Wednesday, August 20, 2008

scargill, monbiot and what works

The campaign against coal runs the risk of being a back-door for the nuclear power lobby, and vice versa. One of the coolest things about the first climate camp at Drax coal-fired power station was its debut action blockading Hartlepool nuclear power station.

The Kingsnorth campaign has brought the coal back to the top of the climate agenda. A surprising recent development is George Monbiot's declaration that stopping coal is so important that he's shifted position on nuclear power.

I have now reached the point at which I no longer care whether or not the answer is nuclear. Let it happen, as long as its total emissions are taken into account, we know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried, how much this will cost and who will pay, and there is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be used by the military. We can no longer afford any rigid principle but one: that the harm done to people living now and in the future must be minimised by the most effective means, whatever they might be.

Genuine folk hero Arthur Scargill picked Monbiot up on his nuclear ambivalence with a pro-coal piece in the Guardian. He talks of 'carbon capture that would remove all CO2', and reiterates it in an audio interview, saying we can 'reduce the CO2 emissions, in my view, to zero'.

He's saying we should use British coal for our power needs, including making our gas and oil from coal.

Coal-to-liquid is staggeringly energy intensive, but even if all the carbon emitted in production were captured at the plant, we burn the fuel in vehicles. Cars don't have carbon capture.

Worse, the CO2 emissions from coal-liquids are more than twice the emissions from oil fuels. And even with carbon capture, emissions would be 4% more than petrol!

Much of what Scargill thinks is politically far-fetched. He has a firm belief that it can all work if we reopen Britain's deep pits, stop importing coal and bring mining and power into public ownership.

I've no problem with unlikely politics. A business-as-usual approach is a commitment to runaway climate change. Holding out against all forms of radical social change is not far short of a conspiracy to genocide.

However, the vision for that change has to be rooted within the realm of the possible. Emissions need to be declining well within the next couple of decades. We can't wait for miracle breakthroughs, we need to work with what we've got.

The technology Scargill speaks of doesn't exist, and nobody apart from him is saying it will. There will be no 100% carbon capture. There will be no carbon free coal-liquids. It's a daydream that in practical terms is indistinguishable from the idea that nuclear fission/ unlimited magnetic field energy/ shapeshifting lizards who organised 9-11 will come along and save us from climate catastrophe.

Scargill's parting shot to Monbiot is cute

I challenge George Monbiot to test out which is the most dangerous fuel - coal or nuclear power. I am prepared to go into a room full of CO2 for two minutes, if he is prepared to go into a room full of radiation for two minutes.

However, it's as off the point as his fantasy of zero-carbon coal liquid. Nobody's claiming that CO2's threat is from a direct assault on human respiration.

Concentrating on a what-works approach is, Monbiot claims, what's led him to teeter toward a pro-nuclear stance. On Newsnight he reiterated his conditions, the need to be clear 'who' will pay and 'who' will be liable. I note he doesn't offer suggestions of any answers.

The fair thing, and a clearer position, is to say that the energy company should pay and be liable. Not only for decommissioning but for the safe disposal of the waste, its management (and all liabilities in the event of accident) for as long as the materials remain hazardous. As that would be millennia, it would price nuclear out of the market at a stroke. (Incidentally, the same conditions should apply to any company intending to store CO2, including the costs of monitoring and liability for all eternity).

We don't just need deep cuts in emissions, we need them fast. Nuclear power stations would take a long time to plan and build even if they bucked the industry trend and were built on schedule (the nuclear power station under construction in Finland, less than three years into construction, is already two and a half years behind schedule and 25% over-budget).

So even ignoring the issue of radioactive waste or the way it locks us into a heavily militarised society for the next century and beyond, the real point - that one rigid principle Monbiot speaks of - is that we'd not get any real carbon benefits in the next decade or two.

Even beyond that, it's no great shakes. The Sustainable Development Commission note that replacing the nuclear stations scheduled for decommissioning and then having a huge new-build programme to double the UK's nuclear capacity would still only deliver an 8% emissions cut by 2034.

In announcing the results of the government's 2003 Energy Review, the Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt said that it would have been 'foolish' to decide on a new generation of nuclear power stations 'because that would have guaranteed that we would not make the necessary investment and effort in both energy efficiency and in renewables'.

Money spent on nuclear is money not spent on other things - things that deliver quicker cuts for less money and negate the need for either new nukes or new coal.

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