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Renew politics to get renewable energy

Japan says it is to abandon plans for 14 new nuclear power stations and instead focus on renewable energy. In the wake of the catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi power plants, the government had little choice but to call a halt.

With no fossil fuels of its own, the plan was to move from the current 30%, to 50% nuclear by 2030. Now Japan will aim for 20% renewables on the same timescale. We don’t yet know if this is government posturing in response to public anger. But renewables are definitely a practical way forward.

The latest report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) shows that close to 80% of the world‘s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by governments. An energy shift on this scale could deliver a cut of around a third in greenhouse gas emissions from business-as-usual projections, making it possible to keep the global temperature rise below 2ºC.

Ramon Pichs, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III, explained:

The report shows that it is not the availability of the resource, but the public policies that will either expand or constrain renewable energy development over the coming decades. Developing countries have an important stake in this future – this is where most of the 1.4 billion people without access to electricity live yet also where some of the best conditions exist for renewable energy deployment.

Renewable energy productions costs can appear higher than the market can stand. But if the environmental and health costs of continuing to burn fossil fuels, were monetized, the real costs of renewables would be established. We see the opposite happening in the UK, where the Energy Bill currently going through Parliament focuses entirely on the market. Instead of public funding for insulating homes, already cut, there will be a levy on people’s already soaring fuel bills. It is likely to put more people into fuel poverty than the numbers who benefit from warmer homes.

Under pressure from the construction industry, a commitment to zero-carbon new homes has been dropped. The Sustainable Development Commission is being closed to save money. The Green Bank, postponed until 2015, will be quietly dropped. Investment in large and small solar energy projects has collapsed as a result of abolition of subsidies. Finally, the Climate Change Bill, with its binding targets for emissions reductions, has been included in a government review to “reduce red tape”.

This underlines the need for an urgent transition away from states who believe their only role is to facilitate profit-driven markets, to democratic political and economic control by and in the interests of, the majority of people and the eco-system itself.

Released from the constraint of generating profits, human society can enter a new era of conservation, careful use and reuse. For example, huge progress is being made in developing viable perennial grains even though the research is starved of funds. These kinds of grains would prevent soil erosion and require no artificial fertilizer. The oil saved by stopping manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer could be applied to manufacture of equipment for renewable energy.

If civil society across the globe planned investment, it would be very different. Instead, the conditions for disaster are building up every day, in spite of the potential for change. This is not a technological but a political issue. As Bolivian Ambassador Pablo Solon told the UN recently: "It is incredible that it is easier to imagine the destruction of nature than to dream about overthrowing capitalism.”

Penny Cole
Environment editor
12 May 2011

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