As the world COP21 Paris summit on climate change nears, governments internationally are burnishing their environmental credentials for what will evidently be yet another failure in really getting to grips with global warming. Demonstrators around the world, including in London, on 29 November, and during the COP itself, will be holding governments to account for this failure.
In the UK the Tory government has set out the terms of what is probably the worst energy policy in living memory. Here Brian Parkin explains how the Tories’ latest ‘strategy’ will do nothing to address the climate crisis whilst lumbering future generations with a massive nuclear legacy, unaffordability of energy and yet further degradation of the environment.
A poverty of energy philosophy
Within weeks of an Anglo-Chinese trade visit that saw the UK Treasury sign up a deal for a renewal of a failed UK nuclear programme based on dodgy reactor designs and even dodgier finance and subsidy gimmicks, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd on Wednesday 18 November set out an incoming energy strategy that would,
lay the basis of a sound and secure energy future whilst providing cheap sources of energy fully in compliance to our international climate obligations.
Whilst fully endorsing George Osborne’s autumn budget hatchet job on renewable energy, Rudd emphasised the importance of ensuring security of supply, which she explained would entail government support for “new gas stations, which have struggled to find financing”. At the same time the offshore wind sector was told that it would have to cut costs in order to win auctions for contracts that guarantee a minimum price for the energy they sell. In other words, a rigged market test for wind and other renewables, and a subsidised market share for gas.
On 19 November the Guardian reported Rudd’s promise,
to shut down polluting coal-fired by 2025. Instead she threw her weight behind gas, including that extracted from the controversial process of shale fracking, as the future of British power production.
What Rudd has apparently not taken into account is that coal station closures by 2025 will also be intersecting with the closure of the failing, faltering and cracking AGR nuclear stations which will result in 35.96 gigawatts of electrical capacity being retired within 10 years. In terms of fuel burn, this represents around 35 million tonnes coal equivalent (or 250,705 million cubic metres of gas) per year.
Referring to Rudd’s security of supply case for fracking, the fracking company iGas stated,
We welcome today’s announcement that gas, of which 50% of our current usage is imported, is central to our energy secure future as we transition to a lower carbon environment.
So there we have it. With the certainty that the UK North Sea sector gas resource is depleting ahead of growing demand, the future security of energy supply will lie with fracking.
The glaring omission from Rudd’s statement is the issue of carbon emissions abatement. Replacing coal fired stations with gas will at best achieve a 30% reduction in CO2 pollution but it will not eliminate it. And as UK sector North Sea gas output falls and as dependency on imports rise, fracked gas from shales with less than a 5% total organic content of the shale seams will prove to be a marginal part of the energy mix in exchange for the maximum environmental damage.
Although gas offers a lower carbon signature, its combustion will require back-end abatement if the power generation sector is to become zero carbon. But nowhere does Rudd mention the obvious requirement of carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) – exactly because she hopes to allow gas station operators to avoid what they will say is “unnecessary” capital cost. Unless of course, tariffs can be adjusted to make the consumer pay. In the twisted market economics of neoliberalism, the term “the polluter pays” always defines the consumer as the polluter, on the grounds that they incited the processes of pollution through their market demand for energy.
Osborne’s much-vaunted nuclear deal with China though seems to have taken centre stage. In a desperate bid to get UK infrastructure investment going the UK Treasury is being used as a strategic economic tool to make things happen. But since it is unable to get UK investors to take the risk, it is offering loans, subsidies and credit guarantees to China for projects that offer no risk whilst keeping the financial package “off the books”.
At the same time the proposed nuclear projects are being based on a basket case French designed European Pressurised Water Reactor – currently 5 years late and 200% and over budget at Flamanville in France and the subject of a €10 billion damages suit in Finland. Meanwhile, Rudd has struck another nuclear bargain. Funded by yet another UK taxpayer funny money investment package another nuclear project has been plucked out of thin air that invites the Chinese state power corporation to test-fly its so-far untried CAP 1400 PWR design at Bradwell in Essex . And all with contracts that ensure nuclear stations will have a guaranteed power price twice the market level and index linked for at least 35 years.
What’s more, to defray any risk in this brave new world of nuclear economics, the plant operators and owners will not be responsible for full indemnity insurance and liabilities or the back-end costs for end of life decommissioning or waste management.
Let them freeze … and let them remain jobless
UK official government figures put 2.3 million homes in England and wales in fuel poverty for the year 2014-15. Of these over 1 million are homes in at which one person is in full-time employment. On this modest estimate around 8 million people are continually at risk of either disconnection or going hungry due to the permanent grip of fuel poverty.
By refusing renewable energy any kind of incentive, development subsidy of preferential green tariff, Osborne and Rudd are fixing the market towards high cost gas in the interim and stratospherically high cost nuclear for the long term. In concert with a disdain for renewables goes a total lack of vision regarding the potential for high skill, high wage, high value employment that would be a natural economic consequence and social benefit of the turn to a green economy.
Regard for the social and natural environment comes second when blind accumulation and the pursuit of profit remains the benchmark of energy policy. In the absence of any alternative vision, the instincts of big business will triumph over all other considerations – even if the consequences will mean growing energy disenfranchisement and an under-invested and collapsing infrastructure.
It is an irony that the planned demonstrations at the climate talks in Paris have now been banned due to terrorist security fears. These fears have their genesis in carbon wars over the imperialist rights to drive a greenhouse economy – now overheating thanks, in the main, to untrammelled petroleum consumption.
As the great, not so good, bad and the ugly leave Paris waving yet another bundle of useless protocols, individual governments will get down to the climate business of blaming somebody else. Or as in the UK they will come up with half-baked market hybrid ‘policies’ intended to address issues that they neither comprehend nor really care about. Because as the rich representing the rich they can always seek a future in de-lux gated estates on the high ground above the atmospheric pollution and rising waters. They think.
And although a revolution in Paris this December seems unlikely, some direct action that might shake the bag-carriers of carbon imperialism would be a good down payment. In the meantime socialists will need to relate to the coming anti-fracking and nuclear campaigns in order to argue that the fights to save the planet and win a better world are class issues that within a culture of solidarity can be won.
Join the People’s March for Climate, Justice and Jobs – London 29 November 2015
The terrible recent events in Paris led the French authorities to cancel the planned protests there on 29 November and 12 December. This has happened at the same time as a wave of extrajudicial raids by French police, overwhelmingly targeted at Muslims and migrants.
The organisers of the civil society mobilisations are still encouraging those planning to be in Paris for the COP to come make their voices heard, alongside French activists resisting the militarist, repressive and racist response of their government to the recent tragedy.
 This figure is derived from 13 existing coal fired stations with a total rating of 34.95GWe and 7 AGR stations with a (reduced load) rating of 11.3GWe.
 Based on a coal equivalent estimate of 1 tonne bituminous steam coal equals 716.3 Cu metres of natural gas.
 A report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, London, March 2010 suggested that by 2040 UK base load power would be c.40% nuclear with gas with CCS making up around 10-15%. This would put nuclear capacity at around 31GWe from 30 reactors sited in 15 stations. In this scenario renewables made up from solar, wind, wave and ‘other’ would comprise only 15% of overall capacity.
 “The polluter pays” meaning the consumer was set down as a regulatory benchmark at the Hinkley Point C nuclear inquiry when it was conceded that decommissioning costs should be funded through energy bills.