Environment: Stoking up a disaster

Is there an alternative to global warming?

New research has shown that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, as a result of burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil, has risen dramatically in the past two years. This follows several decades of already rapid increases.

The rising level of CO2 causes an increase in global temperature because it has the effect of trapping heat due to the sun’s rays inside the earth’s atmosphere. Global warming’s particular effects on poor countries have been highlighted by another recent report.

Produced jointly by environmental and development NGOs, the report pinpoints the devastation that will occur in the ex-colonial world due to floods, droughts and other extreme weather events, linked to human-induced climate change. It shows that poor countries will suffer more than any others because they cannot afford to introduce counter-measures, such as flood defences.

The sudden rise in CO2 concentrations in last two years could be due to what has been called the "feedback" effect. It seems that there has been no obvious increase in carbon dioxide output in this period, but that the ability of the earth to absorb the gas has declined.

For example, under normal circumstances the oceans can dissolve CO2 and therefore reduce its concentration in the air, but as sea water warms up, due itself to the greenhouse effect, its ability to absorb any more carbon is reduced or even halted.

In this way, a vicious environmental circle is developed, known as a "feedback effect", leading to spiralling levels of pollution. It is too soon to be sure if this really is happening because two years’ figures are an insufficient basis for long-term projections, but if they are confirmed, estimates about the effects of global warming will be radically changed for the worse.

However, even if the new data prove to be a blip, the situation is still extremely serious and needs urgent action.

Illusions in Europe

Governments in Europe like to think that, in contrast to the Bush regime, they take the global warming threat seriously and are pinning their hopes on the Kyoto treaty to deliver the goods. These hopes were given a boost a couple of weeks ago when President Putin indicated that Russia, at long last, would sign up.

This change of position was crucial because, as it turned out for technical reasons, Russia’s support was necessary under the terms of the treaty for it to come into force.

The Kyoto treaty was devised with a market mechanism to encourage states to reduce carbon emissions that involves trading permits to pollute. Firms or other bodies that are heavy carbon emitters, according to an arbitrarily set level, will have to buy a quota to pollute from those that are below the level.

The theory goes that this extra cost faced by polluters will gradually induce them to change, or alternatively they will be forced out of business and be replaced by environmentally friendly companies. The treaty’s target is to reduce greenhouse gas output by 4.8%, compared to the level in 1990, by 2012.

The question is will it work? In the first place, the target of a 4.8% reduction, if genuine, would be extremely modest compared to what is required. Most climate experts say a fall of about 80% is necessary for sustainability, and even when this is achieved it will take decades or even centuries to stabilise the situation.

A closer examination of the terms of the Kyoto treaty shows also that its very limited target figure for a cut in greenhouse gases is bogus. This is because the baseline year chosen to measure reductions from, (i.e. 1990) was before the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its subsequent economic collapse.

This collapse led to a halving of polluting gas emissions in this region, meaning that the ’target’ for Kyoto, when it was put forward in 1997, had largely been met and few further cuts on a global basis would probably be necessary to maintain that position until 2012.

Kyoto was put together in a largely cosmetic form to try to encourage the USA to take part but it failed completely. Bush, or any Democrat for that matter, including Kerry, would have nothing to do with it. To them, and the corporations they represent, it is the thin end of an environmental wedge that ultimately will penalise them far more than any other country.

This is because America accounts for 25% of all greenhouse gas output, almost twice as much as the EU. The USA’s refusal to take part in Kyoto also dealt a massive blow to its pollution trading system.

The main players in the new market were always envisaged to be Russia, because it would have a lot of spare pollution capacity to sell due to economic collapse, and America, because it is the biggest greenhouse gas culprit.

Without its main buyer, the USA, the market will never get far off the ground, at least not in the sense of producing a significant reduction in emissions, although the permit-trading speculators will probably still make a killing.

The limited market that will take shape will have a small impact if any on reducing global warming, in fact current projections show it is likely that greenhouse gas levels will continue to rise, possibly at an accelerating rate.

Poor suffer

At the same time, the market mechanisms that do operate, in effect a form of carbon tax, will hit the poorest hardest. This is because the costs that are incurred by firms (e.g. power generators) that buy permits to pollute will be passed on to poor people who use a disproportionately large share of their income on fossil fuel for heating, lighting and cooking.

Many environmental activists are beginning to see that the Kyoto treaty is a deception that will never work, but behind which European capitalist political leaders can hide and claim to be tackling global warming.

Some environmental campaigners however, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, still cling to Kyoto on the grounds that it is ’the only show in town’ and hope that it will develop into something more viable in the next phase after 2012. There is absolutely no sign though of this happening, which is not surprising since the vital interests, i.e. corporate profits, of the dominant power, the USA, would be directly threatened.

Nuclear waste

With the increasingly clear failure of Kyoto, the nuclear power lobby is growing more influential, and many governments are seriously considering expanding this sector again, since nuclear, co-incidentally, doesn’t produce greenhouse gases.

This could produce an environmental disaster since no safe method exists, or is likely to in the foreseeable future, to store the radioactive waste that would be produced in large quantities.

Since this waste will be toxic for 100,000 years, the problem is to devise a storage method that can be guaranteed to be secure for this period of time, a task which poses huge uncertainties and problems because it is difficult to predict what natural conditions will be so far into the future.

If the material is buried, the onset of earthquakes in previously unaffected areas is possible, as is a meteor strike. If the radioactive spent fuel is put at the bottom of the sea the integrity of the materials used as a storage medium must be uncertain after such a long time, possibly leading to seepage. Also undersea volcanic activity could start, producing the same result.

Technical difficulties – and understandable opposition from local communities where it has been proposed to dump the wastes – have meant there will be at least another ten years’ delay before any supposedly safe site is ready in the USA and another 20 in Europe.

How to store existing nuclear waste is a huge problem, it would be folly to add to this by expanding its production.

There is also the danger of another disaster occurring like that at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. It is true that the chances of such an event happening are small, but this must be set against the potentially devastating consequences when it does.

When the reactor at Chernobyl blew up, the radioactive cloud that resulted was blown to the north, over relatively sparsely inhabited areas. If the wind had happened to be blowing in the opposite direction the poison gas would have polluted the city of Kiiv (Kiev), only a few miles away. In this case millions would have faced a cancer risk rather than tens of thousands.

What is more, nuclear power supporters often ignore other dangers. The disappearance of nearly 350 tons of lethal explosives from Iraq highlighted some of these.

Nuclear power plants produce vast quantities of plutonium. This could be an incitement either to proliferation of nuclear weapons by nation-states or even to ’nuclear terrorism’. Nuclear materials have gone missing from many countries. Terrorists or state powers could use this waste material from nuclear power to manufacture a ’dirty bomb’ or even a fully-fledged nuclear weapon.

Sustainable technologies

Blair has not ruled out further development of nuclear power and other governments like the French are starting to build new nuclear power stations. In desperation some former nuclear opponents, such as the ’green Bishop’ Hugh Montefiore, have changed their position because they see global warming as the greater problem and can envisage no other ’viable’ non-nuclear alternatives.

Amicus, the union representing many nuclear workers has a pro-nuclear policy and other labour movement bodies, such as the Wales TUC, have put a rethink of their opposition to nuclear power on the agenda.

Although unions with members in the nuclear industry are understandably worried about job losses as present plants come to the end of their working lives, the task of de-commissioning existing nuclear power stations and devising as safe storage methods as possible for toxic waste will need thousands of skilled workers. The existing highly trained nuclear workforce should be mobilised to deal with this.

The capitalist system gives us no choice at all to tackle global warming, it offers either a failed market trading model or the risk of nuclear disaster. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are wrong in thinking that there is no non-nuclear alternative to Kyoto.

The way forward advocated by socialists is to democratically plan, outside the market system, the introduction of non-polluting power sources such as wind, wave and solar and to develop sustainable technologies, such as carbon cells.

Wind, wave and solar technologies exist now, their ’viability’ should not however be judged on short-term profit and loss market calculations, but on the needs of society in the long term.

Also, the introduction of sustainable technologies can only be done effectively in conjunction with real international co-operation based on satisfying human need.

Such co-operation will never be possible in a world dominated by multi-national companies competing for profits.

The dark side of planet profit

From next January, the European Union’s emission trading scheme will try to cap carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Roger Shrives

But British industry’s objections that stricter limits would reduce their ’effectiveness’ ie their profit margins, have already softened Tony Blair’s aims.

Blair has now told Britain’s businesses that they will be allowed to emit nearly 3% more CO2 over the next three years than was originally being demanded.

The government, it seems, ’underestimated’ how much CO2 British industry produced. Now ministers are hoping that the European Commission accept they only have to cut back emissions to 756.1 million tonnes rather than 736.3 million tonnes.

Such political backtracking at the merest hint of big business opposition is happening even before the emission trading scheme gets started!

In many countries of the world, however, capitalist experts are already operating a ’carbon market’ which will trade permits to emit CO2, ie permits to pollute.

More than a million tons of CO2 ’changed hands’ in September 2004, nearly double the figure for all of 2003.

An example from the other side of the world shows the ’logic’ of this market. The logic comes from the dark side of Planet Profit!

An energy analyst told business leaders in New Zealand that "their ship has come in". Businesses in New Zealand, whose government has signed up to Kyoto, could gain from such a market more than its non-ratifying neighbours like Australia.

"Through its current tender process, the New Zealand government has up to 10 million carbon credits to assign to emissions reduction projects…. At the average price for an Emissions Reduction Unit this year, these credits are worth EUR46 million and their owners are free to trade them."

Some capitalists realise that climate change is a vital issue – but even where they don’t immediately stamp on even the mildest proposals, big business will be preoccupied with the carbon market’s effects on profits.

However, as Pete Dickenson’s article shows, these pathetic market-based permit-swapping schemes will have little effect on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Nuclear energy -who’s cleaning up?

The nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA) starts supervising the ’cleaning up of the UK’s public-sector civil nuclear sites’ from April 2005.

Roger Shrives

The NDA is at pains to stress that its appointments to its top non-executive directors’ jobs (£25,000 for a 30-day year) have not been active for any political party.

But there are more sources of bias than that. The full-time chair Sir Anthony Cleaver was formerly chair and chief exec of IBM, former chair of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and President of "Business Commitment to the Environment".

Dr. Ian Roxburgh, NDA’s chief executive, previously held the same position in the Coal Authority. Roxburgh talks of working with "our newly formulated contractors British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL plc), Magnox Electric plc, Springfields Fuels Ltd and UKAEA" and hopes despite that, to be "a world leader in safe, secure and environmentally sound nuclear site restoration and clean-up".

Nick Baldwin, former chief executive of Powergen, is an NDA non-executive director. Baldwin also "advises on private equity ventures in the energy sector", says the NDA blurb which also tells us that fellow director Primrose Stark was "part of the successful Management Employee Buy-out from British Rail."

In fact she made over £3 million as one of the directors of First Engineering after selling her shares from privatisation to another company Peterhouse.

Tony Cooper is described as a former senior trade union official. He was Deputy General Secretary of the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists and on the TUC general council. More importantly for NDA, he’s also Chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, a lobby group formed by BNFL and other nuclear contractors.

So this motley band of nuclear energy fans and energy industry chiefs who caused the industry’s problems in the first place are now running the NDA, aided by fat-cat gainers from failed privatisations. They may well be taking over – at public expense – British Energy’s and BNFL’s nuclear liabilities and letting them make big money again.

Under capitalism, even nuclear decommissioning puts profits first.

Special feature from The Socialist paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales.

See also Pete Dickenson’s article "Planning green growth – A socialist contribution to the debate on environmental sustainability".

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November 2004