The ubiquitous reduction of green politics to ethical consumerism
China, that rapidly advancing dystopia where rivers run black and miners are killed at the rate of 5,000 a year (witness this month’s coverage of the 180 trapped and probably killed in Shandong province, and the two brothers who dug their way out of a collapsed shaft near Beijing), is building an average of two coal-fired power stations a week, and in six years has doubled its annual coal production. India will construct more than 100 coal-fired plants over the next decade. Panicked by the possible policy repercussions of George Bush’s departure, US power corporations are desperately pushing ahead with plans for about 150 coal-fired stations and leaning hard on presidential candidates – as evidenced by Rudy Giuliani’s recent suggestion that the US should “increase our reliance on coal”.
Moreover, the new coal rush is truly global: in the next five years, 37 countries – among them plenty of Kyoto signatories – will build additional coal-fired capacity, while world coal production heads towards a peak that will apparently materialise in about 25 years’ time.
In most cases, certainly in the likes of the US and China, one will simply find the profit motive working it’s abstract way around sound health and environmental policy, to wit: the people who want these things, and the people who allow them, all will make money from the enterprise while none will suffer the consequences.
Any country’s aristocratic class (however defined, and allowing for the pretense that they do not even exist, here) can afford clean land, clean air and clean water – all they get from coal is money and electricity.
For the rest of us, the whole idea of coal is technical efficiency, i.e. cheap electricity. It really won’t do to use coal for electricity, then throw taxes on it to constrain supply and demand because it’s so bloody toxic. Coal, as an environmental problem, does not have an economic solution. It requires a political solution, in a world in which fair political representation is as rare as ever (even the supposedly-enheartening case of Brian Baird is really only peculiar to the war in Iraq).
Amongst other things, the argument that it is necessary for energy independence does not make much sense. For a start, it is independence only so long as one has coal; but it is also only feasible so long as other countries, from whom one is therefore not independent, assisting with keeping the planet clean. Carbon sequestration is a fine idea worth pursuing, but I’m not sure China, for example, is capable of capturing its own emissions. It will need help. So too the US. I’ve always found environmentalist love affairs with clean coal odd. I’d much rather just use nuclear energy, if only I thought I could trust anybody to manage it without blowing me up.
As the article also identifys, it is also somewaht dependent upon subsidies – making it less the cheap energy source than you think it is. One wonders what a political economy would look like, if citizens were given the rights to direct their own taxes, as they pay them, to government uses. The revealed priorities of a country of tax-payers would be very interesting indeed, I think.
The article’s approach to the idea of clean coal is pretty good; its recommendation for British people realistic. Oddly, there’s another article in the paper today (or merely online) discussing the recent plan by the Lib-Dems to be carbon-free by 2050. Reading the article, it becomes clear that the writer does not seem to know that there is a report about how to do it. Strange.