Good Energy

The guys at Good Energy have been really supportive and excited about the expedition, so much so that they have made a contribution which allows me to keep the blog regularly updated during the expedition, so they and everyone else can follow the journey. Good Energy supplies 100% renewable electricity sourced from wind, water, sun and sustainable biomass. CO2 from coal-fired electricity generation is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Switch your electricity supply to Good Energy using this link and not only will you be supporting the pioneering community of independent green generators, but for every sign up they get they’ll make another donation to help get the bus around the world. It helps you cut your personal CO2 emissions, helps them grow a great business, and helps me get round the world.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

EcoSpeak and the fall of Capitalism

In the new language created by our increased environmental consciousness there are two phrases which are particularly warm and cosy. One is “Beyond Petroleum”. How reassuring that little green sun (or is it a sunflower) emblem is. Sadly, the only significant way in which BP have moved beyond petroleum since rebranding is that they have expanded their interests in Natural Gas, which is a slightly cleaner energy source than crude oil products, but still a fossil fuel, so still involves taking carbon atoms out of the ground after they’ve comfortably rested there for millennia and adding them to our atmosphere and oceans, where they can’t fail to have an impact on our climate. In fairness BP are no worse than the other big oil companies, but they are the only ones with a green logo and windmill on their filling stations which it turns out in some cases are not even hooked up and purely cosmetic!

The other insidious oxymoron designed to generate that warm everything-will-be-ok feeling is “Clean Coal”. A technology which turns coal into a collection of hydrocarbon gasses before burning it. It’s a cleaner, more efficient use of coal, but no measure of efficiency can escape the fact that this is the worst of the fossil fuels, the use of which is one of the best mechanism for taking carbon safely locked away underground and sticking it in the air to warm up in the sun.

Clean coal is often cited along with the phrase Carbon Capture and Storage (CC&S). CC&S involves putting carbon filters on the chimney stacks of coal fired power station, or using bacteria to absorb the carbon. The language makes it sound like the perfect solution; you catch the carbon and then store it. Why didn’t we think of this before? Problem solved. Except capturing CO2 gas into a solid filter is very difficult and makes the powerplants less efficient, so they have to burn more coal. And even then, the capture part is a doddle compared with the storage part. The filters are volumetrically hugely inefficient so the CO2 they do catch takes up lots of space. The bacteria that absorb the carbon quickly die and then decompose releasing their carbon atoms into the atmosphere in the form of methane and CO2, so the storage needs to lock their dead bacteria bodies and filters away forever. The gigatonnes of carbon atoms extracted from the ground in coal, petroleum and natural gas each year would need to be returned to the ground in a way that couldn’t find a route back to the surface. That would take a lot of unfeasibly large holes and a load of energy to dig them. Putting it back in the holes it came from is a lovely idea but not feasible for a host of reasons; you can’t put a solid back down a gas pipe for instance, it takes up more space afterwards than it did before, and you’d have to cover quarries with a concrete cap that would last 1000’s of years without cracking. Can you imagine the builders guarantee on that patio?

“Carbon Credits” is another cuddly positive sounding term. Companies emitting CO2 get taxed on the amount they produce in a bid to discourage them. It creates a “Carbon Market” the theory goes, where pollution can be traded like debt. The market forces (also know in Marxist circles as ‘the law of the jungle’) are left to sort out the problem. But as always the raw natural forces of the market are only as good as the rules which manipulate them. The “Cap and Trade” scheme of carbon credits introduced in the US was so unpopular with industry that it’s been watered down, some say, to the point where it has become a toothless disincentive.

Cap and Trade systems allow you to pay off some poor third world farmers to work harder in a way that emits less CO2 while you continue to churn out your existing levels of pollution. In the meantime the poor farmers will take your money and if they have any sense at all continue to do what they were doing before, because no one is policing these offset schemes, especially in countries rife with corruption.

So how about this term I’ve made up; “Extraction Tax”. Sadly it’s not very lovely and soft, it’s harsh with two x’s and lots of hard t’s that jar as they come out of your mouth. The problem of greenhouse gasses starts when carbon atoms are lifted out of the ground. That’s when they become a liability that someone is going to have to deal with (or ignore and vent along an exhaust pipe). It’s like pointing the blame at the person in the room that farts. In the end we all breathe it in, but it’s the farter who should apologise. I appreciate this is a crap analogy (excuse the equally crap pun) but I can’t seem to write a blog post without some toilet talk and this was the only way I could think to insert it here.

The Oil & Gas and mining companies would carry the burden of paying it based on the number of carbon atoms they pulled out of the ground. No one likes the Oil & Gas or mining companies so it would be hugely popular with the public, and compared with the unaccountability of the capped and traded 3rd world farmer it would be easier to manage because there are only a few oil majors and OPEC countries in the cartel. In practice they’d pass the tax on to energy consumers, you and me, who would pay a more realistic price for the energy we use, reflecting its environmental impact.

But how could you get the world to agree implement such a tax universally? Well of course you can’t. But perhaps you wouldn’t need to. It might be enough if you had just one country that turned to all the oil companies and OPEC and said if you want to sell any of your fossil fuel energy here we are going to tax you for all the carbon you’re pulling out of the ground around the world, even if it’s not mined or used in this country. Like a license to trade with a fee that’s based on the size of the business. Of course it would have to be a country with a massive consumption or the oil majors and OPEC would just boycott it. A global superpower, a world leader, a country headed by someone who cares about the environment, the planet’s policeman. Yes, that’s right, China.

In practice the Chinese (and the US) are desperately looking for energy from wherever they can find it, and the last thing they are about to do is start taxing their own imports of the stuff. But globally, no one could afford for China to shut down its industry if OPEC called their bluff, and ironically so dependent is the rest of the world on China that we would probably have more to lose by China shutting down than the Chinese would, so this threat could be used to leverage other countries to come onboard with the Extraction Tax. Then, Western politicians could finally implement a harsh, costly effective green tax they always dreamed of, and blame it’s unpopular consequences on those bloody Chinese.

I can’t for a minute honestly imagine this would happen, but it’s been a peculiar week on the geopolitical stage; A communist country accurately pointed out to the capitalist ‘Free (Market) World’ that its currency is worth nothing and it doesn’t know how to manage it, which is surely a moment as significant in world events as the fall of the Berlin wall. Up-Perestroika, and raise your Glasnost! Twenty one years later and it turns out Communism won after all. China now owns America, it’s got all their money, and it’s going to be using it to buy all the energy that none of us will be able to afford in the future. It’s also suffering from largely unreported flooding on a massive scale caused by freak weather patterns that have hit all over Asia from Pakistan to Thailand. So I’m going to enjoy that the fantasy for a while that its leaders will put two and two together and play a poker hand that will make us all pay for the true cost of our energy.

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