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Triple whammy of warming planet, high prices and energy insecurity

In the most comprehensive study yet of the global energy market, the International Energy Authority (IEA) has warned that within five years the planet will be on course to breach the limit of 2ºC of global warming which is said to be a “safe” level.

Of course, it is just the only level that supine corporate-serving politicians would agree at the UN's climate talks. Millions of people are already feeling the effects of global warming – ferocious rainfall causing floods in Thailand, Sindh province in Pakistan, the United States, Spain and Italy – and at the same time widespread drought. With 2ºC higher temperatures, such extreme weather will be commonplace, along with rising sea levels.

Over the last decade most of the world's growing energy needs have been met by burning coal; now not only China but also the United States is committed to building new coal power stations. The IEA projection shows that keeping to this course, the use of coal will increase by 65% by 2035.

Four-fifths of the CO2 emissions that would keep to the 2ºC limit are already locked in. Even if governments deliver on their weak, non-binding, greenwash targets, the cumulative CO2 emissions over the next 25 years will likely create a long-term average temperature rise of 3.5°C. And if, as seems likely, they fail to meet their targets, we are looking at a catastrophic 6ºC rise.

"As each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy, the ‘lock-in’ of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our energy security and climate goals," said Fatih Birol, IEA chief economist.

This week's BBC Panorama programme, made a crude attempt to blame soaring energy bills on the government's modest (to put it politely) efforts to promote alternative energy from wind, tide and solar.

The programme was a complete fraud. According to Ofgem, recent fuel price increases, which have left hundreds of thousands in fuel poverty, are due to the energy companies passing wholesale market price increases on to consumers, whilst never reducing them when the market falls.

Panorama tried to argue that because renewables require investment, and because the government is making some of that investment, consumers are being hit by subsidies.

But why are subsidies needed? Surely it is in the nature of an industry that if changes to new technology are required, these are paid for by investment by the companies that will profit in the long term.

Not on your life! In reality, the big six energy companies in Britain, and others throughout the world, are on an investment strike. They will go on dragging profits out of old-style power stations as long as they can, adapting them to dirtier and dirtier fossil fuels and they will never put a penny into developing the alternatives.

Their goal is NOT a clean, secure energy supply – it is profit, and that's a fact!

And where there is an increase in world market prices for gas and oil – and these will be ever-steeper as fossil fuels become scarcer and harder to extract – the consumer must pay.

We are left with a triple whammy of a warming planet, high energy prices and growing energy insecurity.

"Without a bold change of policy direction, the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system," said Birol, adding that there is still time to act but the window of opportunity is closing.

The only action open to us is to achieve such a transformation is to take energy generation and supply out of private ownership and place it into a not-for-profit social trust, with raw materials becoming part of a new global commons.

A democratic network of People's Assemblies could then agree, with the help of experts and the collectively-owned power generating firms, a transitional plan to reduce, and then replace, fossil fuels. That is the only way to cut emissions, end fuel poverty and ensure that the lights stay on.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
10 November 2011

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