A question of power

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At the very sharp end of the climate change crisis is the energy question. Most of the

planet’s electricity generation is derived from coal, and all motorised transport requires

the consumption of fossil fuel or other organically derived material. Coal, oil, gas and

so-called “biofuels” are all based on carbon. When carbon is burnt, it oxidises, forming

carbon monoxide, a deadly poison, and carbon dioxide (CO2), the main contributor to

global warming. There’s no escaping the basic chemistry. Burn one tonne of carbon and

you get 1.9 tonnes of CO2. (The extra mass is the oxygen.) And, depending on the purity

of the material, there’s also a proportion of other poisonous gases, nitrogen dioxide, and

sulphur dioxide, which cause acid rain. Carbon-based fuels are dirty fuels.

That’s why the latest spin from the pollution lobby — “clean coal” — is a big lie. But

that’s no surprise: it’s capitalism, where big corporations hold the power — in more ways

than one.

Removing carbon dioxide from power station emissions is technically possible, but

it has never been done on a large scale. And there’s another, more difficult, question:

where to put the billions of tonnes of carbon that now go into the atmosphere. All of

the scientifically plausible solutions to this problem are either environmentally risky

or require huge increases in energy use. In other words, to remove the carbon from the

chimneys, more carbon must be burnt in those chimneys.

Their masters’ voice. Sometimes capitalist politicians tell the truth, inadvertently of

course. Recently Peter Garrett, federal Environment Minister, defended a cut to the

subsidy for domestic solar generation by saying that the industry was overheating. His

meaning was clear: the installation of photovoltaic solar panels is too successful. The

pollution industry he represents — coal miners, oil drillers, electricity generators — were

unhappy with the threat to their profits. They successfully lobbied the Rudd government

to kneecap their competitors in the May budget. That decision led immediately to

the virtual destruction of an industry with a product that saves money and reduces

greenhouse emissions.

Another example of the pollution lobby getting its way is the recent announcement of

yet another brown coal power station in Victoria. State Energy Minister, Peter Batchelor,

claims that the new plant will reduce emissions by 30%. In fact it will increase C02

emissions by 2.5 million tonnes per year. It might be cleaner than existing plants, but

only because Victoria has some of the dirtiest generators on the planet.

These episodes reveal how companies, which maximise profits by maximising waste,

manipulate the debate over greenhouse gas reduction.

They pollute, we pay. In July, a major report by professor Ross Garnaut recommended

the creation of an emissions trading scheme. The government would set a cap on the

total amount of emission of a pollutant. Companies would be granted, or made to bid

for, a base level of pollution “credits.” High polluters then would have to buy more

credits at the market price, incurring a cost for their waste. Low polluters would make

a profit by selling unneeded credits. It sounds fine in theory, but it suffers from three

fatal flaws. Firstly, it does nothing to reduce emissions unless the cap is progressively

reduced. It’s a sure bet that the pollution lobby will fight every proposal to cut outputs.

Secondly, it places the emphasis on individual behaviour and lifestyles, rather than the

fact that climate change is a result of systemic economic failure. Lastly, as a consequence

of that emphasis, it lays the heaviest burden on the poor. Power generators and other

big polluters had already promised to pass on all costs to consumers. Relatively well-
off households may be able to reduce their “carbon footprint” by upgrading household

appliances, buying less thirsty cars, building energy efficient homes and the like.

(Although perhaps not photovoltaic solar panels!) Those options are open to a minority of

the population. The rest of us, struggling to pay the mortgage or rent, the utility bills and

transport costs, are not able to make the changes needed to avoid rising energy costs. And

though a recent poll shows that most Australians are willing to pay to reduce pollution,

what’s proposed looks set to stretch household budgets to breaking point. And emissions

trading schemes will neither reduce pollution nor mitigate climate change.

The economics of waste. Any strategy aimed at reducing CO2 without changing the

economic system comes up against a fundamental barrier. Energy extraction and its

accompanying pollution are very lucrative businesses. In fact there is nothing more

profitable than selling something which is immediately destroyed, and which must be

constantly replaced. Anthropogenic (artificial) climate change is a reality precisely

because corporations have made money out of spewing waste into the atmosphere and

effluent into the water. And they will continue to ravage the planet until the last barrel

of oil is sold. Capital exists not to benefit humanity, but to create more capital. Oil

production may have peaked, but there’s still money to be made from it for decades.

The planet has many hundreds of years’ supply of coal and natural gas. As long as there

is a buyer for these commodities, they will be sold, and their carbon will end up in the

atmosphere.

Here’s the problem: it is necessary to stabilise CO2 at less than 450 parts per million

to avoid the worst effects of global warming. But if business as usual is permitted to

continue, emissions will double by 2055. Unless there is a major reversal, the climate will

reach a tipping point in the lifetime of the current cohort of infants. This could lead to

catastrophic ecological change, the collapse of the population and the destruction of the

global economy. The collapse of the market will stop the pollution. And there’s the irony.

The market devastates the planet and so devastates itself.

Australia has its own example of this — it’s the Murray-Darling basin. Agribusiness

has all but killed the river system. Then, when it is almost beyond hope for the lower

Murray and its lakes, the Prime Minister and the state Premiers sit around a table and

vote to grant more corporate welfare for the culprits, putting profits before stream flows.

Almost certainly, they have killed off the Murray downstream of Renmark, destroying all

economic activity associated with the river.

Take back the planet. The logic leads to only one conclusion — it’s imperative that

humanity ditches capitalism, and soon! We already have the technical solutions to many

of the problems. Renewable energy generation is readily available. It’s just a matter of

distribution, which is hampered by the profit motive. The solution to global warming is

political. We technicians, educators, builders, forest rangers and any of the vast range of

workers already run the world. We keep the planet’s economy running. That vast pool of

knowledge and industry needs to be directed to the needs of the global ecology.

In our path stands a tiny minority, which exploits our labour and poisons our homes.

It’s imperative that together we take only one decision. If they can’t, and won’t, act on

climate change then we must. If their political and economic system is the source of the

crisis — and it is — then we must replace it with a system that works for the people and

the planet. I call that “socialism.” However, if you have another word for a society that

equitably shares our collective resources and gives everyone a chance to work for the

betterment of themselves and the world, I’m not fussed. Let’s just make it so!

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