Monday, October 31, 2005

power to the people

Whilst at the Big Green Gathering this summer, I learned about the ecological devastation caused at Cefn Croes wind farm, which opened near Aberystwyth in June.

Wind farms are portrayed as environmentally sound, yet at Cefn Croes they'd drained a peat bog - a rare habitat of undegraded moss which releases massive amounts of CO2 once dried - and trees had been felled as each turbine needed over 60 surrounding acres tree-free.

This week I learned that the controversial Romney Marsh wind farm is to go ahead, with all the attendant carnage for bird life.

And whilst we have to get ourselves off fossil fuels pronto, we cannot switch to wind farms for anything like a full solution.

As George Monbiot explains,

Wind farms, while necessary, are a classic example of what environmentalists call an 'end of the pipe solution.' Instead of tackling the problem - our massive demand for energy - at source, they provide less damaging means of accommodating it.

Or part of it. The Whinash [wind farm] project, by replacing energy generation from power stations burning fossil fuel, will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 178,000 tonnes per year.

This is impressive, until you discover that a single jumbo jet, flying from London to Miami and back every day, releases the climate change equivalent of 520,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. One daily connection between Britain and Florida costs three giant wind farms.

By those figures, even three Romney Marshes wouldn't offset that single jumbo jet.

So, what's to be done if wind farms won't do enough? The most important thing by far is, as Monbiot says, reducing demand. Encouraging energy efficiency would help greatly too. The problem with those measures is they're unprofitable. People consuming less discourages economic growth.

In their 1997 election campaign, Labour promised to remove VAT from energy conservation materials (thermostats, insulation, etc). We were in the ludicrous position of having 5% VAT on fuel and 17.5% efficiency materials, effectively encouraging energy use and penalising conservation.

The tax thing might contravene the EU Sixth VAT Directive but they'd do it anyway, Labour said in opposition, citing the Belgian government as having done precisely that in 1995 with no repercussions whatsoever.

'VAT on the installation of energy saving materials under existing grant schemes, such as the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme, will be cut from 17.5% to 5%in the Spring Budget of 1998,' Gordon Brown told the House of Commons in his pre-budget statement that year, getting a huge cheer from his back benches.

But in the end Labour did nothing of the sort. When challenged about it, Labour's junior scumpig Dawn Primarolo said it wasn't possible because they had to obey the EU Directive they'd promised to contravene.

The matter was brought up again in parliament this year, and Primarolo gave the same response, saying the government had 'a long-standing commitment to pursue an amendment to the EU Sixth VAT Directive to permit a reduced rate of VAT for the purchase of energy-saving materials'.

'Long standing' means they've done fuck all to push it forward and aren't going to start any time soon.

Not expensive enough, doesn't consume enough.

Tony Blair said earlier this year

if we put forward, as a solution to climate change, something which involves drastic cuts in growth or standards of living, it matters not how justified it is, it simply won't be agreed to.

Think what climate change could mean. Think what he means by 'it matters not how justified it is'.

He's recently reiterated the point

The truth is, no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially in the light of a long-term environmental problem.

In Blair's party conference speech, he made clear that he was angling to make nuclear energy the solution to the growing energy crisis. Even consuming alternatives like massive efficiency measures and micro-generation (kitting out people with wind generators, solar panels, etc directly on their houses) don't get a mention. He wants a grand, centralised, big profits for big corporations solution.

Faithful ex-Minister of Energy Brian Wilson swiftly agreed about the nuclear plan, and the propaganda campaign builds by the day.

The government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, has recently declared that he cannot give opinions that are 'politically unrealistic', whatever the scientific truth. As he now just gives the government the answers it wants to hear, he too has come out in favour of new nuclear build.

The Science Minister, Lord Sainsbury, tells us that nuclear energy counts not only as low-carbon, but as 'renewable'.

The Blair government's push for new nuclear power stations ignores several crucial factors. Firstly, nukes are of course not renewable. The fuel source is uranium, a rare and finite mineral. Also, the idea that using that source reduces the need for fuel imports is nonsense. Uranium mines do not exist in the UK.

Secondly, they are enormously expensive, several times the present cost of electricity generation. Who's going to pay if we move the majority of power production across to nukes? It's also uninsurable - the cost of cleaning up any accidents would be borne by the taxpayer.

Thirdly, most importantly, it is incredibly dangerous. Even without reactor explosions or meltdowns - the chances of which increase with every new installation that's built - there is the production of waste that's lethal for 20,000 years. That is an almost unimaginable length of time. It is, by an order of magnitude, longer than a culture or even a language lives. There is no way we know of to make the waste safe. But it is being proposed that we vastly increase the quantity we generate and leave a thousand future generations to deal with our mess.

The plain fact is that our way of life is unsustainable, that this generation and its predecessor are blips in humanity and before then nobody needed this huge energy supply.

Furthermore, there is no renewable energy source that can supply our demand. A society that permits passenger aviation and private cars is simply not interested in having sustainable energy.

We have to relocalise our lives, everything from food production to holidays, we have to repair and reuse items instead of landfilling them as soon as they have a cosmetic blemish. We have to understand that perpetual economic growth is not only undesirable but actually impossible. 'Economic growth' is a synonym for 'accelerated consumption of mostly finite resources'. It doesn't take a particularly great mind to work out why you can't indefinitely consume finite resources at an ever increasing rate.

The longer we perpetuate the myth of perpetual economic growth, the harder the crunch will be when it comes and the worse mess we leave behind us. As if climate change wasn't enough, we now wish to bequeath as much nuclear waste as we can create.

"We are not saints, we are elected officials," the politician said. "Our job is to represent, unfairly and with unethical prejudice and forethought, the powerful and influential citizens within our respective constituencies to whom we owe our political careers, trading in the long-term good of the people for short-term material and political gain, for the ill of all. And that's what evil is all about."
The Onion


Ryan said...

Thing is, the re-localising our lives idea does pretty much condemn the poor world to continued poverty.

The focus of global social movements has been moving towards getting rich countries to drop their tariffs, so we can import agricultural products from Africa rather than flooding their markets with our fruit and veg. You need international trade to allow less developed countries to exploit their comparative advantage.

China has pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty through undergoing a similar sort of dirty industrial revolution to the type we went through (broadly speaking). And who can blame them? Now most people have reached a decent standard of living in the West, and almost stuffed the planet in the process, it's a bit rich to say to developing countries - "right - no more economic growth, you have to go back to sourcing things locally, just like you did a few years ago when you were dirt poor".

I think we can conserve more and have more energy efficient societies without resorting to growing our own vegetables and sewing our own i-pods. Convincing the US, China, Russia etc to do the same will be pretty close to impossible, mind.

I'm getting fairly pessimistic on this issue, this whole issue of the future of mankind... I'm fairly sure we'll keep using stuff up until it's gone, and then cope with the consequences afterwards. And more because of human nature than market forces.

merrick said...

Relocalisation does not necessarily condemn the poor world to poverty (unless by poverty we mean not having cars and TVs and suchlike).

If we are aiming to have massive trade in food, it will be largely done by large corporations and agribusiness.

As we've seen all across the poorer nations, this does not lead to people being out of poverty. It brings in inappropriate farming methods that ruin the land.

Given that agrichemicals are prohibitively expensive for most of the world; that they are fossil-fuel products that will only become more expensive; that they ruin the land and the wildlife around it, it's not something that should be encouraged.

Around the world, if there's non-cehmical farming then small-scale organic production of mixed crops is by far the most productive.

There is no sense in people stopping feeding themselves in order to grow cash crops that then ruin the land and have their prices fluctuate.

Also - and this is the bit that surely convinces - relocalisation will be forced on us if we don't choose it. There simply isn't an afordable method by which we will be able to have massive international transportation of foodstuffs.

So, as I've said, if we choose to see this coming we can ease into it, as opposed to waiting to crash.

Seeing it coming is not just about *us* relocalising, it should include a responsibility to the places where we've destroyed tradtional farming methods that had fed people perfectly well.

The world cannot afford to give a western standard of living to 6bn people, let alone the 10bn who will be here in 40 years time.

Indeed, the recent staggering industrialisation of China that you mention has brought us to the crunch point where oil prices are going through the roof, and yet still the world is so untechnological that half the human race has never made a phone call.

It's not our choice to stop ecomonic growth - it is an inevitability of basing growth on consumption of finite resources.

As the speeding trains hurtles on and the end comes into sight, do we want to slow down and brace ourselves, or do we want to speed up and see what happens when we smash into the buffers?

The latter is the one that condemns the most people to suffer.

I too doubt whehter there'll be any mass realisation in time, but there's a duty to try to make it happen. If we don't try, we'll never know what could've been achieved.

And even if it's not everyone ready, the more people braced for it, the more people thinking about it and having the seeds of ideas of what to do during and after, the better the chances for everyone.