Barry Commoner: scientist, activist, radical ecologist

Barry Commoner, “a leader among a generation of scientist-activists” (New York Times) and possibly “the greatest environmentalist of the 20th century” (Ralph Nader), died in New York on September 30, aged 95.

Credited as a founder of the modern environmental movement, Commoner was among the world’s best known ecologists in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. He was famous for his public campaigns against nuclear testing, chemical pollution and environmental decay.

In 1970, Time featured Commoner on its cover, calling him “The Paul Revere of Ecology” (after the American revolutionary hero Paul Revere, who famously warned the rebel militia about approaching British forces before a decisive battle). Time said he had “probably done more than any other US scientist to speak out and awaken a sense of urgency about the declining quality of life”.

But Commoner was far more than a Paul Revere – the person sounding the early environmental alarm. A biology professor and founder of Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Washington University, St Louis, his biographer Michael Egan says Commoner practically invented the science information movement, “a method of communicating technical information so that the public could better participate in complex social, political, and environmental debate”.

Over several decades, he also took part in many grassroots environmental campaigns. His research into the health impacts of atmospheric nuclear testing is credited with leading to the 1963 international treaty that banned it. He repeatedly spoke out for the most common victims of industrial pollution: poor, Black and working class communities.

But he combined this activity with a radical argument about the root cause of ecological crisis, which he said was a system of production based on private profit instead of ecological and human need. Commoner said in his 1971 book The Closing Circle: “We are in an environmental crisis because the means by which we use the ecosphere to produce wealth are destructive of the ecosphere itself. The present system of production is self-destructive; the present course of human civilisation is suicidal.”

Commoner’s argument that production for profit was the key cause of environmental destruction set him apart from the liberal wing of the US environment movement, which had emerged as a new political force by the early 1970s. “At a time when most writers were blaming individual behaviour or overpopulation for pollution,” said Canadian ecosocialist Ian Angus, “Commoner exposed the role of capitalism and profit.”

This led Commoner to challenge the notion that environmental problems can be overcome through purely environmental campaigns. In a tribute to Commoner, The Nation’s Peter Dreier said: “Commoner linked environmental issues to a broader vision of social and economic justice. He called attention to the parallels among the environmental, civil rights, labor and peace movements. He connected the environmental crisis to the problems of poverty, injustice, racism, public health, national security and war.”

At a lecture in Berkeley, California, in 1973, Commoner said no permanent environmental solutions are possible without deep social changes: “When any environmental issue is pursued to its origins, it reveals an inescapable truth – that the root cause of the crisis is not to be found in how men interact with nature, but in how they interact with each other – that, to solve the environmental crisis we must solve the problems of poverty, racial injustice and war.”

Commoner is best known for his four “laws of ecology”, which he outlined in the first chapter of The Closing Circle. These are: 1) Everything is connected to everything else; 2) Everything must go somewhere; 3) Nature knows best; and 4) There is no such thing as a free lunch.

The first law states what Commoner called “a simple fact about ecosystems” – all healthy ecosystems are interconnected and self-stabilising: if any part of a natural ecosystem is damaged or overstressed it can trigger far wider problems. For example, the burning of fossil fuels is overloading the global carbon cycle, which in turn is triggering dramatic changes to climate, global ice cover, weather patterns, ocean acidification, farming yields, sea levels, government budgets and worldwide refugee figures. Any society that ignores Commoner’s first law – that everything is connected to everything else – invites ecological and social turmoil.

Of the second law – everything must go somewhere – Commoner said: “One of the chief reasons for the present environment crisis is that great amounts of materials have been extracted from the Earth, converted into new forms, and discharged into the environment without taking into account that ‘everything must go somewhere’. The result, too often, is the accumulation of harmful amounts of material in places where, in nature, they do not belong.”

Commoner’s third law of ecology – nature knows best – is not an example of naive, green romanticism, but a rejection of what he called “one of the most pervasive features of modern technology … the notion that it is intended to ‘improve on nature’”. Rather, he said: “Stated baldly, the third law of ecology holds that any major man-made change in a natural system is likely to be detrimental to that system”.

Commoner said he borrowed his fourth law – there is no such thing as a free lunch – from economic science: “In ecology, as in economics, the law is intended to warn that every gain is won at some cost. In a way, this ecological law embodies the previous three laws. Because the global ecosystem is a connected whole, in which nothing can be gained or lost and which is not subject to overall improvement, anything extracted from it by human effort must be replaced. Payment of this price cannot be avoided; it can only be delayed. The present environmental crisis is a warning that we have delayed nearly too long.”

Commoner was also a key figure in the environmental movement’s debates about the relationship between population size and environmental decay. He took issue with Paul Erhlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, which said human population growth was the most important environmental issue and argued for drastic population control measures to avoid a planetary overload.

At the 1970 US Earth Day, Commoner said: “In my opinion, population trends in the US cannot be blamed for the deteriorated condition of the environment … Of course, if there were no people in the country there would be no pollution problem, but the fact of the matter is that there simply has not been a sufficient rise in the US population to account for the enormous increase in pollution levels … It is a serious mistake to becloud the pollution issue with the population, for the facts will not support it.”

He later told a meeting at Brown University that “pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom”.

In our 2011 book Too Many People?, Ian Angus and I wrote: “Commoner’s key argument [with Ehrlich] was that the [20th century] pollution explosion was driven not by increased population, but by changed industrial and agricultural production — by radical changes in the way things were made and grown, in the raw materials used, and in the products themselves. Those changes were adopted by industry during and after World War II because the new technologies were more profitable than the old ones …

“In short, poverty was the cause of rapid population growth in the twentieth century, not an effect—and poverty itself was the result of centuries of colonialist plunder. Pressuring poor countries into reducing their birth rates without the improved living standards that enable lower death rates and infant mortality, Commoner wrote, is a ‘gigantic and questionable experiment’.”

The difference between the two ecologists was stark. Erhlich favoured governments and institutions placing more controls on people. Commoner said the real ecological solutions will be possible when ordinary people win control over governments and institutions.

Commoner was a sharp critic of the Soviet-style bureaucratic socialist states, which left a horrendous environmental legacy. But he held a vision of democratic socialism, where people and planet trumped corporate power. He said in his 1976 book The Poverty of Power: “The energy crisis and the web of inter-related problems confront us with the need to explore the possibility of creating a production system that is consciously intended to serve social needs and that judges the value of its products by their use, and an economic system that is committed to these purposes. At least in principle, such a system is socialism.”

Despite his wide audience and influence, Commoner’s ecological critique of capitalism fell out of favour in mainstream environmental circles and his warnings about the profit motive where not heeded. By 2000, Australian writer Sharon Beder could say: “The fact is that many environmentalists have been persuaded by the rhetoric of free market environmentalism. They have accepted the conservative definition of the problem, that environmental degradation results from a failure of the market to attach a price to environmental goods and services.”

But the past few decades of free market environmentalism have failed to deal with our environmental problems, which are now worse than ever. The dismal record of such market-based responses suggest it’s time to return to Commoner’s conclusion: “If the environment is polluted and the economy is sick, the virus that causes both will be found in the system of production. And that is where their cure can be found as well.”

October 5, 2012 at 7:07 am 1 comment

Tributes to Barry Commoner, radical ecologist

Barry Commoner, “a powerful critic of capitalism”, “a leader among a generation of scientist-activists” and possibly “the greatest environmentalist of the 20th century”, died in New York on September 30, aged 95.

Below is a selection of recent tributes to Commoner, along with articles, films and radio broadcasts about his ideas, and key articles and book excerpts from Commoner himself.

* * *

Scientist, Candidate and Planet Earth’s Lifeguard, New York Times.
“Dr. Commoner was a leader among a generation of scientist-activists who recognized the toxic consequences of America’s post-World War II technology boom, and one of the first to stir the national debate over the public’s right to comprehend the risks and make decisions about them.”

Remembering Barry Commoner, The Nation.
” Commoner viewed the environmental crisis as a symptom of a fundamentally flawed economic and social system. A biologist and research scientist, he argued that corporate greed, misguided government priorities and the misuse of technology accounted for the undermining of “the finely sculptured fit between life and its surroundings.”

Barry Commoner, 1917-2012,
“His 1971 book The Closing Circle was a pioneering analysis of the economic and social causes of environmental destruction. At a time when most writers were blaming individual behaviour or overpopulation for pollution, Commoner exposed the role of capitalism and profit.”
Includes a excerpt from the 2011 book Too Many People?, by Ian Angus and myself, which describes how Commoner replied to the populationist arguments advanced by Paul Ehrlich in The Population Bomb.

Barry Commoner, scientist and influential environmentalist, dies at 95, Washington Post.
“Time magazine put Dr. Commoner on its cover in 1970, saying he ‘has probably done more than any other U.S. scientist to speak out and awaken a sense of urgency about the declining quality of life’.”

The greatest environmentalist of the 20th century, Greenpeace USA.
“Ralph Nader calls Barry Commoner “the greatest environmentalist of the 20th century.” It’s hard to argue with that.”

RIP, Barry Commoner: A scientist who wasn’t afraid to make some noise,
“In 1993, Commoner explained to the Chicago Tribune that “the Atomic Energy Commission turned me into an environmentalist.” He had raised alarms about the levels of radioactive material in the atmosphere after atomic bomb tests, but officials brushed him off. From that point on, he would become a vocal advocate for people’s right to know about toxins in the environment and in the products they bought.”

Barry Commoner’s Legacy, The American Prospect.
“Commoner believed in addressing multiple issues, such as racism, sexism, war, and—most importantly—the failings of capitalism at the same time as environmentalism because they were, and still are, all related issues of a larger central problem.”

Commoner in Context, Michael Egan.
“My instinct is that we will hear the same references over and over again in the coming days and weeks: Commoner introduced the Four Laws of Ecology, he ran for President in 1980, and he was called (by TIME magazine in 1970) “the Paul Revere of Ecology.” All true, but I should like to stress a much more fundamental point: Commoner invented the science information movement”

Barry Commoner: The Paul Revere of Ecology, Michael Egan.
“I submit that Commoner’s big contribution is not the Four Laws of Ecology or the Paul Revere of Ecology stuff. Rather he committed his entire career to the science information movement”

Barry Commoner’s Uncommon Life, Andrew Revkin, NTY/Dot Earth.
Quoting Michael Egan: “He should be in any top five list of American environmental leaders, up there with Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Alice Hamilton. It may be heretical to say it, but I think he’s a more important figure in American environmentalism than Rachel Carson.”

Barry Commoner, pillar of environmental movement, dies at 95, Los Angeles Times.
‘Commoner was particularly known for boiling down his philosophy to four simple principles: “Everything is connected to everything else. Everything must go somewhere. Nature knows best. There is no such thing as a free lunch,” he wrote in “The Closing Circle.”‘

Barry Commoner and Our Interconnected World, Legal Planet blog.
“You might say that, even when Commoner first wrote, it was clear that the world had a complex set of links. Today, however, we are beginning to have glimpses of the wiring diagram.”

VIDEO: Last Word, Barry Commoner, New York Times.
“Dr. Commoner, an early environmentalist, warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons testing. He was an early champion of recycling, organic food and reducing fossil fuel use.”

PODCAST:‘Paul Revere Of Ecology’ Sounded Alarms On Pollution, NPR.
“Melissa Block speaks with Michael Egan, environmental historian at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and author of the book, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism.”

PODCAST: Saluting Barry Commoner, The Progressive.
Progessive Magazine editor Matthew Rothschild pays tribute to Commoner’s life and ideas.

ARTICLE: Barry Commoner: Ecology and Social Action,
“Thus, once we recognize that human beings are not bound to single ecological solutions, but can choose among several, social action – which is, after all, the process of choosing among such options-becomes a reality. It is encouraging that this view of the relation between ecology and social action is, in political terms, liberating; that it calls for societal arrangements which enable political choice; that it fosters democracy.”

ARTICLE: Barry Commoner: The Illusion of Consumer Sovereignty,
“Still, the issue always comes up: Isn’t it up to us? Isn’t it our fault that we buy the big cars, for instance? Well, no it isn’t.”

QUOTES: Barry Commoner: Pollution, affluence and class,
“The favorite statistic is that the U.S. contains 6 to 7% of the world population but consumes more than half the world’s resources and is responsible for that fraction of the total environmental pollution. But this statistic hides another vital fact: that not everyone in the U.S. is so affluent.”

QUOTES: Barry Commoner: Pollution and production,
“If the environment is polluted and the economy is sick, the virus that causes both will be found in the system of production. And that is where their cure can be found as well.”

QUOTES: Barry Commoner: Capitalism versus the environment,
“Thus, the energy crisis and the web of inter-related problems confront us with the need to explore the possibility of creating a production system that is consciously intended to serve social needs and that judges the value of its products by their use, and an economic system that is committed to these purposes. At least in principle, such a system is socialism.”

October 3, 2012 at 3:14 am 1 comment

Global carbon trade collapsing into hot air

If there is one thing melting away faster than the Arctic ice cap it’s the credibility of the global carbon trading system set up under the Kyoto treaty to address climate change. A United Nations sponsored panel said in a September 10 report that “global carbon markets … are collapsing with potentially devastating consequences”.

Panel member Joan MacNaughton told the Guardian: “The carbon market is profoundly weak.” The Economist said it is “a shambles”.

The report said the price of carbon offset credits issued under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) had fallen 70% in the past year. The UN-backed carbon offsets now sell for less than $3: down from about $20 in 2008.

The CDM market allows firms in developed countries to buy offset credits from carbon-reduction projects in the global South. The UN oversees the process, giving out CDM credits for each tonne of carbon emissions it says has been saved. Businesses in rich countries that take part in the scheme can buy the CDM offsets to meet their emission cut targets – in effect, swapping emission cuts in the South for cash from the North.

But the market is falling over because there are far more CDM offsets for sale than there are buyers. European firms have been the biggest buyers of CDM offsets, but Europe’s emissions trading scheme has hit a wall due its a huge over-allocation of free permits to industry. That, combined with Europe’s economic woes, means few of Europe’s big polluters need to buy more offset credits to meet their emission cuts targets.

The rock bottom international offset price has implications for Australia’s carbon price scheme, which recently joined with the European system. Australia’s scheme gives the country’s biggest polluters billions in compensation payouts. The government pays out the compensation at $23 per tonne of carbon, but these firms can meet 12.5% of their required cuts with international offsets that cost just $3 a tonne. Don’t expect them to give the extra cash back to taxpayers.

Oversupply is also dogging another UN-backed market-based climate scheme. The Kyoto protocol allows countries that emit less than their target to sell their surplus emissions on the carbon market. But these surplus credits – which the UN calls Assigned Amount Units (AAU) – are in such oversupply they now sell for less than 1 euro a tonne.

A recent report by Point Carbon said a worldwide AAU surplus of 13.1 billion tonnes was generated from 2008 to 2012. The surplus could rise above 17 billion tonnes by 2020. CDM-Watch’s Anja Kollmuss told the Inter Press Service: “The supply is three magnitudes bigger than the demand.”

Most of these surplus credits are bogus – often known as “hot air” credits. Russia, Ukraine and Poland hold the most “hot air” – the deindustrialisation of these countries after the collapse of communism means their emissions are lower than in 1990, which the Kyoto protocol treats as its baseline year. The global economic crisis, which led to a fall in Europe’s emissions, has added even more “hot air” to the scheme.

The oversupply crisis means Kyoto’s carbon trading scheme now ensures it is cheap for companies to increase their pollution – hardly an incentive to switch to zero emissions technologies.

The UN’s carbon markets might be a “shambles”, but the UN’s top climate change official Christina Figueres seems determined to pretend all is well. She issued a press release on September 7 to welcome the 1 billionth carbon offset credit issued under the CDM since 2005. “This exciting milestone is testament to the expanding use of the CDM,” she said.

Of course, the “expanding use” of CDM offsets has led to its oversupply crisis. But the size of the CDM market also says nothing about its integrity. The truth is that most of the billion CDM offsets approved by the UN are fakes and do not represent emissions cuts.

The August 9 New York Times said about 46% of CDM credits have come from just 19 companies that have destroyed an industrial gas called HFC 23. The gas, which is a waste byproduct created during the manufacture of coolant gases for refrigerators, has a global warming potential 11,000 times that of carbon dioxide.

Realising they stood to make millions, these companies have sharply increased production of coolant gas (itself a powerful greenhouse gas) simply so they can be paid to destroy the byproduct HFC 23.

This CDM loophole has not just given an incentive to these companies to increase pollution, but it has done so at a remarkably high price. In 2008, Stanford University’s Ken Michael Wara and David Victor estimated that by 2012 destroying the gas would cost about $100 million, but would create $4.7 billion in CDM credits.

The European Union says it will ban industrial gas offsets from its scheme from 2013 and Australia’s carbon price scheme does not allow them. But the UN is likely to keep accrediting the bogus offsets. Chinese manufacturers have threatened to release the gas into the atmosphere if they are no longer paid to destroy it.

But the CDM’s integrity problem extends beyond the waste gas issue. A September 10 investigation by India’s Daily News & Analysis said: “Several projects in the country that are earning huge sums through the sale of carbon credits are, in fact, ineligible for the CDM scheme. Promoters of these projects have manipulated and backdated documents to meet requirements as prescribed by the CDM executive board.”

It said the Indian body responsible for approving CDM proposals and submitting them for international accreditation routinely “approves CDM proposals without conducting field inspections to verify whether the project fulfils the eligibility criteria”.

In theory, to be eligible for CDM accreditation a project must a) prove it cuts emissions and b) prove that the emissions cuts are additional to what would have happened anyway.

A July 2008 cable from the US consulate in Mumbai released by WikiLeaks said “executives of major Indian companies … conceded that no Indian project could meet the ‘additionality in investment criteria’ to be eligible for [CDM] carbon credits”. But the UN’s CDM Executive Board had still approved 346 projects in 2008. Today, there are 827 CDM-approved projects in India.

The cable said the then-chairperson of India’s CDM authority, R K Sethi, had “publically admitted that the National CDM Authority takes the ‘project developer at his word’ for clearing the additionality barriers”.

Soumitra Ghosh, from India’s North Eastern Society for Preservation of Nature and Wildlife, told Daily News & Analysis: “Of the 60 CDM projects that I have evaluated, there appeared not to be one that actually reduced emissions.”

September 19, 2012 at 10:42 am Leave a comment

Big polluters ignore passing of Arctic ice tipping point

After melting past the previous record minimum in late August, Arctic sea ice cap has continued its rapid decline. By September 5, the US National Snow and Data Centre (NSIDC) said the ice cap had fallen below 4 million square kilometres — “a 45% reduction in the area of the Arctic covered by sea ice” since the 1980s and ’90s.

This year’s melt “didn’t just touch the record, it really drove right through it”, the NSIDC’s Ted Scambos told US National Public Radio on September 12.

Yet Arctic sea ice extent measurements don’t give a full picture of the Arctic crisis. Most of the Arctic ice lies below the water and its decline has been gaining pace. The US Polar Science Center says the ice cap volume halved in the 25 years from 1979 and then halved again in the six years from 2006. That adds up to a 75% fall in Arctic summer ice since records began.

The melt season is drawing to a close, but a growing chorus of scientists now say the Arctic summer ice coverage will disappear altogether within the next few years. Cambridge University ocean physicist Peter Wadhams told the Scotsman on August 29: “The entire ice cover is now on the point of collapse … It is truly the case that it will be all gone by 2015. The consequences are enormous and represent a huge boost to global warming.”

Other scientists are more reticent, saying that some Arctic summer ice may linger for a decade or two. However, NASA Arctic specialist Jay Zwally told Yale Environment 360 on August 30 that it was important not “to get hung up on specifics and lose track of the big picture, which is that it’s getting worse and it’s going to get [even] worse”.

Zwally said the Arctic ice “had gone through a tipping point” and will not recover. “When it goes below a certain thickness it doesn’t go back under present conditions.”

Along with the annihilation of the region’s fragile ecosystem, scientists say an ice-free Arctic will trigger other climate tipping points. Chief among these are the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, unpredictable extreme weather in the northern hemisphere and the release of huge amounts of Earth-warming methane gas frozen in Arctic soils and seabeds.

The warnings should spark a change of heart among the world’s governments, but the latest UN climate summit in Bangkok, which closed on September 5, ended without any new commitment to cut emissions.

Even if carried out in full, the existing UN system of voluntary emissions cuts will lead to a 4°C to 6°C average temperature rise this century — a scary prospect given the huge problems caused today by the 0.8°C of warming since the Industrial Revolution.

For years, the world’s two biggest polluting countries — China and the US — have blamed each other for the UN stalemate. However, Focus on the Global South’s Pablo Solon and Walden Bello said in a September 4 Bangkok Post op-ed that the problem is that “the US and China both want a weaker climate agreement”.

They said: “The climate talk’s stalemate is not the result of a contradiction between the two biggest powers but of a common approach not to be obliged to change their policies of consumption, production and gaining control of natural resources around the world.

“The position of the delegations of the US and China and many other countries reflects more the concerns of their elites than of their people.”

Big oil companies are taking advantage of the big Arctic melt in typical “disaster capitalism” fashion. Shell began drilling the first oil well in the Alaskan Arctic in two decades on September 9 after winning US government approval. The next day it was forced to halt drilling to move its oil platform out of the path of a 30-mile-long iceberg.

In the Russian Arctic, the state-owned energy company Gasprom has also began exploratory drilling. Last month, six Greenpeace activists boarded a Gasprom oil rig in the Pechora Sea to call for a drilling ban. Greenpeace said the company was “completely unprepared” for an oil spill. It said Gasprom’s oil spill response plan “would rely on substandard clean-up methods — such as shovels and buckets — that simply do not work in icy conditions”.

September 12, 2012 at 4:42 am Leave a comment

Four days, five protests against dirty coal

Quit Coal’s banner drop protest at Victoria’s Parliament House, September 3. Photo:

Five anti-coal protests took place in Australia over four successive days. The actions targeted coal exports, coalmining, coal transport and coal port infrastructure.

The first action took place in Melbourne on September 3, where four members of Quit Coal climbed the roof of Victoria’s parliament house and unfurled a huge 86 square metre banner.

The banner displayed a quote from NASA climate scientist James Hansen — “Coal is the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet” — and asked, “Why is Baillieu funding coal?”

Quit Coal said they organised the protest after news that Premier Ted Baillieu had granted $45 million to expand brown coal operations in the Latrobe Valley.

The group said: “We risked being arrested and fined because the rest of Australia needs to know that a Baillieu’s plan for a brown coal export industry would effectively triple Victoria’s contribution to dangerous global warming. This is the equivalent of putting 70 million more cars on the road.”

Another protest took place the same day at the Boggabri coalmine in NSW. Two activists climbed 20 metres up the mine’s coal crushing plant and displayed a banner that read: “Stop the coal rush: protect health, water, climate.”

The state government recently approved an expansion to the Boggabri open cut coalmine — the first such mine in the Gunnedah basin. Approval is pending for another mine at nearby Maules Creek.

A farmer and spokesperson for the Northern Inland Council for the Environment, Phil Spark, said: “The NSW government is pushing full steam ahead to convert the Gunnedah Basin into a gigantic industrial mining zone just like the Hunter Valley.”

The next day, 84-year-old birdwatcher Russ Watts chained himself to a gate of the Boggabri coalmine to protest the expansion plans. He said: “The new and expanded coal mines proposed in the Boggabri area will destroy 5000 hectares of bushland which is habitat for 21 threatened bird species.”

The three Boggabri coalmine protesters were arrested and charged with hindering working of mining equipment: an offense that carries a maximum seven-year jail term.

Lock the Gate Alliance regional coordinator Carmel Flint said on September 6: “The excessive charges laid against peaceful protesters this week are clearly an attempt to intimidate rural communities who are concerned about the reckless expansion of mining in NSW.”

Newcastle-based climate action group Rising Tide organised two anti-coal protests on September 5 and September 6.

The first protest closed a coal haulage railway project under construction in Rutherford, near Maitland.

Rising Tide spokesperson Steve Phillips said: “This railway construction project is designed purely for the benefit of coal corporations, yet it is being paid for with taxpayers’ money. Why are taxpayers’ dollars being handed over to rich mining corporations, in order to prop up a polluting industry that is destroying human health and the environment?”

The second protest temporarily stopped work on new coal loading facilities in Newcastle Harbour after two activists scaled a crane.

Phillips said: “Enough is enough. We need to stop the coal rush. It’s time for state and federal governments to stop kowtowing to the mining companies, and get behind community demands for a clean, renewable future.”

September 12, 2012 at 4:37 am Leave a comment

Brown coal power to stay under carbon price

Three Victorian coal-fired power stations slated for closure will now stay open, resources minister Martin Ferguson said on September 5. He said he ended talks to buy out the three Latrobe Valley plants because the owners had asked for too much.

Labor and Greens agreed to pay owners to close down six coal-fired power plants under their Clean Energy Future package. The package also includes the new carbon price scheme.

Ferguson said he had walked away from the buyout plan because “there is no value for money for the government”. But he said the decision “gives some certainty to the [Latrobe] Valley. The Valley now knows that there is no intended closure of any of the coal-fired power operations.”

The three huge Latrobe Valley coal-fired plants will keep the $5.5 billion in compensation payments they receive under the Clean Energy Future package. They burn brown coal: the most polluting fossil fuel. One of these — Hazelwood power station — is considered the dirtiest in the industrialised world.

Environment groups that campaigned for the Clean Energy Future package reacted to the news with shock. Environment Victoria’s Mark Wakeham said: “We’re gutted by the announcement, it’s a betrayal of the carbon price package.” Environment Victoria has called for the $5.5 billion compensation payments to be cancelled.

The Australian Youth Climate Coalition demanded the government “go back to the negotiating table, and get this done”. 100% Renewables spokesperson Lindsay Soutar said the government should use the funds reserved to buy the coal-fired plants to “build big solar” plants instead. The Australian Conservation Foundation said the power plant owners were “greedy” and urged the government to “add 2000 megawatts to the existing renewable energy target”.

Conservation Council South Australia chief executive Tim Kelly said: “This announcement comes on the tail of the news that we will lose the $15 floor price in order to link Australia’s carbon trading scheme with the European Union … and now we are not even going to see our dirtiest power stations closing up shop.”

Greens leader Christine Milne said the power station owners and the Labor government should share the blame. She said the decision was “a breach of the commitment made to the public and to the planet to close down our dirtiest coal-fired power stations … with people like Martin Ferguson running the show, you simply can’t trust Labor to protect the environment.”

Milne called for cuts to the compensation for coal-fired power stations and said the Greens will ask the Productivity Commission to bring forward its planned review of compensation levels.

However, the decision was not a surprise. For weeks, industry insiders had warned that the buyout plan was about to fall over.

The ABC’s Gregg Borschmann said on August 8 that the brown coal-fired power plants were worth more now compared with a year ago because of a “lower anticipated carbon price”. Because the carbon price scheme allows polluters to buy much cheaper carbon credits from overseas, the power plants are now more valuable than what the Treasury had first assumed.

That is, the low carbon price and big compensation handouts have helped price brown coal back into the market. For their owners, these once-ailing coal-fired power plants have become lucrative cash cows.

The September 6 Sydney Morning Herald said economic modelling company Frontier Economics estimated the brown coal-fired power plants were between $400 million to $1 billion “better off than if the Gillard government carbon pricing scheme had never been implemented”.

“It’s one of the great ironies of the brave new era of pricing carbon pollution,” said Borschmann. “Dirty brown coal is emerging as the great survivor of Australia’s energy mix.”

Writing in on September 5, Giles Parkinson said the buyout plan “was always bad policy”. He said: “Once the government said in its Clean Energy Future package that it would compensate the generators to ensure they should stay open, as well as negotiate with some to pay them even more to ensure that they eventually close (in an orderly fashion), the policy looked an absurdity and was doomed to failure.”

Beyond Zero Emissions’ Matt Wright told ABC’s The Drum that the outcome “showed the government hasn’t got a plan for real climate action [and] shows that the carbon price package is fairly inept. But it also proves the point … that if you want to close down coal-fired power stations then you build renewable energy.”

He spoke of South Australia, which now generates 30% of its power from renewable energy. This has meant the Playford coal-fired power station has been mothballed and the Northern coal-fired power plant’s operations have been scaled back.

He said: “But if you have this idea that you are going to put the cart before the horse and close coal-fired power stations without building renewable energy then it’s not going to work, and that’s why these crazy ideas keep unravelling. And it was the Liberal party’s idea, which Labor co-opted.”

September 12, 2012 at 4:34 am Leave a comment

Australia joins Europe’s carbon stock market

Australia will join its carbon price scheme with Europe’s emissions trading scheme (ETS) by 2015. The decision means Australia’s future carbon price will be set by a European market notorious for fraud scandals, consumer rip-offs and a seven-year-long record of failure.

Labor and the Greens say their decision to link the carbon price to Europe’s ETS delivers long-term certainty for business. But the only certainties about Europe’s ETS are that it hasn’t cut emissions in the past and it won’t in the future.

Don’t trust anyone who tells you that Europe’s carbon price will be much higher in five or 10 years time. Such predictions are no more believable than the pundits who pretend to know what stock market trends will be like five or 10 years from now.

Since it began in 2005, Europe’s carbon permit price has been very volatile. It crashed from a high of €30 in April 2006 to just three cents by the end of 2007. It rose again in the ETS’s second phase (2008-2012) to more than €35 but fell again to a low of €6.04 in April this year. It now sits at €9.80.

The price of Europe’s offset credits has fared no better. It fell from a starting price of €20 in 2008 to €3.48 in April. Analysts dubbed these UN-backed international offsets the world’s “worst performing commodity”.

But that’s not the worst of it. EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard admitted in 2010 that 80% of the international offsets credited under the ETS had “a total lack of environmental integrity”.

The ETS’s weak price signal won’t close down polluting industries or drive big investments in clean technologies. As part of the deal to link with the ETS, Labor and the Greens agreed to do away with the Australian scheme’s $15 floor price.

Part of the reason why Europe’s ETS has had so little impact is because business received a massive over-allocation of free permits. As a result, the price stayed low in the ETS’s first phase (2005-2007) and Europe’s emissions rose by 7.5%.

Europe’s emissions dipped 12.5% from 2008 to 2011 due to the economic crisis, not the ETS. But the fall in emissions added even more excess permits to those already sloshing around the system.

Companies will be allowed to “bank” these extra permits to use in the third phase of the ETS (2013-2020). Carbon Trade Watch’s Ricardo Coelho says the World Bank predicts such a huge surplus that about half of Europe’s emissions cut target of 20% by 2020 could be met by “banked” permits that do not represent actual emissions cuts.

Coelho said if you add in international offsets and the dodgy permits available from eastern Europe and Russia, Europe could meet its 2020 target on paper without cutting a single tonne of carbon inside its borders.

Europe’s consumers have paid a heavy price for this carbon sleight-of-hand. Big polluting firms have passed on the “cost” of their free permits to customers, reaping extraordinary windfall profits. In a 2008 report, WWF and Point Carbon said power companies in just five European countries would gouge between €23 to €71 billion from customers by the end of this year.

Swiss bank UBS said last year that the ETS had cost European consumers about $287 billion without cutting Europe’s emissions. It said action to directly phase out the biggest emitters would be a better option than “the almost zero impact on the back of emissions trading”.

EU officials promise they have closed the loopholes that have allowed rogue traders, polluting firms and even the government of Hungary to defraud the ETS of billions of euros.

However, adding Australia to the scheme increases the potential for fraud. Carbon Trade Watch founder Tamra Gilbertson has pointed out that: “Global linking would increase, rather than reduce, the complexity and potential for fraudulent trading, because it would involve exchanges of permits that are subjected to different financial and environmental rules.”

Supporters of carbon trading insist these problems are just design faults that can be put right over time. But the biggest problem with carbon trading is structural. Whatever the design, no carbon trading scheme can cut emissions fast because they favour “end-of-pipe” solutions and short-term cuts but penalise the rapid structural changes we need.

Carbon trading assumes we have to put a price tag on nature to save nature. It assumes that to stop climate change, we have to hand control of the response to the same market forces that created it. It assumes pro-market platitudes about efficiency and business confidence count for more than the lived experience of recurring failure.

There is a better climate alternative, which would focus not on market transactions but on keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Friends of the Earth’s Gareth Bryant summed up this alternative on August 29: “Instead, the government should immediately halt any new coal or coal seam gas expansion, phase out coal exports and a create a just transition away from coal-fired power production by investing in publicly and community owned renewable energy.”

September 5, 2012 at 3:14 am Leave a comment

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