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Why we must shut down coal burning power stations – now!

October 18, 2009

At the ‘Great Climate Swoop‘ in Nottinghamshire this weekend, just like at the Kingsnorth last year, 1,000 ordinary people risked police beatings, arrest and imprisonment in an attempt to take control of and ultimately decomission one of the UKs largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Eons Ratcliffe-on-soar coal-fired power station spews 12 millions tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere and they intend to keep this monster running for another 30 years.  Like similar recent protests at power stations in Denmark, Germany, Australia and the USA, those protesting this weekend know we can’t afford to let this continue.

The cops, e.on and their chums all claimed that these protests are dangerous and irresponsible but who’s really guilty of that charge? When six greenpeace protesters were prosecuted for shutting down Kingsnorth and causing £30,000 worth of damage, the jury ruled that their actions had been entirely proportionate and responsible – the greater crime was knowingly burning coal which is already responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people around the world and threatens much worse to come.

James Hansen, a leading climate scientist, gave evidence at the trial. Refering to coal-fired power stations as ‘death factories’, he has called for putting fossil fuel company executives on trial for “high crimes against humanity and nature”. He says that world leaders are failing us and that, “somebody needs to step forward and say there has to be a moratorium, draw a line in the sand and say no more coal-fired power stations“.

The only sure way to avoid catastrophic climate change is to stop burning coal. Scientists warn that any rise in average global temperature greater than two degrees Celsius (2C) from pre-industrial times would result in us passing a climatic tipping point into worldwide catastrophe. Temperatures have already risen by 0.7 degrees, and are expected to rise at least as much again even if all fossil fuel use is stopped today. Action is urgently required.

Researcher Malte Mainshausen of the Potsdam Institute said, “Only a fast switch away from fossil fuels will give us a reasonable chance to avoid considerable warming. If we continue burning fossil fuels as we do, we will have exhausted the carbon budget in merely 20 years, and global warming will go well beyond 2C.

According to an analysis by Myles Allen and colleagues at Oxford University, total carbon dioxide emissions of one trillion tons would push the world over that 2C tipping point. “It took us 250 years to burn the first half trillion, and on current projections we’ll burn the next half trillion in less than 40 years,” he said.

It’s clear that world leaders, along with the profit obsessed corporations that pull their strings, will never willingly make the radical changes required to prevent runaway global warming. We need to stop burning fossil fuels, not finding new ways to continue business as usual! Only a massive social movement of grassroots action stands any chance to force through the required changes for a just transistion into a sustainable future based on peoples needs not profit greeds.

We can win (we’ve held up Eon’s plans for Kingsnorth for three years now) and we must win – there is simply no other choice!

Further background material:

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. climateshop permalink*
    October 18, 2009 4:16 pm

    Climate Change – What is the threat? How bad could it get?
    * 300,000 people are already dying each year from the direct effects of climate change ref.1, and thousands more are made environmental refugees. Climate change is likely to kill over 180 million people this century in sub-Saharan Africa 2.
    * At current levels of emissions the IPCC suggest temperature rises of between 1.8 and 4.0 degrees this century 3, with rises of up to 6 degrees possible. The last time the temperature rose 6 degrees resulted in 90% loss of species across the planet 4, and life itself nearly ended.
    * Once we’re beyond 2 degrees, we reach tipping points 5: Forests dry, die and burn, releasing their carbon. Peat bogs dry and decompose, releasing their carbon. Ice caps melt, decreasing the reflectivity (‘albedo’) of the planet and further increasing warming. Emissions cause warming which causes more emissions which causes more warming.
    * 3 degrees could mean: 400 million people will die in places that are not responsible for the problem in the first place 6. 1-3 billion additional people facing water stress 7; 400 million deaths from hunger; destruction of the Amazon rainforests; 50 % of world’s nature reserves threatened 8; collapse of massive numbers of ecosystems – and the list goes on. 1

    Why target coal?
    * Govt’s own Environmental Audit Committee has recently called coal a ‘last resort, even with CCS’ 9.
    * Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, and dirtiest way to produce electricity. It emits 80 percent more carbon per unit of energy than gas and 29 percent more than oil 10.
    * The problem with coal is that it’s dirty; emitting twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy delivered as natural gas. Globally, coal accounts for more than 37 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions 11.
    * With oil and gas prices rising, coal looks attractive. But coal is a finite resource too, so we are only putting off the inevitable – locking ourselves into unsustainable infrastructure rather than investing in sustainable alternatives. If a new era of capitalist expansion is based on coal then we’re all toast.
    * Coal is out-dated. We need to reduce energy demand. The Labour Government has claimed we will generate about 40% of our electricity from renewable sources alone by 2020 12. We need positive steps towards implementing this now; we need to move away from the dark age of coal.
    * By allowing new coal mines and power plants, governments and corporations have shown they will go for short term profit regardless of the millions of people that will be killed by the effects of such dirty energy sources. We need to build energy systems which benefits people.

    What about CCS?
    * CCS does not exist. It is a pipedream that may never happen. Climate change is happening now and needs to be stopped now.
    * CCS is an unproven technology that won’t be available for 20 years at the earliest – so says Alistair Darling 13, – and emissions need to be prevented now. If it’s ever ready, then we can talk about it. In the meantime, we can’t build new coal fired power stations.

    But don’t we need coal and nuclear to fill the energy gap/keep the lights on?
    * The energy gap is a myth. If the government stick to its commitment to its 40% target for production of energy from renewables then clean energy easily fills the gap (37% lost from closing old coal and nuclear by 2027). Labour has committed to 40% renewables by 2020 14.
    * We need to rapidly change our energy systems to avert catastrophic climate change. This will take huge ambition, which the government is completely unable to acheive as it is closely linked to fossil energy corporations. So it is down to social movements such as the Camp for Climate Action to develop worker and community control of our energy supply and our society.

    What’s the point? Whatever we do here will be undone by China/India?
    * Climate change is a global problem and nearly every country is going to have to reduce emissions – the UK, China, India, and the US. If we’re going to do it fairly (which in our view is essential), that means countries like the UK will have to cut a lot more than China as our emissions are much higher per capita.
    * Our emissions are much higher than they appear because of how much we buy from China. A third of Chinese emissions come from the production of goods for export. The UK is effectively “outsourcing” its pollution to China and other parts of the developing world.
    * India and China’s emissions per person are still far far below ours (we in the UK emit ten times as much per person as an Indian). We are disproportionately responsible for the emissions that have caused this problem – we have a responsibility to take the lead, and ensure that the burden of change is not merely – again – shifted to poorer nations. If we want to have any credibility in talking about global emissions cuts with the rest of the world we have to get our own house in order first.

    So what’s your solution then?
    * On coal specifically: First, no new coal power plants or mines, Second, we need to start decommissioning existing coal power stations as soon as possible, in line with what the science demands.
    * On climate change: We need a just transition to a low-carbon economy, with energy provided by a decentralized network of renewable energy, and reductions in energy consumption.

    What is a ‘just transition’?
    * ‘Making the transition to a low-carbon society in a way that protects, and benefits, workers and communities worldwide’
    * Longer explanation: ‘Just Transition is based on the idea that a healthy economy and a clean environment can and should co-exist, and that changes to employment or activities should be fair and not cost workers or communities, their health or assets. In practice this means that those affected by these changes should take a leading role in creating new policies and solutions’.

    But tackling climate change is a luxury we can’t afford in a recession
    * The economy isn’t working / “Climate Change is the result of the greatest market failure the world has ever seen” – Stern report
    * Food crisis, credit crunch, climate change: Our system relies on generating short-term booms for the rich and it’s ALWAYS the poor who get slapped with the bust. Pursuing economic growth at all costs in this way is pillaging the planet and destroying the lives of those who live on it.
    * More people experiencing the failures of the economy means more people are looking for an alternative, and that is what the camp’s about: Green collar jobs, just transition, less is more.

    What about the people in the local area who need these jobs to feed their families?
    * More jobs would be created by investing in reliable, long lasting renewable energy infrastructure than in new coal. They’ve started doing it in Germany and the renewable industry already employs 250,000 15 – which is more than currently work in the UK’s entire power sector.
    * New coal will be extracted using non-unionised labour where possible, and it will mostly come from open cast mines. Nearly all the coal for coal-fired power stations is or will be imported from Eastern Europe (and Russia). Imports are already higher than domestic 16.
    * We certainly need jobs, but not any jobs at any cost. It’s a choice between creating many thousands of new jobs in renewable energy and other low carbon technologies, or continuing to support relatively few jobs in industries such as coal which will kill millions and destroy livelihoods of billions of people.

    What do you say to claims that you are indifferent to the struggles faced by mining communities and you are trying to put all coal-workers out of a job?
    * We are not indifferent to their struggles and it is vital that coal mining communities are included in deciding how society changes in response to climate change. However, they are being misled by government and large power corporations into believing that coal can continue to be used in a world facing climate change.
    * We recognise the need for jobs, viable communities and a strong trade union movement, and we want a decent, fair and long term deal for all, including miners, energy workers and their communities. We believe we face a common enemy of short-termism, capitalism and the exploitation of people and nature that capitalism inevitably brings.

    What gives you the right to stop a company going about its lawful business?
    * We have to act swiftly and responsibly in the face of this environmental imperative, irrespective of the rules set by the government – these rules are one of the main causes of the problem. The laws as they currently stand are working against rather than for a sustainable society.
    * Because it should not be lawful for a company to be contributing to the deaths of millions and the massive threat to life as we know it posed by climate change.
    * This is a peaceful protest that is not endangering or depriving anyone.

    Questions about violence
    * violence has invariably been at the hands of the police who have repeatly beaten and harassed non-violent protesters, resulting in a tragic death at the G20 protests. We hope that they won’t behave in the same way during this protest.
    * The government is committed to violence because of our addiction to fossil fuels. We want a peaceful transition to a low energy future. But the government steams ahead with more and more resource wars.
    * Let’s step back and look at where the violence really is. 300,000 people are already dying each year from the direct effects of climate change, and with the 3 degree rise in temperatures predicted for this century; 400 million will die due to starvation.

    More specifically on E.ON and Ratcliffe-on-Soar
    * We are targeting Ratcliffe because E.ON are planning to build a new coal plant at Kingsnorth in Kent. If built it would signal a return to coal and we won’t let that happen. Coal is one of the dirtiest, most inefficient fuel and there are plenty of viable alternatives which do not produce carbon dioxide. If built, Kingsnorth will emit between 6 and 8 million tons of CO2 every year 17. If all the coal plants proposed for Britain are built, an extra 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year would be pumped into the atmosphere, almost a tenth of the UK’s current total emissions.
    * In the middle of a climate crisis, building power plants that lock us into increased emission at the time we need to be radically cutting emissions is a disgrace. Not only will Kingsnorth and other power stations like it wreck the climate they make us reliant on a finite insecure fuel source and mean we’ll miss the opportunity we would have to create many more jobs from the low carbon options like renewable and decentralised energy systems.

    Eon claim the new Kingsnorth will be more efficient than the old one
    * The difference is marginal; burning coal even in these latest power stations is still far and away the most polluting way of making electricity. The new coal power plant at Kingsnorth would produce more than twice as much carbon dioxide as a modern gas power plant to produce the same amount of electricity 18. AND, Kingsnorth would be the first of many new power stations, leading to an increased throughput of coal and net increased emissions.
    * The real conversation should be about how we built an energy network based on renewables and decentralised energy.

    E.ON claim to be a green energy company – have you picked the wrong target?
    * E.ON’s claims are pure greenwash. They generate more than ten times as much electricity from coal as from renewables – or 22 times as much from fossil fuels as from renewables. E.ON’s infrastructure investment fund is 95% for non-renewable energy. And they’re just about to start building world’s largest power station in Russia. They also spent 12 million pounds on security against the Kingsnorth Climate Camp, showing they want to crush any protests against a new Kingsnorth and avoid the issues. Does all that sound like a green company to you? E.ON don’t care about climate change, they care about profit.

  2. October 19, 2009 11:30 am

    Why the Ratcliffe on Soar ‘Great Climate Swoop’ was both noble and justified.
    We’re doing it ourselves: why Baggini has got it wrong (by Adam on Oct 19th)

    In his article for the Times today, ‘Green guerrillas are following a noble tradition: Eco-protesters should be saluted. And then banged up‘, philosopher Julian Baggini asserts that this weekend’s protest at Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station was noble, but ultimately unjustified. He’s wrong.

    Baggini draws on the work of political philosopher John Rawls to suggest that three conditions should be met if civil disobedience is to be recognised as legitimate:

    1) the cause must be a clear and manifest injustice

    2) legal avenues must have been exhausted

    3) the action must not be more harmful than allowing the injustice to continue.

    Whether or not these conditions are met in the case of Ratcliffe-on-Soar is more of a factual question than a moral one, and the facts tell against the protesters“, Baggini asserts.

    His argument is laid out as follows: “Despite their self-righteous certainty, the most effective thing to do about climate change at the national level is still a matter of debate. Burning fossil fuels is bad for global warming, but it doesn’t follow that unilaterally shutting Britain’s coal-powered power stations is an urgent moral imperative, especially when you think about the other harms such a disruptive measure would cause. It’s also clear that lawful avenues of protest have not been exhausted.”

    As Baggini himself states, it’s a factual question. So let’s look at the facts.

    Does climate change constitute ‘a manifest injustice’?

    Research by the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development shows that the 100 countries most vulnerable to climate change together account for just over 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions. The US and EU, meanwhile, account for 48% between them. By emitting huge quantities of greenhouse gases without any restriction for more than 200 years, rich countries have secured a far cheaper path to industrialisation than will be afforded to developing nations in the future. Yet the most devastating impacts of climate change will not be suffered by those of us residing in the ‘global north’.

    Despite the clear onus on rich countries to start repaying their climate debt, they continue to evade historic responsibilities. Indeed, even if they were to meet the widely called-for target of limiting global warming to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels, it is a goal which lacks any grounding in equity. The IPCC 2007 report shows how richer countries may be relatively unscathed up to this threshold – crop production in temperate zones will actually increase – whilst crops in tropical regions are already at their limit of temperature sensitivity. Many small island states will not survive warming on this scale at all – the Maldives has already begun plans to move its three hundred thousand residents to a new home, with Sri Lanka, India and Australia mooted as possible locations.

    It’s not a coincidence that the issue of climate justice is typically ignored by rich nations – and their media. Because climate change is fundamentally, globally unjust.

    Have we exhausted legal avenues?

    Despite an almost complete scientific consensus about the reality, causation and seriousness of climate change, national governments, corporations and individuals continue to emit greenhouse gases at a potentially catastrophic rate: the UN Environment Programme revealed in a recent report that emissions since 2000 have risen faster than even the worst-case scenarios predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

    Baggini’s demand that activists exhaust legal avenues before resorting to civil disobedience might be reasonable if the fight for climate justice were like any other social movement. It’s not.

    Unlike Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, climate activists do not have time on their side. The science is clear that if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at present rates, we risk triggering a series of devastating tipping points that will render activism in the future futile: climate change will be unstoppable.

    All is not lost however. Whilst the planet is now committed to harmful and irreversible impacts as a result of the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, it might still be possible to avoid the most catastrophic scenarios. What is necessary is immediate, cohesive and decisive action to cut emissions and assist vulnerable countries to adapt. So how are we doing?

    It’s the national level that Baggini is concerned about, and when it comes to addressing climate change Britain is top of the class. We have the world’s best climate policy having committed to reducing carbon emissions by 34% over the next 10 years, and by 80% by 2050. That’s the good news. The bad news is that ‘top of the class’ simply doesn’t reach the pass mark. Even should we meet our goals, they’re woefully inadequate. If every other nation in the world follows the UK’s example, we’ll be heading for a devastating 4C of global warming.

    The Copenhagen Climate Conference is less than 50 days away – it is widely seen to be humanity’s ‘last chance’ to stop climate change before we pass the point of no return. It’s shocking to learn then, that our political representatives are not even aiming for the significant emissions cuts that the science demands. But it gets worse. Whilst protesters were trying to breach the high security fences and police cordons surrounding Ratcliffe on Soar this weekend, Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC, revealed that “the prospects that states will actually agree to anything in Copenhagen are starting to look worse and worse“.

    Whilst policy-focused campaigns remain essential to try and secure as strong a consensus as possible (even if it is only to lay the foundations for more negotiations), there is no realistic possibility of the world’s leaders committing to the kind of action at Copenhagen that is required. In consequence, technical and legal avenues alone offer little hope for bringing about significant emissions cuts in the limited time that we have. As Al Gore recognised more than a year ago, “we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants“. There’s little reason to argue that the same principle shouldn’t apply when it comes to protesting against existing plants.

    Did the direct action at Ratcliffe cause more harm than allowing the injustice (the power plant’s operation) to continue?

    It’s not exactly clear what Baggini is referring to when he claims that shutting Ratcliffe would have caused harm. As e.on themselves stated, even had the action achieved its stated goal, the UK national grid would have ensured that the public didn’t suffer the inconvenience of power cuts.

    But regardless, this is a question that has been answered before. A group of six Greenpeace activists were cleared at court last year having also attempted to close down a coal-fired power station. Why were they cleared? Because the jury recognised that they were trying to prevent the power plant from causing far greater damage to property around the world, than the damage they caused in the process of their direct action. Put simply, if the house next door is burning, it is legitimate to kick down the door in order to put out the fire. If the power station up the road is emitting more carbon dioxide than some entire countries, making a tangible contribution to climate change in the process, it seems reasonable to argue that it is legitimate to pull down fences in order to shut it down. Had the action been successful, it would have made a significant and positive impact on the UK’s annual carbon emissions.

    Of course, ultimately, many of the climate protesters at Ratcliffe want to see far more significant steps taken than the closing of a single coal-fired power station for a single day. Had the protest been an attempt to permanently shut down all of the UK’s fossil fuel-based energy supplies, it would be possible for Baggini to point towards more significant, structural harms that might result. For example, short term job losses, and even power cuts, might be considered two obvious potential side effects. As e.on themselves are keen to point out, job security and energy security are real concerns – but weighed against the threat to human security – the survival of millions of people, the prospect of tens, possibly hundreds, of millions of climate refugees – it seems reasonable to question whether we have our priorities right. But actually, framing the energy debate as ‘a trade off’ in this way isn’t necessarily accurate. The alternative to dirty energy is not for the UK to be without power and without jobs. Environmental groups point towards several studies which suggest there is the potential for wind energy alone to ‘keep the lights on’, although of course we may also want exploit tidal power, wave power, solar power and the other supplies of renewable energy to which we are lucky enough to have access.

    In making this move, we would benefit from a global boon in the green economy: the UN is predicting that tens of millions of jobs will be created over the coming years thanks to the development of alternative energies. This is a transition that will simply have to be made at some point – regardless of climate change – because fossil fuels are running out. Far from causing harm, by demanding that work begins immediately – whilst there is still some hope of avoiding the most catastrophic environmental and social effects of the climate crisis – the protesters at Ratcliffe were working in our common interest.

    Baggini is right that we should be talking about the facts, but sadly he fails to confront any of the difficult realities that the protesters at Ratcliffe were engaging with. And there certainly is a debate to be had regarding the best way for the UK to meet its emissions targets – but it will require more serious and thoughtful contributions than Baggini has offered us in the Times. Perhaps he would like to try again?

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