Tackling unsustainability, with Professor John Barry: are we simply 'Bio-fuelling the Hummer?' (1/2)
Q1. Could you share with us a little about your background and what inspired you to get involved in Green Politics?
I am a Professor of Green Political Economy at Queen’s University Belfast and have been an environmentalist for the best part of my adult life. I am a recovering Green Party politician, having been a co-leader up until 2009. From 2011–2018, I was a Green Party Councillor in Ards and North Down, so I’ve had a long-term interest in green politics and the practice of green politics. Going back a few decades, the origins of my politics lie in socialism. I was a member of the Workers’ Party in Dublin during the 1980s, when I was a student, learning about capitalism and what we would now call climate change or climate breakdown. Overall, you could say that my background and getting a degree in politics stems from a radical political place, and essentially, that understanding capitalism and class is central to understanding the causes of our global climate and ecological emergency.
Q1b. Some of your work focusses on Ireland's ‘Just Transition’ into a low-carbon economy and sustainable future. Yet, there seems to be limited understanding over what this would entail. Could you explain briefly what the term ‘Just Transition’ refers to and how you would envision this transition to look across NI and Ireland?
The Just Transition is a Trade Union concept, dating back to the 1970s. Essentially, it is a policy platform, a strategy of transition, that tells us that no community should be left behind in the transition to a low-carbon economy. For example, what are we going to do with displaced oil workers? How are we going to deal with those whose jobs and livelihoods are in the internal combustion engine? So, it is about putting in place mitigating, compensating measures so no workers are left behind. Furthermore, that no consumers are left behind because part of the problem with a carbon tax for example, which many including myself, would consider having a role in the regulation around transitioning from a fossil-fuelled economy, is that it could increase the proportion of people in fuel poverty. If the price of electricity increases as a result of a carbon tax, there is a danger that the costs of this would be disproportionally borne by those on low income and most vulnerable. So, ‘Just Transition’ is both at ends of production and consumption.
Put simply, a transition to a low-carbon economy is inevitable. In my view, it is up there with death and taxes. However, whether that transition is ‘Just’ is not inevitable. So, with a just transition, which is related to other ideas like a Green New Deal and so on, how can we have this emergence of a new industrial revolution of the low-carbon transition whereby all citizens benefit? Finally, what I do welcome about the Just Transition idea is that it accepts that there will be losses. Certain parts of our economy will have to be retired and the fossil fuel sector will simply have to be phased. This is what science is telling us, it is a crucial part of the next few decades, if not sooner. So overall, Just Transition is making sure the benefits outweigh the costs, those who are displaced by the transition are adequately compensated and that the costs of the transition of equitably born, particularly by large corporations as opposed to vulnerable individuals.
Q2. Presently, we do not own much of our energy. The ‘Big Six’ energy suppliers are owned by European investors, and our infrastructure is owned by the National Grid and investors from all over the world, such as Qatar and the USA. Do you think the answer to transitioning to a low-carbon future requires a shift towards a publicly-owned energy system?
Absolutely. I would be in full agreement with those such as the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who was recently speaking at the Féile na Phobail. There is a pressing and strategic need for the state to step in and plan, manage and coordinate the transition to a low-carbon economy, and while I certainly don’t rule out that aspects of the energy system could be privately-owned, to me, the market is insufficient to the task ahead. We need to see the state coming in, whether it is at the local level of municipal ownership of energy, which we used to have in many parts of the UK, but less so in Ireland.
Overall, the idea of democratic control over what is effectively known as the energy means of production, to me, is an inevitable part of this transition and it should be ‘Just’ and enable the benefits of the transition to be shared among citizens. In my own work, I have described the danger of simply moving to a greening of business-as-usual, or what I call ‘bio-fuelling the hummer’, meaning that we move from privately-owned, corporately-owned fossil fuels to privately-owned, corporately-owned renewables. Whereas, renewable technologies lend themselves to collective, public and democratic ownership, where farmers can collaborate, like they do in Germany, and set up a wind energy cooperative.
Germany stands as a good example of an energy transition, where the state is managing and enabling ordinary citizens. For example, those who have a south-facing roof can rent it out to either a private company or a local cooperative looking to install solar panels and make some money from it as a result. This is in complete contrast to Northern Ireland, where I have solar panels on my house, but I am restricted in terms of the number of panels that I can install, and that is a blockage in this democratisation.
For me, the low-carbon energy transition is a fantastic opportunity to create a decentralised, smart grid system, where you can have different types of ownership and control relations around energy. This would be a much better scenario than simply having a privately-owned system, which is currently the dominant model, or nationally-owned, although I think there is a place for that. Overall, I think we need a mixed political economy for the energy transition, instead of simply relying on a market-led approach. We need to think about co-operatives of citizens, being able to take advantage of this transition and become prosumers – allowing them to both produce electricity from renewable sources and consume it.
Q2b. Many cities are taking their power back and taking control of their local energy supply. The German city of Munich has committed to developing an electricity supply that is 100% municipal and 100% renewable. How feasible do you think it is for Belfast to do the same, so we can become energy citizens instead of energy consumers?
It is feasible, but you need the political will in terms of how it would be managed. It would have to inevitably include not only renewable energy, but also the existing gas network and so on, and would require democratic, local citizen support. I do think that there is a role for the re-municipalisation of the energy transition, and as you have mentioned, there are lots of cities such as Munich, which have done this.
So, why isn’t the local council, using its general power of competence to begin setting up energy service companies? That some local councils in England are already starting to do. I think it would be a fantastic initiative, but one that requires a lot of political will and determination amongst councils that lack understanding and are very risk-averse. Just as you mentioned previously, the ‘Just Transition’ isn’t well known. This is absolutely the case, and I think there is what I would call, genuine energy illiteracy amongst our population as a whole and that needs to change. So, whilst it is not impossible, I do think it is a big stretch to consider that Belfast is going to set on the course of re-municipalising its renewable energy resources. However, I do think it could do a better job at coordinating the energy system that emerges, which is why I am excited about a new project that I am part of.
I have assisted in establishing the Belfast Climate Commission, which is a partnership between Queen’s University Belfast and the Belfast City Council. It has been established to help, at a high level, coordinate our energy transition. So maybe that is a good start and one option out of that, might be proposals to partly re-municipalise, re-democratise, and bring back aspects of the electricity system or maybe even the transportation system into local public ownership.
Q3. In your contribution to the forthcoming book ‘Planning in and for a post-growth and post-carbon economy’, you asked the question, “how does the old end and the new begin?” In line with that, what do you think it will take for us as a global community, to end our reactive response to climate change, and begin to anticipate these changes instead?
Three words – educate, agitate, organise. I am absolutely convinced that, after three decades as an academic, activist, and indeed I speak now, more as a worried father of two children, that we need to take inspiration from Greta Thunberg and the huge strike for climate action, Extinction Rebellion, that we are going to need citizen, non-violent, direct action.
Our current political policy system, the two Parliaments, have declared a climate emergency, along with France, Canada, and about 70 local councils across the UK and Ireland. Yet, the problem is that this is just rhetoric. We need to see action coming out of this, and I am convinced that technology has a role to play. Furthermore, citizen action to demand, whether it is energy democracy, the re-municipalisation of a low-carbon energy system, is necessary to make our decision-makers move from rhetoric to determined climate action, in order to decarbonise the energy system. However, it is not just the energy system, our food system is also dependant on the energy system. It takes a lot of fossil fuels for nitrates, fertilisers, and machinery. So, our energy system not only surrounds heating and electricity, but it encompasses our planning system, how the economy works, our food and transportation systems.
Overall, it will be a massive change, one that is exciting but daunting. What we need to see happening now, is citizens around the world supporting the youth of the future. This is what I would encourage people to do, as well as lobbying politicians to respond to consultation documents. However, whilst all these things need to happen, they are insufficient. The scale of what we are facing is wartime mobilisation. If the science is telling us that we have got under a decade to make these changes, then why on earth do we think the mundane, ordinary, business-as-usual decision making is going to get us there? We are living in extraordinary times and need to move beyond business-as-usual. Therefore, I gravitate towards this idea of wartime mobilisation, where we begin to act in ways that were once unthinkable. Why not re-municipalise, re-nationalise our electricity system as a way of dealing with the climate emergency?
All these things need to be considered if we are to really show determination around addressing the climate and ecological emergency. Otherwise, it is just rhetoric to make us feel good. That is why we need more political, democratic and non-violent direct action by citizens. Although it is important to acknowledge that the cause is structural. We are locked into a carbon-based, capitalist growth system, and that is the root cause of it. However, what about our young people, who have not even got the right to vote? It is our generation’s responsibility to stand beside them and fight for their future so that they can have a liveable, climate stable world.
Take a look at Professor John Barry's publication, 'Bio-fuelling the Hummer?: Transdisciplinary Thoughts on Techno-Optimism and Innovation in the Transition from Unsustainability'