The first article posted here was written by Robert Belano of Left Voice (USA). It examines the role of Biden and the Democrats in the light of Cop26. The second article is a section of a blog from opendemocracy written by Laurie MacFarlane which highlights the role of the SNP government in paving the way for ‘greenwashing’ by the landed lobby.
1. BIDEN AND THE DEMOCRATS HAVE GIVEN UP ON MEANINGFUL CLIMATE CHANGE ACTION
Democrats have accepted major cuts to Biden’s already-inadequate climate and social-spending plan, once again showing that the interests of big business come first for the party.
Build Back Better was supposed to solidify Biden’s legacy as a historic leader on climate action. A coalition of liberal groups like the Sunrise Movement, the Sierra Club, and the Movement for Black Lives said the bill was “much-needed and wildly popular,” and that it included “transformational investments” in climate measures and essential services.
Instead, the bill will only be another testament to the unwillingness of Democrats to put the needs of the planet and the majority of its people before those of big business. The president’s plan has now been pared down by half, cut from $3.5 trillion over 10 years to $1.75 trillion over the same period. Of that, only $555 billion will go toward climate change mitigation over the next decade — not even one-10th the amount the U.S. is likely to put toward military funding during that time.
The news comes, of course, just as the Biden administration is making major giveaways to the world’s biggest polluters at COP26 and abandoning the goal of limiting warming to 1.5º Celsius. Combined with the latest cutbacks to Build Back Better, it is clear that Biden and the Democrats, in the words of Greta Thunberg, “have given up” on taking climate action.
A Thoroughly Diluted Plan
Most conspicuously absent from the new version of the bill is the earlier plan to mandate that 80 percent of the electric grid be powered by renewable energy by 2030 and to impose penalties on energy firms who fail to meet targets. There are no longer any enforceable mechanisms within Build Back Better to bring about a transition to renewables. Without such mechanisms, energy companies have no incentive to move away from fossil fuel reliance and should be expected to continue with the status quo.
Gone too are many of the so-called social safety net expansions that had been included in the bill, including the plans for universal paid family leave, free tuition at community colleges, lowered prescription drug prices, and the inclusion of vision and dental coverage under Medicare. The much-hyped “billionaire tax,” which aimed to raise funding through modest tax increases for the country’s 700 richest individuals, also appears to have little life left. Even the modest increase on corporate taxes to 28 percent — still far from the 35 percent that existed before Trump’s tax cuts — are on the chopping block and will likely be scaled back.
With the passage of a separate $1 trillion infrastructure bill Friday night, the so-called progressive wing of the Democrats lost any leverage they once had. For months, House Democrats, led by the Squad, had refused to hold a vote on the infrastructure bill unless the more expansive version of Build Back Better was put to a vote at the same time, knowing the latter had a far more difficult path through Congress. In the end, the six members of the Squad were left alone in opposition to the bill; all their fellow Progressive Caucus members voted in favor of the bill, and Democrats lost their last bargaining chip in the negotiations with the center-right wing, led by Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. After all the celebration — and handwringing — over the Democrats’ leftward swing, it has been the most conservative Democrats who’ve held veto power over the party’s direction since Biden’s election.
Too Little, Too Late
Even before Manchin and Sinema succeeded in slashing them, the reconciliation bill and infrastructure bill were insufficient to deal with the scope of the climate crisis. The marquee goal of Build Back Better was to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. But as many environmental organizations have pointed out, net zero is a dangerous hoaxpromoted by the world’s biggest polluters to continue emitting carbon. As long as their emissions are “offset” by purchasing carbon credits or using carbon capture and storage technology, companies face no restrictions on fossil fuel usage.
Indeed, the reconciliation bill never imposed any limitations on further fossil fuel extraction or penalized the largest historical polluters. Neither was the funding sufficient to confront the scale of the climate emergency. To put the bills’ cost in perspective, the International Renewable Energy Agency has said $131 trillion is needed worldwide by 2050 to achieve 100 percent renewable energy. Biden’s plan wouldn’t even represent 1 percent of the yearly funding necessary to achieve a full transition to renewables.
The infrastructure bill, meanwhile, allocates billions to industries that are among the most polluting and carbon intensive, including the auto and airline industries. Around $110 billion is designated in the bill toward roads, bridges, and related projects, and another $25 billion will go toward upgrades to airports. Together, the auto and airline sectors account for about one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Far from curtailing emissions from these industries, the infrastructure bill will, in fact, incentivize further growth in both.
It was no coincidence that the bill received bipartisan support, including from former Trump allies like Mitch McConnell. It was heavily influenced by the lobbying of fossil fuel corporations like Exxon. It offers billions in potential new subsidies to oil and gas industries under the guise of climate solutions. According to the Center for International Environmental Law, fossil fuel companies will be eligible for at least $25 billion in new subsidies, in addition to the $15 billion that is already handed out annually. The funding will go toward technologies like carbon capture and fossil hydrogen, which are sold as a fix for the climate crisis but are in fact designed to prop up these industries for several decades to come.
In other words, despite its marketing as a plan to create “sustainability” and “clean energy,” the infrastructure bill is likely to maintain current levels of carbon emissions — or even increase them.
The Current Trajectory
The findings by the IPCC — a historically conservative body — released last summer point to a dire scenario. The past five years have been the hottest since 1850. The carbon budget to keep warming at or under 1.5º Celsius will soon be depleted. Staying within this budget requires a massive scale-down of emissions over the next nine years. Scientists around the world have supported this assessment. Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Energy Justice program, said that to keep warming under the 1.5 degree threshold, the U.S. must “cut domestic emissions by at least 70 percent by 2030.”
Despite the writing on the wall, the governments of the world’s richest countries, including the United States, have taken virtually no action to meaningfully reduce emissions. More than half of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1750 have occurred within just the last three decades. That period includes the presidencies of not only outright climate deniers like Bush II and Trump but also Clinton and Obama, supposed supporters of climate action.
Since the 2016 Paris Agreement, no major powers have made climate pledges in keeping with the 1.5 degree target set during the summit. While the IPCC recommends a reduction of at least 45 percent in global emissions by 2030, according to its latest findings, the Nationally Determined Contributions of all the 191 countries taken together would result in an increase in global emissions of about 16 percent in 2030 compared to 2010. This would put the world on track to a temperature rise of about 2.7 degrees by the end of the century, a prospect that would be catastrophic for hundreds of millions of people around the world
Biden, despite campaign promises, has failed to take meaningful steps to end fossil fuel production. It was the Biden administration that gave the green light to Minnesota’s Line 3, and the administration recently opened up nearly 750,000 acres of public lands to oil and gas leasing. And despite the temporary halt to new leasing ordered in January, more than 2,800 new drilling permits have been issued so far. According to the Western Environmental Law Center, that rate of 351 per month outpaces the Trump administration’s 300 permits per month in fiscal years 2018–20.
What’s Really Needed
Biden and the Democrats have proved themselves unfit for the task at hand, refusing again to take the minimum steps necessary to prevent a climate catastrophe. But despite all the failings of the political class, there’s still hope for the planet. A major public works program, the nationalization of the entire energy sector, and the allocation of trillions toward a renewable energy transition would allow us to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
Yet these efforts require prioritizing the needs of the planet and the majority of its people, not the interests of a tiny few. The two parties of big capital won’t be the ones to carry out the necessary measures. Fortunately, there is a class capable of leading the transition and ensuring a livable planet for all — the working class.
This article was first posted at:-
2. GLOBAL SCOTLAND IS ON THE FRONTLINE OF THE GREAT NET-ZERO LAND GRAB
The rise of the ‘Green Lairds’
Scotland’s attractiveness as a destination for investors seeking to enhance their land portfolio is closely intertwined with its politics, history and geography. Most obviously, Scotland has a large rural land area: 98% of the country’s landmass is classified as either ‘remote rural’ or ‘accessible rural’. One-fifth of the country is peatlands, which, as natural carbon sinks, hold the equivalent of 140 years of Scotland’s carbon emissions. More than eight in every ten Scots live in the 2% of the landmass that is urbanised.
Significantly, however, ownership of this land is highly concentrated. As with the UK as a whole, the archaic patterns of land ownership that were in other nations swept aside by revolution and revolt survive largely intact in Scotland to this day. Despite multiple waves of land-reform legislation following the creation of the devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999, it has been estimated that just 432 individuals own 50% of Scotland’s privately held land.
Land markets across the UK also remain notoriously lightly regulated, meaning that anyone in the world can buy land with little scrutiny. As a 2020 report comparing rural land markets around the world noted: “The UK has no restrictions on inward investment and is among the few developed markets not to have some form of government involvement when buying.” Together with a tax regime that highly favours investment in land and property, these factors mean that large amounts of land can be acquired relatively quickly, with few questions asked.
Scotland’s ambitious net-zero targets are also helping to spark investor interest. The Scottish government has committed to reaching net zero by 2045 – five years earlier than the UK. The government has also introduced a range of grants for landowners to encourage afforestation, helping to create a particularly favourable political context for carbon offsetting.
As a result, the rural land market in Scotland is booming. According to Savills, last year was “an extraordinary year for the Scottish estate market” with a 98% increase in buyers registering to purchase rural property. Funds chasing Scottish rural property increased by 20%, from just over £4bn in 2019 to £5bn in 2020. Around half of the estates were sold privately, without ever coming to the open market. Analysts expect demand to continue rising in the years ahead.
Some companies are purchasing land with the explicit aim of offsetting their own emissions. The craft beer brewer, Brewdog, for example, has purchased over 9,000 acres of land in the Cairngorms in a bid to reduce its carbon footprint. Similarly, oil giant Shell has invested £5m in extending the Glengarry forest in the Highlands, with the aim of planting or regenerating one million trees over five years. The company will use the carbon sequestered by the forest to offset emissions from its fossil fuel activities.
But private investment funds and asset managers have also become increasingly active in Scotland’s land market, lured by the prospect of generating and selling carbon credits. Over the past 12 months, several new, dedicated rural-investment funds have entered the Scottish market to compete alongside larger, more established investors from across Europe and beyond. One of the newest entrants is the Real Wild Estates Company, which aims to “provide investors with access to large UK landscapes of 1,000+ acres which are suitable for nature restoration with viable natural capital potential”. According to one of its co-founders, the company’s mission to “make nature pay by delivering sustainable business returns” is “already passing muster with farmers, forestry, landowners and the City [of London] alike”.
It’s not just private finance that is putting up cash: public finance is being lured into the market too. This year, the Scottish National Investment Bank, Scotland’s state-owned development bank, which opened its doors in November 2020, invested £50m in a new forestry fund established by London-based asset manager Gresham House. The bank’s investment – its largest to date – will help fund tree planting on estates in Scotland, with the aim of sequestering 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 over the next 20 years.
A green transition for whom?
At first glance, this flurry of private and public money into nature restoration in Scotland might seem worthy of celebration. After all, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is clear that meeting Scotland’s target of reaching net zero by 2045 will require planting at least 18,000 hectares of trees and restoring 20,000 hectares of peatland per year by 2024-25. In addition to delivering carbon-offsetting benefits, the CCC believes this will deliver a wide range of other benefits, including improved water filtration and enhanced biodiversity.
According to critics, however, enabling companies to offset their emissions in this way amounts to little more than greenwashing on an industrial scale. The fact is, they argue, there is simply not enough land in the world to offset global emissions, so allowing companies to boost their green credentials by investing in carbon offsets acts as a dangerous diversion from the immediate need to reduce emissions. According to Oxfam, for just four oil and gas producers (Shell, BP, Total and ENI) to meet their net-zero pledges by carbon offsetting, they would require an area of land twice the size of the UK for tree planting. If the entire global energy sector was to set similar net-zero targets, an area of land nearly the size of the Amazon rainforest would be needed, equivalent to a third of all farmland worldwide – which would risk pushing millions deeper into food poverty. It is for these reasons that Greta Thunberg has described offsetting as “a dangerous climate lie”.
But beyond the mathematical impossibilities, at the heart of the controversy around carbon offsetting are issues of power and democratic control. Behind the flowery rhetoric about ecology and sustainability, there are growing concerns that the rapid growth in land purchases for carbon offsetting will push up land prices and rents, displacing local communities while exacerbating an already highly financialised land market. In many cases, this appears to be an explicit part of the business model. The prospectus of the fund that received £50m of investment from the Scottish National Investment Bank promises that “rising land values continue to drive returns”. The tax advantages are an explicit part of the pitch, with the company highlighting how “under current taxation laws in the UK, commercial forestry has the added incentive of being a highly tax-efficient investment”.
Meanwhile, the Real Wild Estates Company’s own financial projectionss how that most of the returns generated will come from a more traditional source: rising rental income. In other words: there is a risk that the carbon-offsetting boom will amount to little more than landlord plundering dressed up in eco-friendly clothing.
The financial exploitation of the Scottish highlands is nothing new: for centuries they have been a playground for Britain’s rich and powerful. But while previous generations of estate buyers claimed they were attracted to Scotland’s land due to its natural beauty or sporting potential, it has, in practice, always been intimately linked to consolidating wealth and power. Today’s new generation of eco-investors are not that different: while the rhetoric may have changed, the economic logic remains the same: land is to be managed with the aim of maximising financial returns for wealthy investors, with precious little concern for the impact on the people that actually live there. It is little wonder that carbon offsetting has been described as ‘Wall Street’s favourite climate solution’.
Companies like Real Wild Estates maintain that their activities will create new jobs for rural communities. But locals fear that the arrival of a new wave of ‘Green Lairds’ has familiar echoes of the Highland Clearances, which saw thousands of tenants forcibly removed from estates to make way for more economically profitable sheep farming during the 18th and 19th centuries.
As Peter Peacock, a former Highlands and Islands MSP and veteran land reform campaigner, recently put it:
The Highlands are once again being sold from under the feet of local people to external forces who can out-compete other interests for land, forcing up land prices, and undermine communities in their ability to take a lead in tackling the climate emergency while also promoting wider social and economic benefit under local democratic control.
As a result, the Scottish government is coming under growing pressure to act.
A community-led approach to nature restoration
The fact that restoring the ecologically barren landscapes in Scotland is widely accepted as a critical priority is a welcome step forward. But as Albert Einstein reportedly said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Addressing the environmental crisis using the same economic logic that destroyed it in the first place risks repeating the mistakes of the past. So what might an alternative look like?
The concept of a ‘just transition’ to a sustainable society centres around the importance of giving those directly affected by climate change a proportionate degree of voice and control. As the Scottish government’s own Just Transition Commission recently noted, “part of ensuring a just transition must be about making sure the benefits of investment in carbon sequestration are felt as widely as possible”. Structuring the benefits of ecological restoration so heavily in favour of businesses and investors is clearly incompatible with this goal.
Thankfully, however, we don’t need to rely on unproven technologies or yet-to-be-invented solutions to set out a different path: viable alternatives already exist. The Land Reform Act of 2003 introduced the Community Right to Buy in Scotland, which empowered local communities by giving them the first option to buy land when it was put up for sale. To date it is estimated that around 560,000 acres (or 2.9% of the total land area of Scotland) have been taken into community ownership. Despite this relatively small footprint, many of these communities have pioneered innovative and inclusive approaches to tackling the climate emergency.
As highlighted in a recent report by Community Land Scotland, rural and urban community owners across Scotland have taken the lead in managing woodlands, peatlands and green spaces; generating renewable energy to address local electricity needs; improving household energy efficiency to reduce fuel poverty; and promoting access to healthy and affordable local food produce. Unlike absentee or corporate landowners, community land-owning bodies enjoy a strong level of local trust, enabling them to take a holistic approach to climate action that combines reducing emissions with delivering wider social benefits to the area.
Community ownership is not an untested, novel idea – it is a proven alternative to extractive green capitalism that can be dramatically scaled up and rolled out across the country. There are, of course, serious barriers to this course of action: local communities will never be able to match the spending power of investors in the City of London. Steps must therefore be taken to provide greater state support to scale up community ownership and prevent a market free-for-all in Scotland’s most precious asset.
As a nation that is on the frontline of The Great Net-Zero Land Grab, Scotland stands at a crossroads: it can either fuel a new era of extractive eco-capitalism or it can pioneer the transition to a more democratic, just and sustainable future.
1. Two Views of Cop26- Christopher Silver, bella caledonia and Mike Roberts
2. A crime against humanity: the greenwash festival of Cop-26
3. The imperial mode of living: interview with Markus Wissen – Ben Wray, bella caledonia