the lights go out and the home fires stop burning. However, in a myopia we are sadly used to, the talk from the major news outlets is all about just two ‘solutions’ to the problem of decreased oil and gas supply.

On the one hand, we must put on hold this whole inconvenient net-zero business and get fracking, mining for coal, and drilling for oil and gas. ‘There’s a war on, you know’.

This, of course, is the call from those on the climate denial right, who sniff opportunity to push their dismal agendas; those members of the newly formed ‘Net Zero Scrutiny Group’ and – in a career rethink – our very own ‘man of the people’, Nigel Farage. 

Some may add the claim that, actually, burning more fossil fuels is fine in terms of climate ‘because of carbon capture and storage technology’.  But as Greenpeace have said, this technology is still unproven, is energy-hungry, potentially more expensive than alternatives and, to be blunt, keeps us addicted.

On the other hand, there are those who see opportunity in the much-lauded ‘Green New Deal’ and want fast investment in green energy – wind farms, solar, and hydroelectric plants. As Frans Timmermans, the executive vice-president for the European Green Deal, said in early March 2022,

“It is time we tackle our vulnerabilities and rapidly become more independent in our energy choices. Let’s dash into renewable energy at lightning speed. Renewables are a cheap, clean, and potentially endless source of energy and instead of funding the fossil fuel industry elsewhere, they create jobs here. Putin’s war in Ukraine demonstrates the urgency of accelerating our clean energy transition.”

This is understandable and desirable, although not without its difficulties. Renewable energy has its own costs. Wind turbines are great as long as they are properly placed to avoid damage to precious environments, which is possible to do, but needs thought. Hydroelectric? Well yes, but let’s not rush to pour concrete across our estuaries in huge barrage schemes that destroy more than they provide. And solar: again, yes, but do we really want to be taking land out of production (whether that be for food and/or wildlife)? Especially when there are so many equally effective flat surfaces on the roofs of our towns and cities. It’s all about location, location, location.

And somewhere in the distance there’s the whole ‘what about nuclear?’ debate. To be honest, in my humble opinion, nuclear power is a non-starter. First, and most obviously, we need the energy now, but new nuclear capacity will take decades. Secondly, nuclear power is vulnerable to natural disasters (as in Fukushima), human error (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island), and – as we now know – war.

But there’s another aspect to all this which is getting much less attention, mainly because it’s inconvenient to an economic system based on infinite growth. And that is simply that we could reduce our demand for fossil fuels.

There was a good report on just this in October 2021 from the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) based at Manchester University. Entitled The role of energy demand reduction in achieving net-zero in the UK, it described the importance of working to reduce the UK’s overall energy demand in order to meet its net-zero target by 2050.

The main point of the report was:

“Energy demand reduction is a significant enabler of a cost effective, timely and de-risked net-zero target.”

Amongst the many scenarios it modelled, the following things stood out for me.

Firstly, the report points out that three-quarters of the UK’s energy use comes from road transport and 24 per cent from air transport. It asks therefore that there should be no road or airport expansion. This would mean the government, for instance, reversing the decision reached in February 2022 to allow Bristol Airport to increase passenger numbers from 10 million a year to 12 million. Alongside this we should also be drastically reducing air travel in general. On the roads, we need fewer cars, fewer single-occupancy car journeys and more car-sharing. The road network needs to be repurposed for shared and active mobility, investment doubled in public transport, and cycle networks increased in all urban areas.

Secondly, we need to think about heating our homes and the gas we use. This accounted for 15.2 per cent of total national greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. As a priority, we need to begin phasing in heat pumps to replace gas boilers and start to get rid of gas hobs. To this I would add: insulation!  Yes, all those brave souls gluing themselves to the M25 had, and have, a very good point. Insulating our homes better should be an absolute no-brainer. We can also look at work patterns: why are we heating large and expensive offices? Perhaps the major shifts in some sectors towards homeworking– due to the pandemic – could become the norm?

Thirdly, food and farming. Eleven per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and land use. Think of the energy and resource demands in the production of fertiliser, for instance (never mind its effects on our land and rivers). Then think of the food chain from farm to plate, and how much energy that takes.

The intensive meat industry is particularly hungry, not just in terms of its reliance on fossil fuels, but in the destruction of land and soils that could otherwise help store carbon. A little less meat, locally sourced from farms with low inputs (chemical fertilisers etc), has so many benefits; or, of course, a vegetarian or vegan diet if you choose. 

According to the report, by implementing the most radical measures it outlines, the UK could halve energy demand. But to do this, we need the state to show leadership.

But there’s a trick the fossil fuel giants played on us years ago, and it’s still being played. It’s the one where the whole responsibility for climate change gets passed to the individual, while the fossil fuel giants and their political servants get off scot-free.

War in Ukraine: turn your heating down a degree. Global ecological collapse: get a bike. Climate meltdown: recycle your cardboard.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these things. But alone, they simply will not be enough.  Because it’s not you and me that are the problem.

To be blunt, the problem is the rich, the power they acquire, and the resultant massive inequalities their hold on wealth creates. And this in turn is propped up by ownership of resources such as fossil fuels and by the drive for ever-increasing profit. Which is why a more appropriate ‘ask’ in terms of weaning ourselves off oil, gas and coal is not what we can do, but what states can do to drive change and put the needs of citizens before the needs of the rich and of profit.

Think of the domestic demands during WWII.  If the solution had been that we all simply dug for victory but the state did nothing and ‘let the market sort it out’, then we’d have been in a spot of bother. But that’s not what happened. My grandparents did indeed dig for victory, while at the same time, Britain was transformed from a primarily free-market, profit-driven economy to a planned economy. Increasing state intervention was absolutely vital to further the war effort – that’s how the emergency was dealt with.

But in the thrall of capitalist realism, even in a war situation, this is scarcely imaginable. The state has been rolled back and the corporate powers have rolled in to take their place. This is what I think we need to question. The free market, and capitalism, cannot deal with human emergencies – and we are in the midst of a climate and ecological emergency right now. And it certainly can’t help address the crisis of global inequality when those with very little responsibility for the emergency bear most of the burden of its effects.

The Earth is a closed system. There are sustainable limits to economic growth and to profit. Acting on the necessary scale requires sympathetic states representing the interests of the people, not corporate powers representing the interests of a vanishingly small number of shareholders. That is of no use in an emergency.

So, to return to the issue … responding to the current developing crisis for fossil fuel supply in Europe is as much about reducing demand as it is about maintaining supply. But demand reduction is not, solely, the role of the individual: it is much more the role of the state. As a consequence, the state needs to be ‘in the game’, showing leadership, and not being afraid to be radical, using taxation, policy change, legislation and regulation to deliver the changes that are needed – and rapidly.