At the heart of ‘climate production’ is the transportation system, which in turn is centered on the passenger car. It is not surprising, then, that the much-vaunted mobility transition is dominated by competing automobile corporations – one of the world’s largest industries in terms of revenue. But civil society actors, as well as workers and trade unions in general, are also involved in the transition struggles. There are voices for changing the whole system of production. Wouldn’t this be a starting point for cross-class alliances that promote a transition from exploitative and polluting capitalism to an ecosocialist society? In his contribution to the BG text series “Allied Grounds,” researcher John Szabo maps the conflict.
The combustion of fossil fuels continues as 2022 emissions reached new highs rendering the 1.5°C target governments agreed to in Paris increasingly out of reach. 23% of these emissions originate from the transportation sector, the overwhelming majority of which is linked to road transport. The culprits are passenger vehicles, lots of them. Individualized modes of transportation based on the petroleum product gulping internal combustion engine have been at the heart and center of ‘climate production’.
The passenger car is inimical to the further expansion of fossil capitalism because the number and material intensity of vehicles supports an unsustainable growth-oriented paradigm. Decarbonizing transportation is seemingly well on its way, as electric vehicles (EVs) captured both markets and the imagination of consumers that see it as a way to contribute to a low carbon future. This alters fossil capitalism’s trajectory to a somewhat less carbon-intensive future, but the shift itself risks exacerbating social inequalities and perpetuating socio-ecologically exploitative practices: it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
The automobile is heralded as an engineering marvel that allowed for quicker transport since the dawn of the 20th century. It became an object of conspicuous consumption that the wealthiest used in public spaces. These objects of desire formed a dialectic with the expansion of the oil sector: producers drilled millions of wells and refiners deployed complex technology to provide the fuel.
Central to ‘climate production’
The car is a technological artefact that mediates the conversion of fossil fuels into mobility and emissions. Its rise is closely intertwined with industrial capitalism. Manufacturers widely adopted the tenets of Taylorism, streamlining production and allowing for the full-scale alienation of labor. In parallel, the birth of Fordism paved the way for consumerist society by ensuring that production and consumption prompt a spiral of growth. The recipe was simple: pay a segment of workers enough for them to be able to purchase these objects. This would enable a larger consumer basis that would ensure the acceleration of capital accumulation.
The passenger vehicle became an essential component of everyday life in industrialized countries as their numbers and respective infrastructure proliferated. They were at the heart of continued economic growth during the second half of the 20th century, as companies, such as Toyota played a key role in the ‘Japanese Economic Miracle,’ General Motors in the US’ ‘Golden Age of Capitalism,’ or Volkswagen in Germany’s ‘Wirtschaftswunder.’ Labor and capital were aligned in their pursuit of economic growth as the environmental implications of output were neglected.
A booming automotive sector became central to ‘climate production’ as the emissions from refining and tailpipes had a tangible impact by the 1960s and 1970s. Influential works, such as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” or The Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” pondered the environmental implications of unperturbed economic growth and called for action to limit the extraction and commodification of natural resources and the emissions of toxic materials into the ecosphere.
Countries throughout the globe have taken steps to reduce pollution, but this remained overshadowed by the rising number of vehicles. Germany and France introduced environmental regulations in the 1960s while US Congress first regulated pollutants in 1965. These were necessary because the petroleum products (gasoline or diesel) contained sulfur and, upon combustion, they released sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. This led to water acidification and acid rain, which was a key issue at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. Here, car use was not seen as part of ‘climate production’ in the sense that we discuss it in terms of global climate change. But there was already an awareness that it had serious local climatic and environmental impacts. In this respect, certain preconditions for today’s understanding of the problem were created at that time.
Advanced technology vs. labor
Governments gradually increased the stringency of environmental regulations applicable to passenger vehicles during the second half of the 20th century. Europe focused on fuel efficiency following the oil crises of the 1970s, which also tended to have a favorable effect on carbon-dioxide emissions. Diesel became the technology of choice, which was seen as more efficient and also more cost-effective from the consumer’s standpoint given the EU’s general tax policy towards the fuel. Meanwhile, manufacturers resisted other stringent environmental regulations. On the other side of the Atlantic, US regulators targeted NOx and particulate matter emissions, while placing less emphasis on overall consumption. Both approaches tended to neglect an important factor: size. US regulations allowed cars and their engines to grow, while EU carbon-dioxide regulation introduced on the back of its environmental policy introduced weight-based emission standards. The vehicle fleet became heavier, more material-intensive, and more powerful in both markets.
Passenger vehicles became a prime component of ‘climate production,’ but, as the sector employs millions and is key force behind economic growth there seemed to be little willingness to dismantle it and reconsider the transportation sector bottom-up. This was evident in the positions of unions as well. Those in Europe that still had an influence in the governance of respective national automotive sectors tended to see the jobs-emissions nexus as a zero sum question. The general understanding was that the higher technology and capital-intensity of EVs will further weaken the relative power of labor in the sector and render jobs redundant; thus, unions tended to oppose a transition.
Unions opposed the ‘green transition’ because the technology intensity of EV manufacturing further tilts the scales in favor of capital, and there is little sign of adequate social policy on the part of states to offset this. States themselves have engaged in a race to the bottom to capture EV markets and ensure geo-economic supremacy. They are pitted against each other in a global competition that, if lost, could undermine their relative power in global affairs. To capture EV markets the US invested heavily in Tesla, Germany supported national champions, while China has been pouring government funds into the sector for years. States backed corporate activities by subjugating industrial, educational, and a number of other policy realms to the needs of these private actors so they could succeed on global markets.
But why should we talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing in this context? The shift to electric vehicles involves a form of ‘climate production’ that is less directly linked to tailpipe emissions. It will not be the drivers of cars who cause emissions when they commute, but the embodied emissions – that is, not consumption but production-related emissions – and the origin of electricity and materials will be central to ‘climate production.’ At best, this will be low-carbon. Electricity will eventually be decarbonized, given current trajectories, and even the mining required to provide the materials for vehicle production may become relatively emission-free. In the process, the lifecycle emissions of electric vehicles may fall, but their production will continue to be based on deeply unequal, exploitative practices that harm workers and nature.
Consider battery production, where key inputs such as cobalt is concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Lithium in Australia and Chile. These resources must be extracted, usually under lax environmental and labor regulations, to the detriment of workers, local populations, and the environment. They then need to be shipped – a difficult-to-decarbonize sector reliant on heavy fuel oil – to be refined, typically in China. Coal continues to dominate energy inputs here as both labor and environmental laws remain lax. After this, batteries need to be produced, which is not only resource-intensive but also has a high water-, energy-, and waste-intensity. Countries at risk of losing jobs and growth prospects as they move away from the internal combustion engine have accommodated the battery industry, but in doing so they are introducing questionable practices. The latter is reflected not least in growing social opposition in cases such as Hungary and Poland.
The challenges for workers
The new technological system will set in motion a series of lock-ins that will further erode labor’s influence – and thus democratic decision-making – on the energy transition and a low-carbon society. Effectively all processes involved in the production of EVs ranging from mining through battery production to the manufacturing of these vehicles are highly automated and require less labor. This could be offset by growing production, but that, perpetuates a growth oriented paradigm that remains extremely material-intensive. The capital-labor balance will continue to deteriorate in favor of the former, and reversing it will become increasingly difficult. Unions have superseded framing the transition as a zero sum issue between internal combustion engine vehicle production and a low carbon transition, but they tend to focus on their narrowly defined mandate of ensuring jobs for their members.
Unions need to seize the moment and push for cross-national and cross-sectoral organization that aims to connect the transition with elimination of other exploitative practices and the introduction of alternative solutions. Technology will reduce the labor-intensity of production pitting countries, companies, and workers against each another. Instead of trying to prolong this system, social policies that address the slide must be at the top of the agenda. It should not be limited to the question of universal basic income, but should also consider the possibility of universal basic outcome – that is, universal basic services. And universal basic services should not be a question of if, but of how soon, and how comprehensive.
Unions are also in a position to lobby companies to move away from a profile that continues to focus on individual transport and to advocate a greater role for public transport, a rethink of urban and suburban areas, the development of cycling and cycling infrastructure, and so on. Unions, and more broadly working people, need to recognize the current rupture in the socio-political system as one that cannot be fixed simply by replacing 3+°C climate production practices with those compatible with the 1.5°C goal. The latter remain deeply exploitative and socio-ecologically unsustainable, and continue to give capital power over labor, thereby exacerbating inequalities. Thus, while labor still has some power, it should be used to resist the rise of green capitalism and pursue a proto-socialist transition.
Note from the editors: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here: https://allied-grounds.berlinergazette.de