Tuesday, 16 September 2008

August 2008 - The 'energy gap'

It has become commonplace for proponents of new fossil fuel power stations to refer to the 'energy gap' - that is, the gap between our energy demands and the capacity of a renewable energy sector to meet them. Indeed, one of the arguments routinely wheeled out in support of E.On's application to build a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth is that new coal is necessary to 'keep the lights on'. Of course, it goes without saying that this gap must be closed by meeting the increasing energy demands of a growing capitalist economy - not by attempting to reduce our energy consumption and live within our ecological means.

There is, however, another notable gap - that between the scientific reality of dangerous climate change (conservatively estimated as requiring atmospheric concentrations of CO2e to not exceed 400 ppm - or approximately 2 degrees of climatic warming above pre-industrial levels) and the political feasibility of taking drastic and urgent action to prevent it. In the same week that the 100 months report appeared, the British Government demonstrated precisely how large this gap had become, as the chief scientific advisor to DEFRA Bob Watson warned that we should 'prepare to adapt to 4 degrees of warming', becuase 2 degrees was an 'ambitious target'

At 4 degrees above pre-industrial levels, "between 7 million and 300 million more people would be affected by coastal flooding each year, there would be a 30-50% reduction in water availability in Southern Africa and the Mediterranean, agricultural yields would decline 15 to 35% in Africa and 20 to 50% of animal and plant species would face extinction." (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/aug/06/climatechange.scienceofclimatechange)
The idea that we could somehow 'adapt' to 4 degrees of warming is, as medialens pointed out, deeply irrational (http://www.medialens.org/alerts/08/080909_hawking_the_technofix.php). Of course, any discussion of 'dangerous' climate change is of course a value judgement about how many people we are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of our 'ambitious' targets. As James Hansen, the chief scientist of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies is keen to remind people, climate change is already dangerous.

But where there should be debate about the most effective methods of mitigating climate change, and averting ecological and humanitarian disaster, there are instead thinly veiled threats from corporate energy providers about 'keeping the lights on'. Where vast sums should be invested in decentralised and community based renewable energy generation, millions are poured into building infrastructure that will commit the country to a fossil fueled energy economy for decades to come.

The real gap, it would seem, is between the imminent reality of runaway climate change, and its savage human cost, and the weak, compromised clunking of a political system that openly concedes that a 50% reduction in water availability in Southern Africa is something that we just have to 'adapt' to.


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