Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/796/18062
Debate on the environment
The European Union Framework for climate and energy conference recently agreed, after much wrangling, only a timid response to the threat of climate change.
Their resolution merely hoped for a 40% cut in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2030 and to produce just over a quarter of Europe's energy by renewable sources.
The capitalist class and their profit-driven system cannot produce an environmentally friendly energy system and will probably obstruct even these timorous plans. The working class movement has to work out an alternative.
In this feature, as a contribution to this debate, Blair Smillie and Pete Dickenson discuss whether clean coal and carbon capture and storage (CCS) can play any role.
Don't ignore carbon capture and storage
As the great grandson of Robert Smillie, the great miners' union leader from 1912/22, I wonder what he would feel like if he could see the destruction of an industry which once fuelled the country through two world wars, and with the miners' dependents, represented 13% of the UK population.
He may wonder why, with over 1,000 coal plants planned throughout the world, we are not exploiting the reserves of coal in this country which are proven to be able to supply us for the next 200 to 300 years.
He may agree with scientists that CO2 (carbon dioxide) helps to create global warming and indeed he would also be backing the need for efficient carbon capture and storage (CCS).
I think he would be terrified of nuclear which is supposed to be 'clean' yet the spent uranium will hold grave danger to the world for 500,000 years.
I am sure he would not agree with windmills spoiling our coasts and countryside, unless, and I repeat, unless they were cost-effective and efficient. So that brings us back to two words 'coal' and 'miners'
These two words scare the devil out of politicians. It is well seen why they're intent on not discussing the issue of CCS and the possibility that reopening our coal mines and employing thousands of men and in turn reviving our mining communities.
No it is easier for them to ignore the fact that although the Don Valley CCS project in South Yorkshire was seen by Europe as our 'best hope' to fuel our country at much lower cost than nuclear and renewable energy, it still involved keeping our pits open.
Let's then look at the danger we face as a country reliant on imports of coal and uranium:
Uranium is now becoming much harder to find. They're having to go deeper to source supply for an ever increasing world market.
Coal is presently imported from Russia, Columbia, USA and even South Africa. Have any of our politicians been down a South African or Russian mine? I very much doubt it and if they had been they would see the horrendous conditions which these people have to work in.
Why do you think it is cheaper to ship coal half way across the world with the resultant waste of energy? It wouldn't be so bad if they chose to build their ships here and they help to save our ship building industry!
We do not control the pricing and as the suppliers are capitalists, the knowledge that we have closed down the access to our own coal, will no doubt trigger price rises.
The development of China and India with their planned 750-plus coal powered plants under construction, are we going to have priority, no I don't think so.
We need to build our mining industry again where the creation of jobs is paramount. We need to work to develop ways to make using coal in the energy market safer for our country and then we need to export that technology throughout the world.
The only way forward is clear, well-informed discussion about energy and the way ahead, I always remember the last paragraph in Robert Smillie's book My Life for Labour published in 1924.
It was: "By far the struggle in life is greater than the successes." There will be an energy crisis in the future.
Now is the time, when the mining industry is hanging by a thread, to struggle to breathe new life into it for the sake of our children and grandchildren.
Jobs, safety and the environment are the big issues
Blair Smillie's letter makes some useful points about how capitalist energy markets operate against workers' and consumers' interests.
Quite correctly, he points out that carbon capture and storage (CCS) could have the potential to be part of a green energy strategy.
I certainly hope that Robert Smillie would have agreed that carbon dioxide causes global warming because the evidence is now overwhelming.
I also agree that the dangers of nuclear power are terrifying, but I don't think windmills are undesirable as an eyesore.
The often justifiable complaints from local communities could largely be resolved by building wind farms off-shore; in my opinion these developments, such as the one off the Kent coast, are not a great blot on the seascape.
Some may disagree, but I think it is an acceptable price to pay to tackle global warming.
There are safety issues to be resolved before CCS could be adopted, but even if these were sorted out, I cannot agree that 'clean coal' should be at the centre of a green energy programme.
At most, it could play a useful auxiliary role in British climatic conditions. In countries where the weather is favourable to using solar power for example, I cannot see any justification for adopting clean coal.
And it looks as though there is no chance that CCS will be introduced anyway. As a result of the age of austerity, Cameron's rhetoric has moved from 'vote blue to go green' to 'dump the green crap'.
The government still supports CCS in theory, but the energy bill being debated in Parliament only has the proviso that at some unspecified future point, coal plants must be able to demonstrate that carbon capture and storage technology could theoretically reduce their emissions by some unspecified amount.
In other words, generating companies will effectively have no obligation to spend any money on CCS when they build new coal-fired power stations.
I do not necessarily agree that CCS is cheaper than renewables - it is very difficult in capitalist economic terms to be precise about the cost of a technology such as CCS not yet developed and implemented, in a constantly changing and anarchic market.
It is probably true though that CCS would be cheaper than nuclear once the huge hidden and open subsidies for that industry are excluded.
The capitalists will go for the cheapest option where they can, but they also have political considerations.
As Blair Smillie's article implies, the ruling class is wary of developing the coal industry for political reasons linked to the mineworkers' historic role in the class struggle.
This is why the government chooses to import large amounts of cheap coal rather than develop a local coal industry.
For the bosses, profit will ultimately come first, but for the labour movement jobs, safety and the environment are key issues.
With CCS, there are real safety issues associated with storing carbon dioxide for an indefinite period in the future.
Several years ago in central Africa, CO2 escaped from the bottom of a lake due to natural causes and because the gas is heavier than air, it rolled across the surrounding area suffocating thousands of people.
As stored CO2 builds up, as a result of CCS, a way will have to be found to keep it safely. It will never be possible to release it, because to do so would recreate the problem of global warming.
This issue needs to be fixed through more research before CCS should be used, especially since tried, tested and safe forms of renewable energy already exist. The main renewable resource in Britain is wind power.
People often ask what will happen when the wind stops blowing? This is where CCS could play a role, in providing back-up power for the relatively rare occasions in the UK when there is insufficient wind.
Whether CCS is eventually used should be based primarily on a consideration of environmental and safety issues, which is very unlikely to happen with our present profit-based system.
Only when power is taken out of the hands of the capitalists by a workers' government will it be possible to resolve this issue in the long-term interests of society.
Planning for the Planet
How Socialism Could Save the Environment
by Pete Dickenson
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In The Socialist 29 January 2014:
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