No coal plus no nuclear equals no lights. No power. No future.” This was the claim made by former business secretary John Hutton at the recent Labour Party conference.
The idea that Britain is facing an energy shortfall and that the only solution is to invest massively in building new nuclear and coal-fired power stations is becoming common currency.
But there is no energy shortage in Britain.
The National Grid will maintain 4,000 megawatts of “spare capacity” throughout this winter – the equivalent of four large power stations’ production. This is similar to the spare capacity of previous winters.
However, over the longer term there is a need to develop new forms of energy production.
A number of nuclear and coal plants are to close down over the next 20 years. This will reduce Britain’s electricity generation by around 30 percent. But there is no reason why nuclear or coal plants should fill the gap.
Greenpeace published a report on Britain’s energy requirements last month. It concluded that “there is no need to build new fossil-fuelled power generation to keep the lights on”.
It argues that if the government meets its targets on improving energy efficiency and developing renewable energy, there will be no need for new electricity generation until after 2020.
Nuclear power, long opposed by the majority of the population, is now accepted even by leading environmentalists such as George Monbiot and Mark Lynas. They are motivated by a desire to cut carbon emissions.
But nuclear power is no way to do this. Nuclear is being promoted as clean, cheap and efficient, but it is the opposite of all three.
Carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere in every stage in the production of nuclear power. It has taken massive government subsidies to build nuclear power stations in the past, and new ones will require that again.
Nuclear energy requires the building of large plants far from the places where the energy will be used.
This wastes a massive amount of energy as it is lost in transmission from the plants to towns and cities.
Then there is the most obvious objection to nuclear power – the risk of accident and the danger radioactive material poses to the environment and human life.
Coal is no serious solution to climate change either.
Burning coal creates 40 percent of global carbon emissions. New coal-fired power stations will mean billions of tonnes of carbon pumped into the atmosphere every year.
Coal’s supporters put forward carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology as a way of producing “clean” coal. But CCS technology does not exist at the moment.
Currently there are three big projects being tested in the world and none is attached to a working power station.
It is estimated it will take until at least 2030 for the technology to be operational – if it works at all.
The energy companies talk up CCS because it means they can justify building new coal-fired power plants, and say they will fit the technology when it is developed.
The facts that it may not work, and will produce harmful emissions in the meantime, are ignored.
The energy companies make massive profits from coal and nuclear power.
The government promotes these energy resources because it is committed to backing up the multinationals’ interests.
But it has to convince ordinary people that they are the only logical source of energy.
So it claims that failing to build new coal and nuclear power stations will cost jobs, and that environmentalists opposed to them are “anti-worker”. It also says that if these plants are not built ordinary people will have to ration their energy.
But this is hypocrisy from a government that cares little about defending workers’ jobs at any other time.
How many more jobs would be created from embarking on a national programme of fitting insulation, building wind farms, and creating and running an expanded public transport system?
Fighting climate change does not mean working people making sacrifices – it means cutting back on the dominance, profits and the wealth of the corporations.
Investing in clean energy and making changes to the way society is organised are the real way to meet our energy needs.
Renewable energy could end our dependence on fossil fuels and massively reduce carbon emissions.
One estimate is that the wind energy available on land is three times greater than all Britain’s expected electricity needs will be in 2030.
Offshore wind farms could provide Britain’s electricity needs six times over.
Similar conclusions can be reached on a global level.
In 2005 a Stanford University study estimated that wind farms on land and near shore could provide seven times the current global demand for electricity.
Cars produce 45 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Huge investment in an integrated public transport system would cut pollution.
These measures would also provide tens of thousands of jobs.
The government says such measures are too expensive. And although renewable energy sources involve high costs initially, over the longer term it is a cheap form of energy production.
Government figures show that wind power will be the cheapest form of electricity generation by 2020, while the costs of producing solar power are falling.
But the government is committed to neoliberalism and big business.
It relies on the private sector to provide energy and transport. It cannot persuade them to take on projects that are initially “unprofitable”.
This is the crux of the problem. The way that capitalism is organised puts up barriers to tackling climate change.
The government could, of course, ditch its neoliberal ideology and stump up the investment itself. It has done so in other areas.
It pumps billions into the banks nuclear power. This shows the money is there to invest in renewables, public transport, building insulation and the rest. The problem is a lack of political will.
To truly fight climate change the vast majority of people have to take control of society from the rich and begin to run it in our own interests.