Still Producing Hot Air

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'Green Monday', went the Downing Street spin last month as Tony Blair introduced the government's new energy white paper. Unfortunately there was enough hot air in it to power a turbine.

The media headlines were filled with a government commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This waste product--caused by the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal--is one of the major causes of the 'greenhouse effect'. This warming of the earth's atmosphere produced a 0.6°C average temperature rise last century, and this could increase by a further 6°C by 2100-- leading to devastating floods, hurricanes and droughts--unless urgent action is taken. Unfortunately, the white paper was vague on urgent action.

A proposal to reduce CO2 by 60 percent by 2050--far beyond the political lifetime of anyone making the promise--isn't exactly conducive to political accountability. Even if it was achieved, this is the minimum reduction scientists believe is necessary as an average across the world. But highly industrialised countries like Britain are disproportionately responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile a previous target to reduce emissions by 20 percent by 2020 was downgraded to 'an ambition'. Rarely can the word have been used with such conservatism. This is because even the government's meagre target to have 10 percent of the country's energy provided by renewable sources by 2010 looks likely to be broken. The reason is lack of political will and a habitual deference to the market.

Currently renewable sources account for only 3 percent of Britain's energy, yet Britain has one third of Europe's entire potential for offshore wind energy and four fifths of possible tidal power sites identified by the EU. But multinationals that provide or depend on fossil fuels have enormous economic power, which has been used to lobby, bribe and stifle the development of alternative energy sources. The government has made a token investment in research and development into renewable energy--£350 million over four years, compared to the £7 billion due this year for the nuclear industry. What has gone without question is that this energy should be supplied commercially for a profit.

The report's attitude to nuclear power highlights this point. Its primary disadvantage is not, apparently, that it is a highly dangerous source of toxic waste, but that 'its current economics make it an unattractive option', a reference to the recent £3 billion bailout of British Energy. But it leaves the door open for a return to nuclear power should firms supplying renewables not prove quickly profitable. Meanwhile the government continues to build roads rather than invest in public transport and aims to double UK aviation--the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and conveniently exempted from the Kyoto climate change treaty.

Blair has convinced himself that economic expansion can be combined with a drop in carbon emissions without significant government intervention. But Britain has only made slight reductions because the service sector predominates over manufacturing--which is unrealistic as a global model. So in a country with some of the most favourable economic and climactic conditions for reducing carbon emissions we are still unlikely to meet inadequate targets set at Kyoto.

Underpinning this logic is not an assessment of the most sustainable way of fulfilling energy needs, but an attempt to encourage business that there's money to be made in sustainable energy. In the long term this may be true, but capitalists rarely work on this kind of time scale. In the meantime they're prepared to destroy the planet for the sake of profit.