Monday, February 2, 2015

How Green is Syriza?

Answer #1: Syriza, arguably the most leftward government to reach power in Europe in nearly 80 years, arrives with high ambitions: its program includes "planned transition to renewable energy" within the context of "a new paradigm of social, environmental, and economic development." Prominent among its supporters are a cadre of altermondialist and environmental activists, whose hopes include "local, small-scale renewables," according to an informed article from the International Council for Science (ICSU), and indeed "movement away from a growth-based economy toward one embracing the increasingly popular concept of 'degrowth.'" In this view Syriza stands poised to show the EU and the world not just how to reduce carbon emissions but how to rebuild a sustainable global economy beyond the reach of the large corporate interests that will never relinquish their fossil-fuel dependency before it's too late.

Answer #2: The situation in Greece and within Syriza, is, alas a bit more complex. Small renewable energy projects, supported by the EU, have advanced for two decades in Greece's private sector, not surprisingly given the high potential for solar, wind, and tidal energy in that country. Investment in those areas, however, has altogether dried up in the wake of Greece's credit difficulties and deep recession, and numerous bankruptcies have poisoned the sector. Along the way, such small, private, mostly Northern European-directed ventures have come to be viewed as 'green colonialism,' a hostile and costly threat to the indigenous Greek energy industry, heavily grounded in ... lignite (AKA "brown coal").

Syriza must thus negotiate between its green supporters and its red ones, the union-based coal workers, whose 'resource nationalism' in this instance is diametrically opposed to the local alternative energy projects favored by environmentalists. Syriza must also consider its pledge to bring electricity to the 300,000 Greeks who have lost theirs, and who will not want to wait a decade or two for solar and wind programs to reach fruition. Dirty coal is the cheap, sensible way to restore their power, and it would be hard to argue against doing it ASAP.

For the longer term, finance minister Varoufakis has pledged a Keynesian, New Deal-modeled investment program in carbon-free energy, but how that investment stimulus proposal will sit with Germany and the Troika is of course the biggest question looming over Greece's future. Implemented, it could under Syriza's sympathetic guidance possibly convince a suspicious labor force to believe in the future of clean energy jobs. But will Greece's creditors even give it a chance?

In sum: There are many ways Syriza's well-intentioned energy transformation program could fail, and many reasons why the largest corporate interests--especially Europe's fossil-fuel monopolies--would want them to. Progressives are rooting for Syriza--as in this paper from Trade Unions for Energy Democracy--to point the way to a centrally-funded, locally-controlled, clean energy sector organized outside the profit-seeking economy with users' interests foremost. They see Syriza's unique position--soon to be buttressed perhaps by Podemos--as the chance to stare down the corporatist EU and institute that 'Other Europe' that has long functioned as a rhetorical trope, if nothing else, of the mainstream Left. Is this the moment when that trope becomes a fact on the ground?

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