Monday, November 30, 2009

More Atoms for peace

It’s good to have Obama and Brown pushing for the phase out of nuclear weapons. At least part of the driver for this is that the US and its allies can be seen to be honouring their part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in the hope that other countries will sign up to it - or, since it will soon run out, its yet to be negotiated replacement. But there is more. Then, so the argument goes, the way will be clear for the spread of civil nuclear power around the world. That, it’s argued, helps reduce use of fossil fuels and thus reduces global geopolitical tension over oil and gas, while also helping with global climate change. So it’s all related globally and geopolitically - and NPT will save the planet.

The official view seems to be that the NPT has worked well- otherwise we would have many more weapons states. That’s hard to swallow given that India, Pakistan and Israel, all with nuclear weapons, are outside the NPT. The battles with Iran and N Korea over their adherence to the NPT has hardly been a good demonstration of its effectiveness- unless you like brinkmanship. If we are really to enter a brave new nuclear world with lots more countries going for civil nuclear power, but avoiding weapons production, it’s going to get even more hair raising. Hardly sounds like ‘atoms for peace’. With the added increased threat of diversion of technology and materials to terrorist groups, it sounds more like receipt for more global tension and confrontation.

A commitment instead to renewables could avoid all these problems. Egypt, Jordan and Algeria are amongst the countries who have indicated interest in going nuclear recently- yet all these are much better placed to develop their huge solar potential, e.g. via Concentrated Solar Power plants in desert areas. Following the success of pioneering projects in Spain, over 5GW of new CSP projects are already underway or planned in, amongst other paces, Algeria, Jordon, Morocco, Egypt and the UAE. Longer term the ‘Med Solar’ plan envisages up to 20GW of CSP in North Africa.

Meanwhile, GNEP, the ambitious Global Nuclear Energy Partnership programme backed by George W Bush, now seems to be in disarray. The aim was to provide sealed nuclear plants to developing countries, with the spent fuel being returned to the USA for reprocessing, to extract the plutonium that had been produced. This would then be used to fuel a new fleet of US breeder reactors. The theory was that this approach would be less prone to illegal diversion of weapons material- although it would involve installing plants around the world and shipping radioactive material regularly across the globe. GNEP had attracted support from 25 countries,

However, earlier this year Obama halted work on reprocessing techniques that were a key USA contribution to this programme, and the future of GNEP is now unclear. Instead the USA has signed up to IRENA, the new International Renewable Energy Research Agency, which is to be based in Abu Dhabi in the UAE. The UAE of course also has civil nuclear ambitions. So the rivalry between these two very different energy options continues.

There had been some concern that IRENA might also back nuclear. But there is already a powerful International Atomic Energy Agency based in Austria, which promotes nuclear around the world. And in August Helene Pelosse, IRENA’s new director general, commented ‘IRENA will not support nuclear energy programmes because it’s a long complicated process, it produces waste and is relatively risky. Renewable energy is a better alternative and a faster, less expensive alternative, especially with countries blessed with so much sun for solar plants’. Let’s hope that having a major new international agency based in a developing country will shift the balance.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Workers and the World Unite

‘The world-wide crises starkly poses the need to construct new world-wide relations of production and exchange that are substantially more decentralized, participatory and egalitarian than the relations which currently exist, at the same time as being ecologically sensitive. The construction of a new energy system, based on a much higher proportion of renewable energy use than currently exists, is a fundamental part of this process’. So says Kolya Abramsky, editor of a new book entitled ‘Another Energy is Possible: Sparking a World-wide Energy Revolution’ (AK Press), who is also helping to organise a major international conference as a follow up.

He notes that ‘The expansion of the renewable energy is, seemingly, taking a paradoxical form. On the one hand the sector has until now developed incredibly slowly, non-linearly and in comparatively few places in the world. On the other hand, resource scarcity, climate change, surplus finance capital, and militarized conflict in oil rich regions are all material pressures pushing towards a rapid global expansion. The urgency of “peak oil”, and especially climate change, are ushering in a new scenario. The end of “the fossil fuels era” may be postponed, but it cannot be prevented. In all probability it cannot even be postponed for much longer. A transition beyond petrol is no longer an ideological choice. It is increasingly a necessity imposed by material constraints. Already demand for renewable energy infrastructure far outstrips supply. The renewable energy sector seems set to become a new global growth sector’.

And he concludes ‘It is no longer a question of whether a transition will occur, but rather what form it will take. Which technologies will it include and on whose terms and priorities? Who will pay the costs and who will reap the benefits? Who can harness the necessary global flows of capital, raw materials, knowledge and labor? Rather than being a technical inevitability, transition will be the result of an uncertain and lengthy process of collective struggle’.

I think he’s right- these are crucial questions. But he also right that, as he puts it, ‘the transition process is actually a process of great uncertainty’, with their being ‘diverging strategic choices and perspectives as to the best way of bringing about social and technological change, and the extent to which this can take place within existing power structures, or whether it requires a more confrontational approach towards these power structures and the construction of new social relations’.

This can lead to conflicts between, for example environmentalists, many of whom are opposed outright to coal and nuclear energy, and worker organizations in these sectors who are predominantly in favour of worker led efforts to clean up these sectors. There was, for example, the recent infamous episode during the battle over the Kingsnorth coal plant when, rather insensitively re working the ‘Coal not Dole’ slogan from the 1984 Miners Strike, Greenpeace used the slogan ‘Put Coal on the Dole,’ with one riposte from the left being ‘where are the French Secret service when your need them?’, harking back to when the French Secret service blew up Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior boat.

We have to do better than this. The fight over jobs at Vestas on the Isle of White brought trade union and green groups together, and that’s the way ahead. But there are some major issues looming. Can fossil fuels be cleaned up, or will that simply delay the process of switching over to renewables. Can nuclear power be seen off, even though it’s supported by many unions? Can we get global agreement on cutting emissions without undermining the aspirations of those still living at or even below subsistence level? How can the costs and benefits of going green be fairly distributed? How do we create a movement to ensure that when renewables are adopted it is done right?

It can certainly be done poorly. For example, Germany is often cited as a wonderful example of how many jobs can be created in renewable energy (250,000 so far) but many of these are in the east, where low wages and poor conditions are common- in non union companies. Meanwhile the biofuels boom risks creating many terrible jobs in the developing world, and if left to global capitalism, undermining food production.

We don’t want renewables at any price. The old counter culture view of the 1960/70s was that we wanted an alternative technology AND an alternative society. That remains true. This wont happen automatically- it has to be fought for.

The UK’s Trade Union Congress has called for a ‘just transition to a greener economy’. The TUC report 'A Green and Fair Future', says that ‘support for environmental policies are conditional on a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of those policies across the economy, and on the creation of opportunities for active engagement by those affected in determining the future wellbeing of themselves and their families’.

That’s a good starting position. But it is defensive. We need to be more proactive and create a better future, locally and globally.