As the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, was presenting his Energy White Paper to the UK Parliament, with its vision of a decarbonised energy supply by 2030, a wholly different, destructive energy scenario has been unfolding across the Atlantic.
In an American continent with no carbon tax or climate legislation, a new economy is being built on the extraction of “extreme energy”. This threatens to overwhelm the UK’s own contribution to combating climate change, and is calling into question any hope of a meaningful UN climate change deal in Durban this December.
I’m at a major international labour conference on climate change in New York, where delegates are debating the rise of “extreme energy”, from the ruthless exploitation of Canadian tar and oil, natural gas from shale, and deep-sea, off-shore drilling, to Mountain Top Removal for surface coal mining in states like Wyoming.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben describes the tar sands as a “200 parts per million pool of energy”, meaning that it alone will drive global concentrations of greenhouse gases beyond the point of no return. “It must be left in the ground”, he argues. Over 500 Appalachian mountains have had their tops blown off to get the coal beneath. It’s now a moonscape.
In the U.S., the failure of Congress to introduce an economy-wide cap and trade system has opened the door to this “extreme energy” scenario. Its main feature is the political and economic resurgence of fossil-based energy, coupled with the arrested development of clean, renewable energy.
So it makes sense for the UK’s Energy Secretary to aim to quadruple the UK’s renewable energy supply by 2020. He will introduce a new system of long-term contracts, to remove uncertainty for both investors and consumers, and make low-carbon energy more attractive. He also said:
“CCS is a key part of our plan to decarbonise electricity generation. It is the only technology that can potentially reduce emissions from fossil fuel-fired power stations by as much as 90%.”
But CCS is stalling here in the US, a land with 600 coal fired power stations (cf 17 in the UK). Yesterday the energy giant AEP announced it was shelving plans for the nation’s most prominent effort to capture CO2 from an existing coal-burning power station, a severe blow to efforts to rein in emissions responsible for global warming. The company blamed a lack of state and regional financial support for this first in class project. And the reason for that, according to an Obama spokesperson: “It’s what happens when you don’t get a climate bill.” Meanwhile, South Africa is planning a massive unabated coal fired power station.
The resort to ever more extreme forms of energy is, of course, due to rising energy demand and energy prices. But who would agree with Chris Huhne when he also said this week, “Since privatisation in 1990, our electricity market has served us well, delivering reliable, affordable electricity”? Latest fuel poverty figures show a one-fifth rise in the number of fuel poor households. In 2009, there were around 5.5 million fuel poor households in the UK, up from 4.5 million in 2008. In England, there were around 4.0 million fuel poor households, up from 3.3 million in 2008. The increase in fuel poverty between 2008 and 2009 was largely due to rising fuel prices (Gas prices rose by 14%, and electricity prices by 5%). But it’s also about frozen or falling incomes.
DECC may be setting aside up to £30million over the next 4 years to support technology development programmes to improve the efficiency and reduce the costs of offshore wind. But, from a wider perspective, this is overshadowed by the massive private investment in extreme energy. We urgently need massive new green technology investments, including CCS to capture emissions from power and industrial plant, like steel.
As unions here, from the US, the EU and South Africa, prepare for the UN’s climate change conference in Durban, supposed to deliver binding commitments on emissions reductions, the need for global trade union solidarity – not least across the Atlantic – has never seemed more urgent.