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Pathfinders: Emission Control? – We Have A Problem

Socialists have for years railed at capitalist market production for being on a relentless collision course with the environment, and have been more than once guilty of tired clichés like ‘profits of doom’ and ‘merchants of menace’. Nobody expected, twenty or so years ago, that the fat cats in their plexiglass palaces would lift their noses from their account books long enough to notice that, outside the window, the last tree was dying in a desert. Now, mysteriously, we see 150 of the world’s largest corporations, including Nestle, Coca Cola, General Electric and Shell, enthusiastically demanding carbon emission cuts of up to 50 percent by 2050 (New Scientist, Dec 8, 07). And in the wake of the recent Bali accord, we have most of the world’s countries behind a global effort to cap carbon emissions and prevent disastrous global warming. What is behind this sudden laudable concern for the environment, and how are they going to achieve their aims? Simple, the only way capitalism can think of doing anything. By making loads of money out of it.

Now the way you make money out of anything in capitalism is to deprive everyone of it, and then charge them for access to it. Thus, at Kyoto, was born the idea of depriving everyone equally of the right to emit greenhouse gases, and then charging a flat rate for access to metered pollution rights. It would work, so long as all countries signed up to it. This last proviso is of course what has taken so long to resolve, which is why Kyoto never really worked and Bali, which was strong on emotion but weak on hard targets, still might not.

So how do businesses make money out of a carbon tax? By developing ‘green’ technologies that produce less pollution, allowing countries to save money on buying or sell on their spare credits to the belching giants like China and the USA. Hence all the new debate in the UK about nuclear power. Hence also the probable Second Coming to Europe of GM technology, previously scorned but now about to return with a vengeance. Agriculture is the largest contributor to global warming, not through carbon directly but through nitrogen in fertiliser, which, apart from the considerable problems of nitrate pollution, algal blooms and dead zones in coastal waters, has the unhappy effect of oxidising into nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon (New Scientist, Jan 5). Genetically modified crops which don’t need so much fertiliser, or which can take up more nitrogen and waste less of it, are seen as one way to reduce this huge impact.

And genetic modification of crops won’t stop at a few strains of cereal. Rice feeds half the world, and in a more drought-prone world, rice cultivation will be seriously at risk, so drought-resistant strains will have to be developed. And as with salt-resistance, another important factor in coastal areas more prone to flooding, what happens when modifications migrate, as they are known to do, to wild and weedy cousins? Crops could in the future be strangled by superweeds that can withstand flood, drought or weedkillers to threaten the world’s food supplies.

But one of the biggest money-making production bonanzas is biofuels. Transport is responsible for roughly one quarter of all global human emissions, but the oil is running out and the much-vaunted hydrogen option requires unfeasibly massive infrastructure changes for storage and filling-station delivery. Besides, biofuels are close to carbon-neutral, absorbing as much in growing as they emit in burning. Better still, with some strains such as switchgrass offering up to 540 percent more energy than is required to grow them, leading to a carbon-saving of 94 percent compared to petrol, the smart money is in inedible crop-growing (BBC Online, Jan 8). Already large swathes of North America are switching to corn-based biofuel production, both to earn carbon credits and as a future hedge against Arab and Chinese-controlled petroleum, while Latin American countries, in particular Brazil, are gearing up to sugarcane-based ethanol harvesting.

So lucrative is this potential market that, not to be outdone, developing countries like Indonesian Sumatra are hurriedly destroying what’s left of their last vestiges of rainforest in order to cash in on palm oil production for diesel fuel. And who could blame them when, prior to Bali, there was no agreement under Kyoto to recompense ‘green’ countries for preserving such unprofitable natural forest. As much of Sumatra’s richest forest is bulldozed, the peat that it has lived in for thousands of years is ripped up, and this releases more carbon than will ever be saved by the palm oil grown on it (New Scientist, Dec 1, 07). The Bali accord hurriedly attempted to address deforestation for the first time, but much of the damage has already been done and it remains to be seen whether forest-rich countries stand to gain more by sitting on their green growth or churning it up for the bio-barrels.

Nor are these the only problems. Subsistence farmers pushed off land to make way for biofuel production, and given no help or financial aid by regional governments, have no choice but to invade natural forest and clear it by slash and burn in order to live. And food supplies are threatened on a larger scale too, as biofuels, though efficient in some ways, are the most land-hungry method of producing energy, many times more than fossil, wind, nuclear, hydro or solar. There is only so much arable land, and the population is rising. What happens to human food supplies as the world’s engines groan ever more hungrily to be fed? According to recent research, the total availability of suitable undeveloped land for biofuels is between 250 and 300 million hectares, but even using the most efficient crops it will take 290 million hectares to produce 10 percent of the world’s projected energy requirement in 2030. But by then, the world will also need 200 million of these same hectares to feed the extra 2 to 3 billion people who will then be alive (New Scientist, Dec 15, 07). And this is to say nothing of all the extra nitrous oxide being emitted by fertilised biocrops, if suitable GM alternatives are not developed or are not accepted for use. On top of all that, there is the problem of water supply. Switching 50 percent of transport and electricity requirement to biofuels by 2050 will require up to 12,000 cubic kilometres of extra water per year, close to the total annual flow down the world’s rivers (New Scientist, Dec 15, 07). All this and in a drier world too where water wars are already widely predicted.

The truth is, nobody really knows if the pros of biofuel production really outweigh the cons. Like all capitalist economics, it is largely guesswork. All capitalism really knows for sure is that, in the words of the aforementioned large corporations, “the shift to a low-carbon economy will create significant business opportunities”, or in plainer language, there’s gold in them thar green hills. Besides, the subtleties of comparative studies may be lost on governments keen to assuage a growing public demand that they ‘do something’ about the environment. Australia, already suffering the longest drought in its recorded history, has recently turfed out its long established climate-sceptic government in favour of one which, within weeks, signed up to Kyoto. As Bob Dylan would say, it don’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.