Aug 2010

Energy crisis Vs. Climate Change

Over on his blog, Merrick highlights the latest U-turn to be performed by the UK’s governing coalition (Kingsnorth: Back from the dead?). Actually, you know what? I’m just going to start referring to the current UK government as a tory government. The presence of the Liberal Democrats*, just like the involvement of the Greens in the government here in Ireland, is an irrelevance; a technical footnote rather than a meaningful truth. The only impact they have on the government is to allow the dominant party to float policies they always wanted to, but that might be unpopular with their own hardline supporters. So here in Ireland, for instance, we’ve had a carbon tax ostensibly as a result of the Green presence in cabinet. In reality, Fianna Fáil wanted an alternative revenue stream to help with the crippling deficit and were delighted to find one they could blame on someone else.

So let’s start again…

Over on his blog, Merrick highlights the latest U-turn to be performed by the UK’s Conservative government. Prior to the election they had unambiguously stated that under their administration, any new power stations would have to meet a strict Emissions Performance Standard (EPS).

This would mean the carbon emissions rate of all electricity generated in our country cannot be any higher than that generated in a modern gas plant. Such a standard would mean that a new generation of unabated coal power plants could not be built in this country.

More than that, this pledge wasn’t merely a campaign promise (a term which, let’s face it, has become little more than a euphemism for “bullshit”), it actually made it into their Programme for Government (PDF file).

We will establish an emissions performance standard that will prevent coal-fired power stations being built unless they are equipped with sufficient carbon capture and storage to meet the emissions performance standard.

As Merrick says, that’s clear, definite and unequivocal.

Three days ago, however, they admitted their pledge to introduce an EPS was basically just a lie to make them look more environmentally responsible than they actually are. Despite the unambiguous nature of their promise, they have shelved the EPS and will no longer be introducing legislation to implement it. Instead they will “open a consultation on the idea in the autumn with the results being presented to parliament as a white paper in the new year.”

Be under no illusion, that’s just a diplomatic way of abandoning the idea. It’s the modern political equivalent of holding a press conference and shouting “suckers!”

Of course, you could argue that anyone who believed a tory government would really implement a strict EPS kind of was a bit of a sucker. Sorry. But the fact is, it was pretty obvious that this policy would be unpalatable to any right of centre government in current circumstances.

Climate Change: nothing to do with us

See, the title of this post — Energy crisis Vs. Climate Change — expresses a very real tension that now exists at the heart of modern civilisation. As we lurch towards a looming energy crisis precipitated by the global peak of conventional oil production, many of the steps we might take to cope with that crisis will directly conflict with many of the steps we might take to deal with Climate Change (note: I read an analysis just this morning which suggests that “during 2011, OPEC’s spare capacity may be completely eroded”. This is a serious problem indeed, and will torpedo any economic recovery politicians and economists tell us is underway right now.)

Examples of this conflict are too numerous to mention, but include widespread deforestation to clear land for biofuel production, the draining of peat bogs and marshland for the same reason, increases in coal use (and the mind-bogglingly damaging coal-gassification process) to make up for shortfalls in oil and gas, the exploitation of oil shales and tar sands (also an incredibly damaging resource from an ecological perspective) and so on. All of these attempts to mitigate the energy crisis will result in the acceleration of anthropogenic climate change.

Yet we are ploughing ahead full steam with them. More than that, politicians who made explicit promises to restrict the damage that coal burning might do, for example, are abandoning those promises without even trying to deliver on them.

And it’s not difficult to understand why. In the case of coal-burning power plants in the UK, the government has realised that new electricity generation needs to be brought online within the next few years. The only alternative would be to mandate higher energy efficiency and ultimately a reduction in consumption. It is simply easier, politically, to contribute to Climate Change than it is to speak unpopular truths to the electorate. And if there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that politicians will always choose the easy option above the right one. It’s almost a job requirement.

See, Climate Change is too intangible a problem to be blamed on any single government. And they know this. Power cuts, on the other hand, will always be blamed on the government of the day. So Cameron (and his counterparts in damn near every other party… let’s be under no illusions here, Labour would do precisely the same if they were in power) much prefers to contribute to an ecological disaster that can’t be pinned on him, than try solve a political one that can.

It’s a measure of the moral cowardice of the man and of the entire political establishment.

An energy crisis is looming folks. It’s very real, and it’s not far away. But we seem willing to burn down the entire planet rather than accept a change in our outrageous over-consumption. And this is despite the fact that our over-consumption doesn’t even seem to be making us all that happy.

* I’m well aware that I reluctantly endorsed a Lib Dem vote in the May election on the single-issue of electoral reform. In retrospect, I was wrong. A vote for the Liberal Democrats turned out to be a vote for an undiluted Conservative government and I would never knowingly endorse such a thing. Sorry about that.

AFTERWORD: those wonderful people over at The Onion have recently published a very funny, albeit darkly funny, article about our oil use. Check out: Millions Of Barrels Of Oil Safely Reach Port In Major Environmental Catastrophe

Posted in: Opinion