Climate change: False solutions and government inaction

By Shua Garfield

2008 was the 9th warmest year since measurements began in 1880, according to data published by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies on January 13. At 0.44oC warmer than the 1951-1980 average, it was also warmer than any year on record prior to 1998. The 10 warmest years on record have now all occurred since 1997. According to the World Health Organisation, the effects of this warming — increased frequency of storms, floods, droughts and associated crop failures, as well as spread of tropical diseases to areas that did not previously have a tropical climate — are already killing an average of 150,000 people per year.

And according to the most up-to-date scientific research, the warming has only just begun. The green-house gases (GHGs) already in the atmosphere threaten to raise the earth’s temperatures by another 0.7-3.6oC, according to an article published in the September 23 issue of PNAS, weekly journal of the National Academy of Sciences of the US, by V. Ramanathan and Y. Feng of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California. This could destroy the Amazon rainforest and melt the Arctic ice cap, Greenland ice sheets and the Himalayan glaciers — the source of Asia’s 9 largest rivers, which are essential to the food production that feeds half of humanity. According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2008 report, at the rate that industrial GHG emissions are growing, the temperature increase could exceed 6oC — enough to wipe out most of the Earth’s species.

Despite the growing warnings about the potentially devastating impacts of GHG emissions, the world’s capitalist governments are unwilling to take the measures necessary to avert these catastrophes. International negotiations in Copenhagen at the end of this year — intended to reach agreement on an international framework to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012 — are likely to entrench emissions trading as the central approach to the crisis. This approach, where corporations must buy permits to emit a certain amount of GHG pollution, allows governments to avoid responsibility for developing solutions to the problem, instead leaving it to anarchic market forces, while allowing individual consumers to suffer the costs of putting a price on pollution. Because this method is incapable of delivering rapid, deep cuts in emissions, the governments supportive of this method all avoid commitments to pollution reduction on the scale that would allow stabilisation of atmospheric GHG concentrations at safe levels.

White Paper

The Australian government’s absurdly low targets for GHG pollution reduction are a particularly bad example of this neglect. In its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme “White Paper”, released on December 15, the Rudd government’s minimum commitment is only to reduce emissions by 5% from 2000 levels by 2020, though it expresses willingness to reduce emissions “up to 15 per cent below 2000 levels in the context of a global agreement where major economies agree to substantially restrain carbon pollution and advanced economies take on reductions comparable to Australia.” The government also declares a commitment to reduce pollution by 60% of 2000 levels by 2050. The White Paper is intended to form the foundation for draft legislation to be released for public comment by the end of February. The government intends to introduce final versions of the legislation into parliament this winter to allow commencement of an emissions trading scheme (ETS) on July 1, 2010.

In a commentary on the White Paper published in the December 20 Age, Ross Garnaut, the government’s top climate change policy advisor, notes: “Within a global effort to hold concentrations at 450 parts per million (ppm), Australia’s proportionate share of the effort would reduce emissions entitlements to 25 per cent of 2000 emissions by 2020, and 90 per cent by 2050. Within a global effort to hold concentrations at 550 ppm, Australia’s proportionate share would be to reduce entitlements for 2020 by 10 per cent from 2000 levels, and entitlements for 2050 by 80 per cent.” According to a study of the association between atmospheric CO2 levels, temperature and climate over millions of years published in June by James Hansen — director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies — atmospheric concentrations of 450 ppm in the past have been associated with the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet, which would raise sea levels by 60 metres. 550 ppm, according to this study, could raise average global temperatures by 6oC.

According to Hansen, it would be unsafe to stabilise GHG levels above 350 ppm. Since pre-industrial times, atmospheric levels have risen from 280 ppm to 385 ppm. However, according to Hansen, “if there were a prompt moratorium on construction of new coal plants, and if existing ones were phased out linearly over the period 2010-2030, then atmospheric CO2 would peak during the next few decades at an amount somewhere between 400 and 425 ppm … [I]mproved agricultural and forestry practices, including reforestation of marginal lands, could bring CO2 back below 350 ppm, perhaps by the middle of the century. But if construction of new coal plants continues for even another decade it is difficult to conceive of a practical, natural way to return CO2 below 350 ppm.”

Corporate welfare

Rather than commence a massive program to replace coal-fired power — which produces 82% of Australia’s energy — with renewable energy generation, the government promises to hand out $3.9 billion to the most polluting coal-fired power stations. The White Paper explains: “Some coal-fired electricity generators are unlikely to be able to pass on their full carbon costs, because they are constrained by competing generators with a lower emissions intensity … [T]he competitive position of the most emissions intensive coal-fired generators is reduced, resulting in … lower generation volumes, reducing profits. This is likely to lead significant impacts on the asset values of some coal-fired electricity generators.” Thus the Australian government is worried that even its weak emissions trading scheme will risk “adversely affecting the investment environment in the Australian electricity generation sector” and would rather risk adversely effecting the natural environment.

The government is concerned that its scheme also risks “adversely affecting the investment environment” in “emissions intensive-trade exposed industries” (EITEIs), industries which emit relatively high amounts of GHG pollution per unit revenue and compete on an international level to realise profits. Rather than move to shut these industries down or force them to replace their power sources and/or production methods, the government is handing out permits equivalent to the majority of these industries’ emissions for free, to “support their continued growth here in Australia.”

Indeed, according to Garnaut, the level of free permit allocation the government intends to provide to EITEIs is likely to undermine the proposed program of assistance to low- and middle-income people to help compensate for rises in energy, fuel, and other commodity prices caused by emissions trading. This program is supposed to be funded by sales of emissions permits but by 2020 the proportion of permits given away for free may be so high that these funds simply won’t exist.

Justifying this prioritisation of welfare to corporations over welfare to the poor, the White Paper warns: “Introducing a carbon price in Australia ahead of some other countries could risk carbon leakage occurring — that is, activities could move from Australia to elsewhere, with no benefit in terms of global emissions reductions. Activities most at risk of carbon leakage are those that are trade exposed and highly emissions intensive.”

However, the White Paper then goes on to note: “Treasury modelling suggests that this risk is low and work by the IEA suggests there has been little carbon leakage from Europe since the introduction of the [European Union emissions trading scheme]”. This suggests that the government’s handouts are simply intended to allow these companies to continue current levels of pollution with less impact on their profit margins. And any risk of carbon leakage that does exist is due to the fact that capitalism allows investment decisions to be made privately on the basis of what will deliver the most profits to individual companies, rather than subjecting socially-important decisions to rational, democratic, international planning.

“Clean coal” and nuclear power

While billions are handed out to the most polluting industries, the Renewable Energy Fund that the government plans to establish is only allocated $500 million. The government only aims for 20% of Australia’s energy to be produced by renewable sources by 2020. Meanwhile $600 million is allocated to develop technologies that will supposedly reduce emissions from coal-burning, such as geosequestration (also known as carbon capture and storage or CCS). There is no evidence that this technology will ever be able to trap and store the majority of coal-related GHG emissions and even its supporters admit that if it can, it will not be available for large-scale global implementation for over a decade.

“Clean coal” is only one of several technological magic bullets that are being promoted as a substitute for the inability and unwillingness of capitalist governments to implement a rapid and massive reorganisation of production including a transition to renewable energy. Another is nuclear power, which recently received the support of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (AATSE) and which is now promoted by Hansen in the USA.

In a December 29 open letter to Michelle and Barack Obama, Hansen writes: “One of the greatest dangers the world faces is the possibility that a vocal minority of anti-nuclear activists could prevent phase-out of coal emissions.” This is despite Hansen noting that “Energy efficiency, renewable energies, and a “smart grid” … can perhaps handle all of our [energy] needs” and admitting that “Nuclear power plants being built today, or in advanced stages of planning, in the United States, Europe, China and other places … produce copious nuclear waste.” This waste, and the threat of nuclear weapons development that accompanies any nuclear power program, would seem to better fit the category of “one of the greatest dangers the world faces” than anti-nuclear activists.

To assuage legitimate fears about nuclear power, Hansen calls for the development of “Generation 4” nuclear reactors, using technology that will turn nuclear waste into fuel, solving the problem of current and future waste and eliminating the need for GHG-intensive uranium mining, milling, and enrichment processes. However, the problem with this technology is the same as with geosequestration: It doesn’t exist. AATSE predicts that it won’t exist until around 2030. In the mean-time, the promise of such technologies is used by the uranium and coal industries to continue and expand their extremely environmentally destructive activities and discourage prioritisation of renewable energy technologies, many of which are already available for large-scale implementation.

Hansen’s open letter also calls for a carbon tax, to replace ETSs which he acknowledges “do not work”. He proposes a “tax (on oil, gas, and coal) at the well-head or port of entry. The tax will then appropriately affect all products and activities that use fossil fuels. The public’s near-term, mid-term, and long-term lifestyle choices will be affected by knowledge that the carbon tax rate will be rising.”

This proposal is based on an assumption also used by supporters of ETSs: that price signals and market forces will “spur innovation as entrepreneurs compete to develop and market low-carbon and no-carbon energies and products”. Thus no government or corporation need take responsibility for developing these solutions through rational allocation of resources because “the market” will spontaneously generate them itself!

Hansen suggests that the revenues from a carbon tax be distributed equally among all citizens. This would allow a “person reducing his carbon footprint more than average [to make] money. A person with large cars and a big house will pay a tax much higher than the dividend.” He assumes that with increased energy prices, “low and middle income people, especially, will find ways to reduce carbon emissions so as to come out ahead.” Thus, governments and corporations can avoid responsibility to radically alter methods of production because isolated individuals will somehow “find ways” to alter consumption. If a low-income individual does not have access to these unspecified “ways”, they just have to suffer the increased prices.

Cuba’s positive example

Small, relatively poor Cuba provides a far superior model of how to transform society for sustainability while maintaining living standards. In 2005-06, the Cuban government mobilised 30,000 social workers, many of them university students on study leave, to install 9 million energy-efficient light globes and replace millions of obsolete electrical appliances with low-energy ones. By mid-2006, this program had cut electricity for lighting by a third.

To reduce reliance on cars in the early 1990s, the Cuban government imported 1 million Chinese bicycles and sold them at highly subsidised prices. Public transport is also highly subsidised. Cuba is the only country in the world that has implemented a large-scale transition to organic agriculture. Urban organic gardens produce the majority of vegetables consumed in Cuba’s cities, cutting down on the need for long-distance, petroleum-fuelled transport of food.

Cuba has developed its own publicly-owned photovoltaic solar panel manufacture. Solar power provides electricity to off-grid rural areas, including several hundred hospitals and community centres and more than 2000 schools. Recently, in partnership with Venezuela’s revolutionary government, Cuba has installed solar panels in 8400 Bolivian communities that had previously been without electricity. Waste material from Cuba’s sugar industry is also burned to generate electricity, providing 30% of Cuba’s energy needs during the harvest season. Between 1959 and 2006, reforestation campaigns increased forest coverage from 14% to 24.3% of Cuba’s land area.

In 2006, the World Wildlife Fund declared Cuba the only country in the world that enjoys sustainable development. Cuba has achieved this unique distinction, despite being subjected to a vicious economic blockade by the US government, because it does not allow its mines, factories, power plants and agricultural land to be controlled by capitalist corporations. Thanks to its 1959 revolution, these resources are publicly owned and managed in the interests of working people, and can therefore be subject to a national plan designed to meet the needs of the majority, rather than delivering profits to a tiny minority of wealthy business owners.