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Issue #1432      21 October 2009

Major parties offer no climate change solution

The coal industry and corporations whose industries produce high greenhouse gas emissions are attempting to stall any anti-emission initiative that would threaten their profit levels. They want to preserve the status quo, and they now claim they should be compensated because their future is threatened by the Rudd government’s emissions trading scheme, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS).

It is true that a new, more radical and determined government might in the future use a different scheme to enforce significant emission reductions. However, the big polluters are certainly not threatened by the current CPRS, which is based on an appallingly feeble emissions reduction target of only five percent, and which grants very generous concessions to the worst polluters. Indeed, after a steel industry representative demanded that the introduction of the scheme be deferred for a year, the government obligingly did so.

Moreover, the government has recently rejected a UK proposal for a multi-national agreement to ban construction of new coal-fired power stations unless they include carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities which under the agreement would have to be installed by 2020. The proposal has also been rejected by the US and Canada.

The proposal is opposed by the private power industry. CCS involves major environmental issues, including access to suitable geological sites for carbon storage, possible pollution of subterranean aquifers, and the vast quantities of water needed for emission liquefaction. However, from the industry’s point of view the crucial issue concerns profits, because enforcement of the UK’s proposed agreement would strip coal-fired power generation of economic advantages it has so far enjoyed over its renewable energy competitors.

To buy or not to buy

The estimated market value of Australia’s privately-owned coal-fired power stations has fallen, because of doubts about their future viability. The British firm International Power therefore wants the Rudd government to buy its Hazelwood power station in Victoria, said to be Australia’s worst greenhouse gas-emitting plant, at pre-CPRS value. The owners of Victoria’s Latrobe Valley power stations, and South Australia’s Flinders plant are also considering requesting a government buy-out.

The cost of replacing the Latrobe Valley power stations, which produce about a quarter of the nation’s power, is estimated at $9 billion. A preferable alternative would be for the government to rebuild the nation’s power facilities as publicly-owned assets, on a more efficient decentralised basis, and utilising renewable energy sources. As an interim measure, the privately-owned generators would be nationalised with minimum financial compensation and utilised to maintain adequate power until the power renewal program was completed.

The coal industry has also reacted with hostility to the suggestion that methane, a hydrocarbon gas encountered in coal mines, should be used to generate energy, rather than being vented to the atmosphere as at present.

(The combustion of methane during power generation emits carbon dioxide. However, methane itself is about 23 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so its use in power generation would result in an emission reduction. The cessation of new mine construction would, of course, eliminate further emissions altogether.)

The Liberals now want the government to exempt methane emissions from the CPRS. The Nationals oppose any emissions reduction scheme whatsoever.

The nuclear threat from within

In a recent opinion poll, 49 percent of respondents indicated that nuclear power should be considered as an alternative energy source. This is largely due to renewed campaigning by advocates of nuclear power, particularly concerning the low level of greenhouse emissions during power generation.

During a recent ABC TV interview, former NSW premier Bob Carr enthusiastically recommended nuclear power as an alternative energy source for Australia. He patronisingly referred to people who grew up in the 1980s as having had a “romantic” opposition to nuclear energy, and declared that young people nowadays were much more open-minded.

Carr did not mention the nuclear plant disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, or the radioactivity that bedevils nuclear plants, or the massive, still-unresolved problems associated with decommissioning an outdated plant, or storing highly toxic radioactive waste (for up to 250,000 years), or the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to terrorist attack or natural disasters.

He failed to point out how nuclear power plants can facilitate development of nuclear weapons, or the massive public subsidies that their use has necessitated. And he made no reference to the huge amounts of greenhouse gases given off during the mining, transport and processing of uranium and during the post-reaction stages of the plant’s operation.

The promotion of nuclear power as a “solution” to climate change is fictitious and highly dangerous. It is a menace to human safety, not a solution to climate change, which it is likely to exacerbate rather than mitigate.

Climate change and commercial interests

The real threat to Australia’s privately-owned power industry lies in its use of coal, and in growing public opposition to high-emission industries and the rapid development of renewable energy technology.

Workers in the coal industry, like those in the former asbestos industry, have suffered terrible workplace disease and injuries, and the disastrous environmental outcomes of coal combustion are now becoming evident. It is time to move on. The government needs to ensure steps are taken to disadvantaged coal mining workers in the transition to renewable energies.

Unfortunately, the Rudd government has consistently favoured the development of “clean coal” over renewable energy, and the Liberals are toying with nuclear power, because these energy sources involve the use of minerals as commodities, compared with wind, solar and tidal energy, which are all granted free of charge by nature.

The government proposes to offer the worst-polluting corporations $3.5 billion compensation for penalties they would incur in the CPRS initial stages. The Liberals want to increase the figure to $10 billion. Compensation would rob the scheme of its already wafer-thin potential to reduce emissions, and would really grant these corporations a “licence to pollute”.

The Australian people will have to look elsewhere for a government to effectively tackle climate change. And time is running short.

 

Next articleEditorial – Privatisation: a question of ideology

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