Sunday, 16 December 2007

Bali and greenwash

This week the news is all about getting international agreements on reducing emissions. This would sem to be great news, but so far all we've seen is an increase in talk and emissions. I will believe they governments are serious when we finally see a reduction.

Last week, as governments gathered in Bali to prevaricate about climate change, a group tried to put this policy into effect. They swarmed into the opencast coal mine being dug at Ffos-y-fran in South Wales and occupied the excavators, shutting down the works for the day. They were motivated by a fact which the wise heads in Bali have somehow missed: if fossil fuels are extracted, they will be used.

Most of the governments of the rich world now exhort their citizens to use less carbon. They have even started to encourage us to change our lightbulbs, insulate our lofts, turn our TVs off at the wall. In other words, they have a demand-side policy for tackling climate change. But at the same time they also subsidise and encourage carbon intensive industry. So the policy will fail, ever increasing barrels of oil and tonnes of coal will be burnt.

Since 2000 the British government has given coal firms £220m to help them open new mines or to keep existing mines working. According to the energy white paper, the government intends to “maximise economic recovery … from remaining coal reserves.”

The pit at Ffos-y-fran received planning permission after two ministers in the Westminster government jumped up and down on Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister in Wales. Stephen Timms at the department of trade and industry listed the benefits of the scheme and demanded that the application “is resolved with the minimum of further delay”. His successor, Mike O’Brien, warned of dire consequences if the pit was not granted permission. The coal extracted from Ffos-y-fran alone will produce 29.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide: equivalent, according to the latest figures from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to the sustainable emissions of 55m people for one year.

Last year British planning authorities considered twelve new applications for opencast coal mines. They approved all but two of them. Two weeks ago Hazel Blears, the secretary of state in charge of planning, overruled Northumberland County Council to grant permission for an opencast mine at Shotton, on the grounds that the scheme (which will produce 9.3m tonnes of CO2) is “environmentally acceptable”.

The British government also has a policy of “maximising the UK’s existing oil and gas reserves”. To promote new production, it has granted companies a 90% discount on the licence fees they pay for prospecting the continental shelf. It hopes the prospecting firms will open a new frontier in the seas to the west of the Shetland Isles. The government also has two schemes for “forcing unworked blocks back into play”. If oil companies don’t use their licences to the full, it revokes them and hands them to someone else. In other words it is prepared to be ruthlessly interventionist when promoting climate change, but not when preventing it: no minister talks of “forcing” companies to reduce their emissions. Ministers hope the industry will extract up to 28 billion barrels of oil and gas from the continental shelf.

Last week the government announced a new tax break for the companies working in the North Sea. The Treasury minister Angela Eagle explained that its purpose is “to make sure we are not leaving any oil in the ground that could be recovered.” The government’s climate change policy works like this: extract every last drop of fossil fuel then blame people for using it.

The same wishful thinking is applied worldwide. The International Energy Agency’s new outlook report warns that “urgent action is needed” to cut carbon emissions. The action it recommends is investing $22 trillion in new energy infrastructure, most of which will be spent on extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels.

Aha, you say, but what about carbon capture and storage? When governments use this term, they mean catching and burying the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels. It is feasible, but there are three problems. The first is that fossil fuels are being extracted and burnt today, and scarcely any carbon capture schemes yet exist. The second is that the technology works only for power stations and large industrial processes: there is no plausible means of catching and storing emissions from cars, planes and heating systems. The third, as Alistair Darling, then in charge of energy, admitted in the House of Commons in May, is that the technologies required for commercial carbon capture “might never become available”. (The government is prepared to admit this when making the case - as Darling was - for nuclear power, but not when making the case for coal). Some are hoping for a techno fix to solve the problems, when we already know how we can make the reductiuons.

Already, encouraged by recent prices, the corporations are pouring billions into unconventional oil. Last week BP announced a massive investment in Canadian tar sands. Oil produced from tar sands creates even more carbon emissions than the extraction of petroleum. There’s enough tar and kerogen in North America to cook the planet several times over.

If that runs out they switch to coal, of which there is hundreds of years’ supply. Sasol, the South African company founded during the apartheid period (when supplies of oil were blocked) to turn coal into liquid transport fuel, is conducting feasibility studies for new plants in India, China and the US. Neither geology nor market forces is going to save us from climate change.

When you review the plans for fossil fuel extraction, the horrible truth dawns that most carbon-cutting programmes on earth are a con. The way things are going runaway climate change is inevitable, however hard we try to cut demand. The talks in Bali will be meaningless unless they produce a programme for leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

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