Clean, green energy is possible

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Even John Howard has got the point at last: human-made climate change can't be denied. But the minor reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions available from existing "solutions" - from the Kyoto Protocol to Howard's technofixes - won't stave off further destruction. We need a radically different approach - a massive, immediate turn to renewable 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 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.

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

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

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

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 but is to receive more federal research funding than non-polluting alternatives.

Technologies like geosequestration 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.

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

Huge amounts of energy are needed to construct nuclear power plants and produce nuclear fuel, generating substantial greenhouse gases. Further, 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%. Meanwhile, the extra 1760 reactors required would produce 2.6 million tonnes of high-level nuclear waste over a 50-year life span.

An expansion of nuclear power would inevitably lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the constant danger of catastrophic accidents due to mechanical failures and human error.

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.

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 Howard government adviser Warwick McKibbon, are placing their faith in 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.

However, as US economist Thomas Schelling predicted in 1992 ("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, the greater the impact of any tax or quota, the more the polluters will pass it on to their "end-users" - ordinary working people. For example: the Labor state governments recently announced a carbon emissions trading scheme that wouldn't hurt the electricity companies, but would increase annual electricity bills, with no plans for compensation.

The solutions are out there. 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 develops an overall plan for energy conversion and energy saving.

In their 2004 study A Clean Energy Future for Australia, Hugh Saddler, Mark Diesendorf and Richard Denniss show how greenhouse emissions from non-transport energy use could be cut by 50% by 2050. They costed their main policy proposal for sustainable stationary energy at $630 million a year, just 12% of the annual subsidies 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.

[Abridged from a statement issued by the Socialist Alliance. To read the full version visit]