Climate justice: From green revolution to social revolution

28 November 2018

Climate justice: From green revolution to social revolution

With the Paris Climate Accord in the air, our country threatens to be divided into a 'green' and a 'grey' class. How can we close this gap in perspective on climate change? Last month researchers, representatives of NGOs, SP members and other interested parties came together for a conference in Haarlem.

Sustainability – who's actually against it? Shivant Jhagroe, researcher and advocate of an inclusive climate policy, kicked the conference off with a question. Only one hand went up. Jhagroe is researching the power relations linked to sustainable initiatives in Rotterdam and The Hague and has concluded that poorer people are less likely to support them. In his view, sustainability is such a general concept that real opponents are very hard to find. Without addressing inequality, however, sustainability will become little more than a lifestyle for a small, select group, he warned, where the poor won't gain a thing, and in some cases will find themselves being fleeced. He gave the example of electric cars, which, he said, used batteries constructed with materials from armed conflict zones in Africa.

Another example, closer to home, concerns the tax on energy. Big consumers have here less to lose, concluded researcher Robert Vergeer. While consumers pay an average 10 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), energy-greedy businesses pay a lower tariff of 0.057 cents per kWh, little more than a twentieth of that rate. “The lion's share of the benefits of the current climate policy comes from corporate business,” said Vergeer, “while it's households which carry the bulk of the burden.” The answer to the central question of the morning - “Are our current climate policy policies just?” - appeared in the wake of the presentations by Vergeer and Jhagroe to be beyond doubt.

Bart Wesselink, a researcher at leading Dutch environmentalist organisation Milieudefensie (Environment Defence), also recognises the dishonesty of the current climate policy. “The polluting industries pay between 50 and 150 million in climate tax, but get some 1000 million in climate subsidies. While the SP advocates climate justice, Wesselink, and Kitty Jong from the national trade union federation FNV, employ the concept 'fair transition', a comparable credo. The two organisations want to see a fair division of advantages and disadvantages from climate policy, including on the labour market, and climate solutions accessible to all.

Sustainability: local, or for all of us?

Climate justice: SP energy spokeswoman Sandra Beckerman launched the idea in Parliament, setting the tone for a critical discussion of the pros and cons of our climate policy.

How do we ensure that vulnerable groups also benefit from sustainability measures? How do we arrive at a just climate policy. According to Jhagroe, the issue is to see the climate as a public matter. He warned of the danger hidden within 'localism', or the rise of small-scale sustainability projects. “They're often noble initiatives,” he said, “but as long as the large-scale is missing, climate policy will lack bite.”

Political cartoonist Kees Willemen from Onderdendam, a village near Groningen in the country's north, however, said that he was a proud representative of such localism. The energy cooperative EnergieK Onderdendam, where he is a member of the executive, has existed for only a year, yet its members have managed between them to save enough to buy numerous solar panels. On 10th October the first of these had been installed on the roof of a shed belonging to a local building firm, and was opened in a party atmosphere.

Groningen residents take back the power

EnergieK Onderdendam was established with little help from the local authorities, with the sun-panelled roof being installed by the residents themselves. The provincial authorities did, however, participate indirectly through a network of sustainable local energy initiatives, and were later able to offer the cooperative interest-free loans.

Two years later another local energy cooperative was established following a 'citizen's summit'. His participation in one of the summit's working groups, on energy and sustainability, inspired 'Damster' Klaas Ebels to establish Eendracht (in English, 'Unity'), named after the closed-down strawboard factory, once itself a cooperative. Home-base of the new cooperative is the Opwierde-Zuid neighbourhood, which has a large proportion of social housing and which, in common with Onderdendam, lies smack in the middle of the earthquake zone. It was recently reported that these dwellings would not be repaired, but demolished and replaced.

A local grocer gave Ebels' initiative a flying start by making a roof available for fitting 520 solar panels. A farmer found he had room for three windmills. Groningen Seaport, which manages the harbour at Eemshaven, made thirty hectares of land available for a field of solar panels, 25% of the current supplied by which goes to benefit local energy initiatives such as Eendracht.

The rise of EnergieK Onderdendam and of Eendracht demonstrates how the province of Groningen, where the urgency of abandoning gas is felt more deeply than it is elsewhere in our country, is a fruitful breeding ground for green initiatives from below. It is not only the damaging gas industry that stands in stark contrast with the two sustainable cooperatives, as Ebels points out. “Appingedam lies in the shadow of the Eemshaven,” he explains. “There are three major power stations there, two of which are in the top ten polluting power stations in the Netherlands.”

But these energy cooperatives – aren't they just toys for the well-off? According to participation expert Michiel Hulshof, things aren't so black and white. “Energy cooperatives are found fir the most part in areas where people are already well-organised”, he says. Onderdendam would appear a good example of this. “We have long been known as the most self-reliant of villages. The local marina, but also the forest, were created by the residents themselves, and it's precisely on such a small scale that you get a more rapid snowball effect.”!

So Ebels and Willemen appear not to have much time for Jhagroe's warning about the dangers of localism, because, as Ebels asks, why should you make yourself dependent on big, powerful energy corporations? Willemen goes a step further. “You can't put change in course from above,” he says. “That's doomed to fail. Change has to be built empathetically, house to house, kitchen table to kitchen table.” Jhagroe meets the Groningens halfway. “Cooperatives are generally more democratic than the government” he agrees. “But some direction is needed if some areas aren't being served.” SP member of Parliament Sandra Beckerman takes a different approach. “What Klaas and Kees are doing with their cooperatives is, in fact, an attack on the neoliberal system,” she says. “They're taking back the power.”

Big polluters pampered

'Climate Accord': words which buzzed around the conference throughout. People who chose to take part in the climate workshops, which included representatives of the FNV and Milieudefensie, have been working since the start of the year on agreements to ensure that the Netherlands meets its climate goals. And the SP's contribution? Lilian Marijnissen, the SP leader, who closed the conference, was categorical. “Our climate policy will be just, or it won't be at all.”

Marijnissen has science on her side. An article appeared last spring in Nature Climate Change which demonstrated that economic equality, both within and between countries, is crucial for the achievement of the climate goals, while current climate policies serve to exacerbate inequality. “As things stand the poorest people in the Netherlands pay the biggest proportion of their income for climate policy, some 5%,” Marijnissen comments. “The richest ten percent pay only 1.5%. With the existing policies this difference threatens to become wider.” Companies, collectively responsible for 80% of Dutch carbon emissions, are pampered by the government. Moreover, the more you emit, the less you pay per ton of CO2. This is why the SP will be opposing the increase in domestic energy bills recently announced by the government, for as long as it remains unclear how the major polluters are going to contribute. “This increase in energy tax must be rejected,” insists Marijnissen.

According to her, the present government is presenting the energy transition as principally an individual responsibility: a better world begins with yourself. Yet hardly ninety corporations are responsible for two-thirds of global CO2 emissions. “Our economic system is based on continual growth,” says Marijnissen. “Growth of capital in the hands of a few. Marx reminds us that humanity stands constantly in a close relationship with nature. He describes this relationship as 'metabolic'. But capitalism brings about a break in this metabolism. It subjects the earth to overexploitation. The climate problem is not only a greenhouse gas problem, it's also the problem of a free market ideology.”

How can we ensure that the green revolution also becomes a social revolution? Sandra Beckerman, who took the initiative to organise the conference in Haarlem, intends to launch a proposal that will ensure that big corporations pay much more for their carbon emissions. “The resulting money will be used to help households, as well as companies who are going in the right direction, to economise on their energy,” says Beckerman. The SP also wants to give people more of a say over their energy supply. “Dozens of local councils are keen to sell their shares in Eneco, the only energy provider still in public ownership. The selling off of Essent and Nuon has shown that privatisation leads to job losses and to less sustainability. So the state needs to buy shares in Eneco if and when local authorities sell them.” But also the arrival of more and more local and provincial energy companies gives, in Beckerman's view, more power to ordinary households. “People like Kees and Klaas won't put up any longer with being endangered by gas extraction and having no say over their energy supply, or with a climate policy which far from making the future better, will make it worse.” This inspiring conference in Haarlem was only the start of the struggle for climate justice.”

This report was prepared by Lesley Arp and first appeared, in the original Dutch, in the SP monthly magazine Tribune.

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