Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Garden Path

Spurious schemes for combating climate change

Canadian Dimension
March 13th 2011

For many in the mainstream, the risks posed by climate change, while real, can be combated by a combination of new technology, market incentives to nudge industry towards greener production methods, and the greening of consumerism. Many ecologists, however, drawing on the findings of prominent climate scientists like James Hansen, dispute this view. They regard these stop-gap solutions as misguided and dangerous insofar as they engender a false sense of security and divert us from the kinds of structural changes that are necessary even to mitigate the damage already being wrought by spiraling greenhouse gas emissions.

Several of the sci-fi caliber techno-fixes increasingly being flogged by vested interests in the scientific and business communities are liable to do vastly more harm than good. Canadian Dimension takes a quick peek down these blind alleys and contrast them with the kinds of fundamental changes we believe are of the essence.

Green is not a brand

The environment shelves of bookstores are crowded with volumes describing all the things we can and must do as individuals and families to fight climate change: walk to the store, take the bus to work and to school, change light bulbs, switch to hybrid cars and efficient furnaces, insulate our homes better. All of us want to reduce our ecological footprint and do our bit to save the planet. And of course we should. But it is misleading to suggest that modifying our personal lifestyle and buying environmentally friendly versions of all our favourite products will suffice.

Individual consumption patterns do have to change, but on a mass scale involving a major redistribution of wealth from the North to the South. As Alternative Nobel Prize winner Raul Montenegro points out, “It’s not just a matter of greenhouse gases, it’s a matter of consumption – of materials, energy, biodiversity. People in western countries use 400,000 kilocalories of energy per person per day compared to people in a rainforest community who use around 3,000” (The Ecologist Nov. 5, 2010).

And while it is undoubtedly true, as Greenpeace tells us, that if every Canadian household replaced a single roll of toilet paper with one made from recycled fibres, more than 47,000 trees would be saved, such changes to individual behaviour cannot substitute for systemic changes that target industry and the state. Our only hope for averting ecocide lies in ending the use of coal, tar sands and other dirty fossil fuels; moving to a low or no-growth economic system geared to fulfilling basic needs rather than generating profits and luxury goods for the hyper-privileged; and shutting down the military machines that in wartime and peacetime contribute more to GHG emissions than any other institution. -Cy Gonick and Andrea Levy

“¡REDD NO! ¡Cochabamba SI!”

On December 9, 2010 in Cancun, the global farmers’ organization Via Campesina issued a declaration denouncing “false and dangerous solutions promoted by the neoliberal system,” such as the REDD+ initiative (Reduction of Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation), the CDM (Clean Development Mechanisms), and geoengineering, which “promote the commercialization of natural resources,” as well as the purchase of permits to pollute, or “carbon credits.”

REDD was the brainchild of corporations seeking to profit from the climate crisis. Devised in 2008, the program involves paying governments of the global South to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, in what indigenous communities have called the “largest land grab of all time.” Land is enclosed, and indigenous peoples and other forest dwellers are expelled as tree plantations supplant biodiverse forest ecosystems. Unverifiable claims are made about how many tons of carbon dioxide emissions are thereby forestalled or absorbed. As Dan Welch explains, “Offsets are an imaginary commodity created by deducing what you hope happens from what you guess would have happened.” Fossil fuels continue to be burned, facilitated by enclosures under REDD, while indigenous peoples are dispossessed. Estimating that it could earn $2bn a year from the Mau Forest, Kenya’s government, for instance, evicted some 20,000 Kenyan families from the forest in 2009 and are still languishing in tattered tents. So far 47 have died of exposure. -Terisa E. Turner and Leigh Brownhill

The elusive goal of clean coal

Coal accounts for three-quarters of carbon dioxide emissions in China and India and between one-fifth and two-fifths in the rest of the world. With oil and gas supplies tightening, we are turning increasingly to this relic of the first industrial revolution, the dirtiest source of energy anywhere. No wonder the industry is hyping the idea of capturing the carbon dioxide before it flows into the atmosphere by removing it from the power station smokestack or from the coal before it is burned and pumping it back underground. Then we could burn coal without concern for the next thousand years. But there are no decarbonized coal-fired power plants today, only a handful of demonstration projects. Even if it proves technically feasible – which is far from certain – capturing and storage will be very expensive and energy intensive. To generate the same amount of energy, a power plant will need to be roughly a third bigger and use a third more coal. Further, leakage from transporting and storing carbon dioxide renders the technology risky, and the risk is one that the industry is unwilling to bear, so that government will have to take ownership of storage sites – assuming they are successful in finding communities willing to accept burial of carbon dioxide in their neighbourhood. “It is true that replacing the coal industry with alternative forms of energy will require huge engineering works, including large numbers of wind farms, biomass generators, solar collectors and so on,” writes Australian ecologist Clive Hamilton in Requiem for a Species, “but at least we know they will work, will be widely dispersed and can be built now.” - Cy Gonick

New nukes?

Having peaked in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the use of nuclear energy as a power source has been in slow decline worldwide ever since. However, this hasn’t prevented the nuclear industry from trumpeting a coming “nuclear renaissance.” Because there is no carbon dioxide emitted during the process of electricity generation, when controlled nuclear fission reactions are used to heat water and produce steam, the nuclear option has been advertised as “green.” Omitted in this hype is the fact that enormous amounts of energy, still sourced primarily from fossil fuels, are needed for the other parts of the process. Further, uranium is dangerous, labour-intensive, and hugely inefficient to mine. It is estimated that upwards of 300 million tons of radioactive tailings and waste rock from mining operations sit in storage sites in Canada alone, while waste rock has also been linked to groundwater contamination. Groundwater removal is a concern: the Darlington and Pickering plants in Southern Ontario themselves use almost 9 trillion litres of water for cooling each year, over 19 times that of Toronto’s total annual consumption. In spite of massive government subsidization, long-term costs are higher than for any other proposed climate “solution.” Many facilities face recurring safety issues and are perpetually over-budget and under-capacity, as the repeated and lengthy shutdowns of the flagship Chalk River Reactor for heavy water leaks has demonstrated. Even new “safe” nuclear power facilities remain subject to major safety and security risks. And while nuclear power requires the management and protection of huge volumes of waste that remain radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, the environmental impacts are still not fully understood. - Dylan Roberts

Fueling hunger?

As oil prices continue to rise, and the negative impacts of fossil fuel combustion become more widely understood, biofuel has been widely embraced as an alternative. Although it retains a relatively small share of the transport fuel market, biofuels are a perennial magnet for of public- and private-sector investment. Unlike fossil fuels, biofuel is renewable, derived from plant materials or animal waste. Biofuel also tends to emit substantially less carbon when burned. However, there remain significant problems. Common biofuels include ethanol, which is derived mostly from North American corn and Brazilian sugarcane, and biodiesel, made from among a variety of vegetable oils. But fossil fuel inputs for the production and processing of ethanol can approach, and in some cases equal, end-product amounts. Meanwhile large-scale industrial agriculture – never a paragon of environmental sustainability – has ballooned to meet the surging demand for biofuel crops. But the impacts of factory farming are not limited to behind-the-scenes fossil fuel consumption and deforestation, nor the social conflicts arising from land grabs and forced displacement of farmers in places like Brazil. As the agricultural market has shifted towards production of lucrative biofuel crops, so in turn has grain and staple food production dwindled. December 2010 saw world food prices at a record high, capping a decade of consistent and dramatic increases. The involvement of heavyweight multinational corporations in biofuel production has given rise to a formidable industry lobby. But though this political clout has led to the adoption of biofuel “targets” in many countries, the fact remains that biofuels still overwhelmingly shift, rather than solve, existing emissions problems. - Dylan Roberts

The charade of cap and trade

Cap and trade is a method for putting a price on carbon so as to discourage corporations from using industrial processes that emit large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. A maximum or cap is set on the amount of carbon that companies in participating countries are allowed to produce annually and they are allotted transferable rights to pollute up to this maximum. Those who pollute less than their allocated cap can then sell or “trade” this shortfall to heavier polluters who exceed their limit. Optionally, they can “offset” their excess emissions by investing in projects that supposedly reduce greenhouse gas emissions someplace else. Either way, the theory has it, placing a price on carbon emissions will create incentives for offending companies to make emissions reductions or move toward more renewable energy sources.

There are several problems with this approach. One is that there is no way to prevent companies inclined to pay for their right to exceed their cap or to purchase offsets from passing on this cost to their customers. But the most damning one is that it has not worked where it has been tried. The European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme was subject to such excessive lobbying by business interests during its development that the over-allocation of carbon permits caused the price of carbon to drop, creating a disincentive to try cleaner practices. Where offsets are purchased they usually occur in the Global South where they are sold at so low a price that they again produce little or no incentive to alter corporate behaviour. Moreover, there has been no way of ensuring that the receiving projects actually do have any offsetting effects.

Ultimately, as ecologist Chris Williams has written, “these market schemes fail because they are based on an untenable contradiction: the idea that the cause of global warming – the unplanned and unfettered capitalist market – can also be its solution.” -Ashley Titterton

Brave New World v2.0

Geoengineering strategies are being devised to fight global warming by modifying the Earth’s climate and weather systems. Proposals include injecting substances such as sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere and covering deserts in plastic in order to reflect more sunlight back into space (thereby reducing atmospheric warming), growing plankton or changing the chemistry of the ocean in order to sequester carbon dioxide at the bottom of the sea, and attempting to control weather by, for example, seeding clouds for rainfall in dry areas, among many other sci-fi seeming schemes.

While geoengineering was once considered a “Plan B” in the fight against climate change, such strategies are gaining currency and all kinds of research is already being conducted. Seen by many as the cheaper option, geoengineering may appear to nations and heavily polluting corporations as a means to avoid more fundamental (and necessary) systemic and policy changes. Still in the early phases of development, these techniques carry many unknown risks and could have massive and irreversible environmental and social consequences, particularly in the global South. Furthermore, they are part and parcel of our pattern of trying to control and exploit nature through invasive technology rather than transforming our environmentally unsustainable production and consumption practices.

As the ETC Group warns, “Opting for geoengineering flies in the face of precaution … We do not know how to recall a planetary-scale technology once it has been released.”- Ashley Titterton

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