Climate Neutrality and Democratic Ownership after COVID

On 21 October, the Copenhagen-based Democracy in Europe Organisation (DEO), along with the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office, hosted a forum on the challenges of a socially just transition to clean energy, with former Copenhagen City councillor Ulrik Kohl. Kohl, a researcher on community energy in the Nordic countries and Southeast Europe with Malmö University and Roskilde University, spoke about the role of the left and communities in organising grassroots, working class alternatives to the capitalist Green Deal.

The idea of a ‘Green Deal’, or ‘Green New Deal’, has increasingly been seen as a panacea for the unfolding climate crisis. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19, it has also been presented as a solution to the global health and economic crises unfolding in the wake of the pandemic. In Europe, the call for an ‘EU Green Deal’ emerged in 2019, centring around a target of European Union carbon neutrality by 2050. This year EU leaders made this a binding target, setting a further preliminary greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of at least 55% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels).

Such a rapid transition to green energy and climate neutrality is an urgent necessity, but while welcome, the promised reductions have also been criticised as inadequate. Worse yet, they are unlikely to be met. The reliance on market mechanisms and emissions trading has proved worse than useless, cuts foreshadowed in 2015’s Paris Agreement have simply not eventuated, and without a major change in approach, the latest pledges by world governments at the COP26 summit in Glasgow are likely to go the same way.

Even if these targets were adhered to, however, they would still be reached within the framework of an unjust and exploitative system, that favours corporate power over working class communities. For many on the left, including Kohl, the transition to clean energy must therefore be carried out with the working class at its heart – in fact, it may not be possible without it. Indeed, it is difficult to envision an effective solution to the climate crisis without replacing the capitalist system of production with a democratically-run, climate-neutral, economy.

Central to Kohl’s approach is the concept of a citizen-owned energy system, and in his presentation he drew attention to the ambitious climate energy policy of Denmark’s capital city, Copenhagen, which aims to be the first carbon neutral capital by 2025. Copenhagen is already seen as a global leader on climate and clean energy, and during his time on council Kohl worked on the city’s sustainability transition, sitting on the board of one of cities energy companies.

Most of Denmark’s renewable energy comes from wind, some of it offshore, and most of it on land, and most of it citizen-owned – either individually or via cooperatives. Indeed, among Copenhagen’s sources of energy is an arc of offshore windmills that is partly cooperative owned, and part-owned by the council. For Kohl, this is an important example of how citizen-owned energy production can power our communities.

Citizen ownership of renewables is not a niche phenomenon in Denmark, but a driving force of the transition. It is key to Copenhagen’s carbon neutral strategy – a mix of citizens’ initiatives and municipal ownership. Even so, the wind farms in and around Copenhagen are insufficient for the city’s demand. The council is therefore trying to build wind farms in other parts of Denmark to meet its needs, leading to conflict with disenfranchised locals who will see little of the turbines’ benefits, and have little or no control over their construction.

For Kohl, this illustrates the need for a direct connection between renewable energy projects and the communities hosting them: the people looking at a turbine should be the ones benefiting from it. Unfortunately, this story is being repeated elsewhere, as large scale wind energy is being built, for example in Norway or Germany. Rather than local communities organising for their own wind farms and for a faster transition, they are organising instead against the imposition of other people’s wind farms on their communities.

This problem is being worsened in both Denmark and the EU by rule changes meant to ease the construction of new wind farms. Paying only lip service to grassroots options, they are in fact obstructing them in favour of the corporate players and large-scale construction. In Denmark, this has led to a dramatic drop in the number of wind cooperatives over the past decade, while large-scale, often private, wind farms have spread.

Speaking from Croatia, at a conference on organising for energy independence, Kohl argued for communities to take back control of energy, not only to make a more sustainable planet, but to create jobs, and to build hope for future generations, especially in peripheral areas experiencing high levels of youth migration to cities or internationally.

Kohl ended his presentation with three concrete tasks for the left and climate activists. Firstly, he emphasised the need to pay greater attention to the origin of the energy out communities consume: Where does it come from? Who made it? Where was it made? How can we be part of making it ourselves through, for example, a community cooperative or local council?

Kohl also highlighted the vital role public companies play in Denmark, especially in the energy sector. While public, they are often out of the public eye, and lack the opportunity for citizens to democratically elect company boards. The very few exceptions show the possibility – and need – to bring politics into these boards. Failure to do so means more of the same: board members who often have zero idea of what is going on and have other priorities than serving the climate and people.

Finally, Kohl underlined the need to radicalise energy politics, to stop the worship of questionable new technologies (such as huge energy islands in North Sea running on carbon capture and storage). These projects fit too easily into a slight tweaking of the existing corporate set up – a low carbon capitalist system. Instead, we should focus on technology that is already proven to work and can work at small and big scale.

The issue, for Kohl, is not the technology – it already exists. Rather, it is about people, and how we relate to the technology – what we do with it, and when. Even now, there is still a lot of talk about moving from oil to gas to biomass and so on as ‘acceptable’ transitional steps to full renewables, but perhaps we don’t have time to do anything but the radical correct solution first time. We need to fundamentally change the relationship between humans and nature, and between humans as well, to a system based on respect and solidarity.

This event was part of a series of online debates to be held throughout 2021, addressing the COVID-19 economic crisis and mapping dilemmas, opportunities and strategies for the left. The meetings are a collaboration between the Democracy in Europe Organisation (DEO), the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office and three left-wing parties: Enhedslisten (Denmark), Vänsterpartiet (Sweden) and Die LINKE (Germany).

About the author

Duroyan Fertl is Nordic Countries Coordinator for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Brussels Office and a former political advisor for Sinn Féin and the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) in the European Parliament.