The fight to prevent dangerous and runaway climate change means that the energy regime in modern capitalism cannot be a matter of indifference to socialists. The pressure point now is the drive by power generation companies to build a new wave of coal-fired power stations.
There are plans for seven new coal-fired power stations in the UK (and many others in Europe), starting with Kingsnorth in Kent. In August environmental campaigners will set up a “Climate Camp” near this site to protest at the programme. Elliott Robinson examines the background.
The climate case against new coal stations is simple. The seven new stations would emit over 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. Power stations account for around a third of total UK emissions and coal alone accounts for over a third of energy emissions. Building these new coal-fired power stations will effectively scupper efforts to reduce UK emissions by 60-80% by 2050.
Climate camp activists are right to focus on Kingsnorth; its fate may well determine whether the others will be built, both in the UK and in Europe.
Greenpeace estimates that the proposed Kingsnorth coal-fired power station alone would produce over eight million tonnes of CO2 a year. This is more than the emissions annually produced by the entire population of Ghana (6.7 million tonnes of CO2 in 2005).
James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, the scientist who put climate change into the public arena in 1988 has specifically criticised the development. He wrote earlier this year: “Kingsnorth is a terrible idea. One power plant with a lifetime of several decades will destroy the efforts of millions of citizens to reduce their emissions.”
why coal now?
The Tories smashed the UK coal industry in the 1980s and early 1990s. They also privatised energy generation. The result is an energy market dominated by six power companies, vertically integrated with electricity suppliers. They led a dash for more profitable gas in order to enrich themselves and make fortunes for their shareholders. Because coal is twice as carbon intensive as gas, this brought UK emissions down in the 1990s, while the UK had plentiful gas reserves. Now, with more gas imported from Russia and a drop in the price of coal, coal-fired power stations are back.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is potential technology for putting carbon emissions back in the ground. There are some existing applications in the oil industry. However it is not yet a proven technology for new coal-fired power stations and probably won’t be developed until 2018 at the earliest.
E.ON originally promised to make Kingsnorth “carbon capture ready”, so it could be retrofitted when and if the CCS technology is developed. However Greenpeace exposed an exchange of e-mails between BERR Secretary John Hutton’s office and E.ON earlier this year.
E.ON wrote in January this year saying that Hutton “has no right to withhold approval” of the new plant and told the government it should not include CCS in their conditions for building the new coal plant. It took the government just six minutes to reply: “Thanks. I won’t include.”
At present E.ON employs 160 workers at Kingsnorth, as well as 90 agency workers. Most live within 20 miles of the site. It claims “a similar number of staff to those currently employed will be required” for the new units. On top of that, at peak, over 3,000 construction workers would be working on building the new power station, with jobs on offer over four years.
Workers in coal fired power stations have legitimate concerns about their jobs. That means making sure that capital and not workers — in this case E.ON and the government — pay for any decisions over the future of the site. It means looking at alternatives within the energy sector, which would ensure that every worker has alternative employment commensurate with their current position.
This might be at gas-fired power station or a combined heat and power (CHP) station — or even better, in the emerging renewables sector. E.ON itself has its own sites for the development of renewables.
This needs to be teased out with workers and their unions in the energy sector: only a plan that comes up from workers themselves is likely to convince Kingsnorth and other workers that their interests will be protected.
In the 1970s unionised workers produced plans for socially useful technologies, such as CHP, as well as wave, wind, solar and geothermal technologies. The most comprehensive came out of Lucas Aerospace, but others in Vickers, Chrysler and Parsons were also advanced. GEC workers in Trafford mapped out the design of a tidal barrage across the Severn Estuary, an idea that is now under serious consideration. Car workers and others worked out plans for integrated transport vehicles, hybrid cars and cycle lanes.
The creativity of workers then shows what’s possible — and how workers could become central to climate activism.
Denmark introduced a moratorium on coal fired power stations in 1990. It has also developed wind production. New Zealand has recently produced a climate change bill that will impose a moratorium on fossil fuel plants for 10 years. In Canada, all coal fired power stations built from 2012 have to meet emissions standards based on CCS.
The demand for a moratorium makes sense in the context of climate change, and given that CCS is not yet proven. A moratorium must include concrete plans, worked out by energy workers, to ensure that capital not labour pays for the policy.
• More information:
Stop Kingsnorth Power Station:
Matthew Lockwood, After the Coal Rush, IPPR 2008: http://www.ippr.org