The false solutions being promoted to tackle climate change

Governments and businesses are supporting a number of measures that are seen as “cost-effective” methods of fighting climate change. These include an international market for carbon trading, clean coal technology and alternative fuels including nuclear energy and agrofuels.

But many of these measures do not actually reduce carbon emissions now – or even guarantee carbon cuts in the future.

What’s wrong with carbon trading?

Big business is calling for a global carbon market as part of the new climate package, which will allow polluting industries to pay to pollute by paying for action to cut emissions elsewhere. Suggestions include allow industry to “offset” carbon emissions by investing in forests and farmland, or by paying for clean energy projects, where “clean” includes nuclear power.

Europe’s Carbon Market

Polluting industries in the EU must already obtain carbon pollution permits under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Under the scheme, polluting industries are allocated a certain number of permits by national government. If a company has more permits than it needs, it can sell its surplus on the carbon market. If it has fewer permits than it needs, it must either buy more permits on the carbon market – or buy carbon credits from projects in the developing world through the Clean Development Mechanism (see below).

But evidence from the European Emissions Trading Scheme shows that it has failed to reduce carbon emissions, because there are too many carbon credits in the system. Lobbying from different sectors of industry has led to industry acquiring more free permits than needed. As a result the cost of carbon has plummeted and industry has no incentive to clean up.

See: Smoke alarm: EU shows carbon trading is not cutting, David Gow, The Guardian, 3 April 2007.

Clean Development Mechanism

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), established under the Kyoto Protocol, encourages rich countries to pay for “clean” energy projects in the developing world. Such projects are supposed to be “additional” – that is they would not have happened without outside investment.  EU industry can use claim credits if they finance CDM projects in the developing world.

But a growing body of evidence suggests the system is being abused, with some of the projects found to be fraudulent. Some of the schemes being subsidised have been shown not to be “additional”, allowing industry to claim the credit for cutting pollution overseas when those cuts would have been made anyway. Some schemes actually increase carbon pollution because they subsidise new coal-fired power stations (considered to be cleaner because they are more efficient) but which still mean more pollution than before.

A number of CDM schemes have also been shown to have damaging social and environmental consequences for local communities, with people displaced to make way for plantations or new power plants. This damaging policy allows industry to buy its way out of making cuts in carbon emissions at home.

Business lobbyists want to see the Clean Development Mechanism extended so that more projects qualify for carbon credits. Suggestions include credits for nuclear energy, forest conservation and even agriculture.

Joint Implementation

Businesses can also acquire carbon credits through “Joint Implementation” –which requires them to create partnership clean energy schemes in the developed world.

For more information on the problems with carbon trading, see:

What’s the problem with techno-fixes?

The other main demand in the run up to COP15 is for political and financial support for what are promoted by business as “climate-friendly” technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS); fourth generation nuclear energy and second generation agrofuels.

Carbon capture and storage

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a new and unproven technology that would allow CO2 from coal-fired power plants – or other large emitters such as steel works – to be captured and stored underground.

Captured CO2 has been used for oil extraction – but the technology has not yet been commercially applied to power stations. One test project has been developed by Vattenfall in Germany.

Removing CO2 from the coal burning process requires more energy – increasing the energy demand of the power plant by 10-40% depending on the method used. The gas would then have to be transported by pipeline or tanker to the storage depot.

Advocates propose storing the gas in disused oil and gas fields, on the ocean floor or dissolved in sea water, or as a mineral. All of these methods again require more energy. Experts suggest that the main risks of leaks come during transportation and transfer. Little is known about whether CO2 can be securely stored underground. There is also a potential risk from geological damage.

CCS is unproven, expensive and requires vast quantities of energy adding to demand for coal. It is also unlikely to be available on the scale-required for many years – certainly not before 2020.

But the promise of clean coal is being used to justify business as usual for dirty industries. Cuts in CO2 emissions are needed now – but CCS will allow emissions to go on rising for many years.

For more information on the problems with carbon capture and storage, see:

Nuclear energy

Nuclear energy is put forward as a low-carbon source of energy, with business calling for a new fourth generation of nuclear power plants – none of which have yet been built.

Two new third generation nuclear plants are currently being built in Europe – in Finland and in France. But both of these projects have suffered major delays in the construction phase and rising costs. Fourth generation reactors (such as pebble bed modular reactors) remain at the concept stage (see: Advanced Nuclear Power Reactors, World Nuclear Association, March 2009).

Nuclear energy relies on the world’s diminishing supplies of uranium, produces radioactive waste and cannot be considered as a clean source of energy because of the environmental damage and CO2 emissions generated in uranium mining.

The cost and delays involved in nuclear construction mean that a new generation is not likely to become operational within the next decade – too little, too late to tackle climate change.

Second-generation agrofuels

First-generation agrofuels – such as ethanol from sugar cane and biodiesel from palm oil – are already being used in transport fuel. But a growing awareness of the damaging impacts of using these fuels – including the rising cost of food, high carbon emissions and serious social impacts in parts of the developing world – have led to promises of a “second generation” of agrofuels.

Second-generation agrofuels use a wider range of crops for their feedstock, such as wood, agricultural waste materials or switchgrass. Cellulose is extracted to make ethanol – or the biomass is refined to make biodiesel. Second generation agrofuels do not use food for fuel, but because the crops used still require land, they are effectively putting pressure on land for the food supply.

Tests are now taking place with genetically modified trees – designed to create a fast-growing source of biomass. But GM trees pose a major threat to natural forests and the environment, depleting the soil, consuming precious water and risking GM contamination.

These new technologies will not resolve the fundamental problems of access to land for the poor – who often find themselves displaced – or the damage to the environment which is caused by industrial agriculture.

Not the solutions

These technologies and pseudo solutions delay real action. Corporations promise that we can burn more coal and oil and that technology will deal with the problems. But the corporations want public money to pay for the new technologies – which they will then profit from. Public money that could be better invested elsewhere.

Investment is needed urgently to encourage the switch from a fossil fuel economy. Climate scientists say we have just 10 years in which to bring carbon emissions under control. Technofixes divert attention from the root causes of climate change, while perpetrating a myth that they are fighting the problem.  They add to climate and social unjustice as the poorest, and most affected communities and countries will not be able to afford their use.

For more information on all above-mentioned technologies, see: