Post-carbon transition

Remunicipalisation, social justice & post-carbon transition

The urban is the new zeitgeist in the battle to tackle climate change and produce a post-carbon transition. There are a growing number of initiatives, networks and concepts that attempt to represent the phenomenon: ‘compact’ and ‘smart’ are just two of the many terms that have joined ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ in the urban environmental lexicon. While much of the rhetoric around green cities is, so far, rather short on delivery, it is certainly the case that in a rapidly urbanising world, city-based strategies will be critical to a successful post-carbon transition.

Additionally, given the blockages and vested interests at national government level – where green agendas often struggle to puncture dominant pro-corporate and pro-growth narratives – many local actors (not least in the two current climate change foot-dragging state regimes of America and Britain) are instituting their own policies and targets. Munich, for example, is investing €9bn to achieve its goal of producing all its energy from its own renewable energy production by 2025, and is investing in plant both locally and in other countries. This includes a 30% shareholding in an Irish Sea offshore wind project.

For those on the left, if environmental policies are going to incorporate social justice agendas, it is critical that such urban initiatives are democratic as well as being ‘by’ and ‘for’ an engaged public rather than the traditional technocratic and managerialist exercises.

As I have argued in the Scottish Left Review (see September-October 2015 edition) and elsewhere, a more decentralised approach to public ownership is critical here. In the energy sector, the creation of new forms of municipal ownership in many cities across Europe and America is a welcome development in this respect. In Britain, cities as diverse as Aberdeen, Nottingham and Bristol have established their own electricity supply companies while Sadiq Khan has committed to setting up a London public energy company, following a successful campaign by pressure group, Switched On. The more radical initiatives are linking renewable energy production to integrated city strategies that are also tackling fuel poverty.

In Germany, Hamburg has been an inspirational example. The city established its own public energy company in 2009 and now has 130,000 customers; enough to produce a profit, which is now being reinvested back into producing its own renewable energy from solar and wind power. But, Hamburg shows the political tensions and problems of transition. There, local social democratic politicians and energy sector unions, wedded to coal and nuclear power, with close links to Swedish corporation, Vattenfall, have been a powerful coalition against a more progressive approach to energy transition. Despite a successful 2014 referendum, fought by a citizens’ campaign to take the privatised electricity grid and heating system back into public ownership, the ruling social democrats have so far blocked moves for a fully integrating municipal company capable of making a more decisive step-change towards transition.

Equally significant to the big city trend in Germany has been remunicipalisation campaigns in smaller towns and cities. Many rural towns in otherwise conservative regions such as Bavaria and Baden Wurttemberg have seen impressive grassroots campaigns led by local residents that push local governments into taking action. An oft-quoted example is the town of Wolfhagen (population approximately 14,000) in the state of Hessen, which has won a federal government award as an ‘energy efficient town’. The local town council bought back the grid from EON Mitte in 2006 following a six-year campaign against privatisation. Like many other parts of Germany, Wolfhagen still retained a small energy producing public company, which gave it the technical expertise both to strike a tough bargain with EON but also to devise a new strategy to promote renewables with the goal of bring self-sufficient in renewables by the end of 2015 (achieved), realised through the construction of 5 wind turbines and a 42,000 panel solar park.

Wolfhagen shows how a new hybrid approach to public ownership can combine citizen involvement with state support – the municipal company that was created involved the setting up of a community cooperative that gives local residents a 25% stake, sharing revenue but also fostering greater civic engagement. This kind of public-public partnership is becoming common in many other cities, from Copenhagen to Buenos Aires, and points the way towards a more democratic model that could be emulated in Scotland’s own transition pathway.

Andrew Cumbers is Professor of Regional Political Economy at the University of Glasgow

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