Friday, November 17, 2006

Clean, green energy is possible!

Even John Howard has got the point at last: after Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth and former World Bank chief economist Nicolas Stern's report, human-made climate change can't be denied. It threatens the survival of our planet.

The minor reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions available from existing "solutions"-from the Kyoto Protocol to John Howard's technofixes-won't stave off further destruction. We need a radically different approach-a massive, immediate turn to renewable, eco-friendly energy sources.

Many claim that renewables are simply too costly or unreliable. They even argue that only nuclear power can rescue us from global warming.

This is dishonest. It comes from industry groups and leaders who want society to keep using coal, oil and uranium because they make huge profits from these lethal energy sources.

The Socialist Alliance joins with all those campaigning for a nuclear-free future and real solutions to climate change. We call for:

# No nuclear power plants.

# No new nuclear reactors and the immediate closure of the HIFAR reactor at Lucas Heights.

# Closure of the Ranger, Roxby Downs and Beverley uranium mines, and no new mines.

# No dumping of nuclear waste: waste producers must manage their own waste in secure, monitored facilities at their own expense.

# No new coal-fired power stations.

# More investment in renewable energy technologies and infrastructure.

# Establishment of an industry-funded 10% renewable energy target by 2010.

# Full public ownership of all energy/electricity industries

# Free public transport

# A comprehensive scheme of energy saving

Technologies dependent on finite resources are immensely more profitable than renewable, energy-efficient alternatives. Take the example of the electric car, which runs much more smoothly and needs much less maintenance than its hydrocarbon-powered counterpart. After intense oil and automotive industry lobbying this technology has been sidelined in the US (see the recently released Who Killed the Electric Car?).

Scores of renewable energy technologies are now available. Some of the more well-known include solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, tide and hydro. None by itself can supply all energy needs, but together they offer real solutions.

The main barrier isn't technological: it's lack of funding and, in many cases, the determination of oil and coal multinationals to defend their profits to the point of killing off any competition.

No more coal!

However, in the face of global warming even the John Howards have to be seen to be "doing something". Inevitably they favour those technologies that least threaten the profits of BHP-Billiton, Rio Tinto and Woodside. That's why we are offered the myth of "clean coal", which is still many times more CO2-producing than gas and is to receive more federal research funding than non-polluting alternatives.

Technologies like geo-sequestration are basically flawed because they don't tackle CO2 release, but seek to stick the gas somewhere hopefully safe. The amount of CO2 involved is immense (in Australia alone 1.3 billion 200 litre drums a day), and any scheme to concentrate the gas increases energy loss and the risks of leakage. Moreover, the technology is so new that the treatment falls further and further behind the spread of the global warming disease.

Just as worrying is the rush into nuclear, another "treatment" that could kill the patient. Once again the stampede is being driven by the mining corporations' search for ever-greater profits. Australia has 30% of the world's proven uranium ore reserves.

The number of mining companies prospecting for uranium has increased from five in 2003 to more than 70 today.

The nuclear myths

The movement against global warming must see through the following myths about nuclear power.

Myth 1: Nuclear power is "greenhouse free".

No, huge amounts of energy are needed to construct nuclear power plants and produce nuclear fuel, generating substantial greenhouse gases.

Myth 2: Nuclear power would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To replace fossil-fuel generated electricity with nuclear power globally would require a five-fold increase in the number of nuclear reactors, but would reduce global greenhouse emissions by only 5-10%-nowhere near the 60% reduction required to stabilise their atmospheric concentration.

Meanwhile, the extra 1760 reactors required would produce 2.6 million tonnes of highlevel nuclear waste over a 50-year lifespan.

While emissions per unit of energy from nuclear power are about one-third of those from large gas-fired electricity plants, this comparative benefit declines as higher-grade uranium ores are depleted. All higher-grade ore will be depleted in 50 years at the current rate of usage.

Myth 3: Nuclear power is safe.

An expansion of nuclear power would inevitably lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The "peaceful" nuclear power and research sectors have produced enough fissile material to build more than 110,000 nuclear weapons. Of the 60 countries that have built nuclear power or research reactors, around 25 are known to have used their "peaceful" nuclear facilities for covert weapons research and/or production.

With nuclear reactors comes the constant danger of catastrophic accidents, due to mechanical failures and human error. The 1986 Chernobyl accident caused an additional 200,000 deaths in Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus between 1990-2004. Since then, industry deregulation and privatisation have allowed corporations to cut corners on safety regulations and adequate staffing, increasing the chance of accidents.

Myth 4: Nuclear waste can now be safely stored.

There is still no safe storage system for nuclear waste. Not a single repository exists for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste, which is produced at an annual rate of about 10,000 tonnes worldwide. Technologies exist to encapsulate or immobilise radionuclides, but encapsulated radioactive waste remains a public health and environmental threat that will last for millennia.

Reprocessing spent reactor fuel is polluting, and most of the uranium and plutonium arising from reprocessing is simply stockpiled with no plans for its use. (For further information see Jim Green's "A nuclear answer to global warming?" in Seeing Red, No. 5)

Carbon trading-no magic solution

If coal and nuclear are part of the problem, how can we implement the needed massive turn to renewable energy sources as quickly as possible?

Most mainstream experts, including Nicolas Stern and Howard government adviser Warwick McKibbon, are placing their faith in a carbon tax, specifically a system of tradeable quotas in carbon emission. The idea is that the cost to business of sticking with hydrocarbon-based technologies would be so high that they would rush into renewables.

In theory this "market-based instrument" could certainly have this impact-if the total quota is small enough and the price of buying extra quotas (ie the right to pollute) is high enough. However, the difficulties encountered with Kyoto and in establishing a Europe-wide system of tradeable quotas reveal a huge gap between the theory and practice.

In the European case the total level of tradeable quotas has been increased by harsh pressure from business. It has now reached the point where it is having negligible impact on greenhouse gas emissions. This confirms the 1992 prediction of US economist Thomas Schelling (in "Some Economics of Global Warming" in the American Economic Review):

"A carbon tax sufficient to make a big dent in the greenhouse problem would have to be roughly equivalent at least to a dollar per gallon motor fuel [equivalent to $1.40 in 2005 dollars] … Reduce the tax by an order of magnitude and it becomes imaginable, but then it becomes trivial as greenhouse policy."

Carbon trading is a classic band-aid solution. Moreover, even where quotas are small enough to have an impact, someone has to pay the bill, and it won't be the boardrooms whose job is to "maximise shareholder value". The greater the impact of any tax or quota the more the polluters will pass it on to their "end-users"-ordinary working people. One small example: the Labor states' recently announced carbon emissions trading scheme wouldn't hurt the electricity companies, but it would increase annual electricity bills in all states (in NSW by up to $122), with no plans for compensation.

(For further information see Carbon Trading: a critical conversation on climate change, privatisation and power from the Dag Hammarsk├Âld Foundation.)

The socialist approach

The solutions are out there-and they have even been tested. Since the early 1990s, Cuba has dramatically cut its oil consumption. Basically it was able to do this because it does not have a government run by mega-corporations and it was able to mobilise its people to tackle all aspects of the problem of energy conversion (see the documentary The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, available from the Socialist Alliance).

In Australia, the heart of any shift to energy sustainability must be a massive increase in research and development of renewables. It cannot be achieved without a public Renewable Energy Scheme that brings together all expertise and develops an overall plan for energy conversion and energy saving.

How much would such an effort cost?

In their 2004 study A Clean Energy Future for Australia Hugh Saddler, Mark Diesendorf and Richard Denniss show-on very conservative assumptions-how greenhouse emissions from non-transport energy use could be made to fall by 50% by 2050 (the minimum target required). They cost their main policy proposal for sustainable stationary energy at $630 million a year, just 12% of the annual "perverse subsidies" going to the production and use of fossil fuels and less than a year's spending on the Howard government's criminal Iraq adventure.

A clean, green energy future is possible. Join the Socialist Alliance and fight for it.