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Market can't meet climate change targets

The high-profile report of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) published this week, exposed all the weaknesses of the government’s policies, and addressed none of them.

At first sight, the CCC report makes seductive reading, with the highest targets adopted by any country, including a 42% reduction in emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2020. It details how the targets could be met with reductions in some sectors, and claims it is all entirely feasible “given power sector decarbonisation, energy efficiency improvements in homes, buildings and industry, and emissions reductions in transport”.

But in reality the report by the body set up to oversee progress on meeting statutory targets does no more than repeat the government’s existing (failed) strategy of relying on market forces to tackle climate change. So implementing the recommendations could push energy prices for consumers up an average of around £500 a year, driving more than 1.7 million Britons into fuel poverty, the report admits.

The section on transport is hypocrisy itself. The report says international aviation and shipping should be included in the “carbon budgets”, but no specific reductions for the sector are set out. Which allowed Lord Adair Turner, chair of the CCC, to say that airport expansion is not incompatible with achieving the targets.

A key focus of the report is the “decarbonisation of energy generation”. By raising the price of carbon, it is suggested, there will be market incentives for the rapid development of renewable energy. But as the government’s own renewable energy strategy admits “the market will need to determine which technologies should be used, and then deploy them”. The strategy continues: “In a market economy, policy alone cannot guarantee outcomes. How much these measures will deliver will depend on how energy companies, developers and investors in the market, and the supply chains which serve them, respond to the signals we provide.”

I think we know the answer to that already. They will respond as the banks did, greedily swallowing up any subsidy offered and continuing business as usual with no concern for homes, jobs or energy prices or indeed for the survival of life on earth.

One of the CCC report’s most revealing sections explains that “price formation for electricity occurs in a similar way to other commodity markets” – through short and medium-term contracts, spot prices and price/supply speculation. These are exactly the same disastrous trading methods that drove the financial sector over a cliff. Most people are unaware that greedy speculation lies behind their unaffordable bills.

The media got very excited about the report’s view that the government should not buy carbon offsets through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to meet targets, but focus on achieving real reductions in domestic emissions. However, the reports says reductions achieved through the European Emissions Trading Scheme should be allowed. Under this scheme, companies purchase credits based on claimed cuts in emissions in the developing world (usually through projects damaging to the poorest communities). So the idea that this report will give Britain “clean hands” in terms of exploiting the trade in carbon is nonsense.

And since the use of CDM projects has the effect of leaking additional credits into the EU system, keeping the price of carbon low, there will be no incentives whatsoever for the market to develop renewable energy. Another market failure is on the cards!

The report puts nuclear power high on the agenda, claiming it can be economical if the carbon price is high enough and the risks deemed acceptable. So, how high is that exactly? And will it cover the hidden costs – both environmental and financial – of mining uranium and storing waste?

Whilst the report recommends only coal-fired power stations that can be “retro-fitted with carbon capture and storage mechanisms by 2020” should be permitted, this is not going to stop the government giving the go-ahead to Kingsnorth and others. They will simply extract some flimsy promise from the energy companies to “do their best” and “continue the research” and give the go-ahead anyway.

And now that we are in the midst of a global recession and slump we need to face it – what is actually on the cards is not green energy, but a green light to the corporations to do whatever it takes to boost growth and profits. At the same time as the CCC report was published, Ed Miliband’s aptly-titled Department of Energy and Climate Change, announced the biggest-ever sale of high-priced licences for North Sea oil and gas, with 171 new licences offered to 100 companies covering 257 blocks of the North Sea. Fossil fuels and nuclear – that’s the government’s real energy policy.

Miliband, along with environment ministers from most of the world’s countries, is in Poznan in Poland this week attempting to thrash out the parameters of some new global deal on climate change. Barack Obama won’t be there, but he has made clear that he wants to go down this same market-driven, profit-oriented, public subsidised route. Some 16 years on from the first earth summit in Rio and 11 years on from Kyoto, the world is no further forward.

In 2005, the Stern report on the economic impact of climate change said it was a result of “the biggest-ever market failure” and that failing to deal with it would bring about an economic and social catastrophe. Since then we have suffered some dramatic experiences of the inability of the market to deliver what human beings need. Leaving the market, and governments who cannot see life beyond the market, in charge of tackling climate change is suicidal.

Of course it is important not to simply dismiss the work done by this very expert CCC, because it shows clearly that it is entirely possible to meet extremely challenging reductions targets, if the social and political mechanisms were in place to make it happen.

As the Charter for Democracy launched by A World to Win and others states: “We urgently need to eliminate speculation and profit as the basis for society, ensuring that both ecological care and basic human needs shape production, consumption and lifestyles.” Only in that way can we begin to make significant reductions in carbon emissions, and start to cope with, and reverse, the life-threatening legacy of 30 years of capitalist globalisation.

Penny Cole
Environment Editor
4 December 2008

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