Peoples Inquiry

This People’s Inquiry offers a chance to share ideas and information about the related crises facing humanity. It is open to individuals, campaign groups, trade unions, academics and students. Working together, we can deepen our knowledge and work on solutions.

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Coal leads the way as fossil fuels burn up the planet

The rapid expansion of fossil fuel burning which is frying the planet’s atmosphere faster than ever is entirely unnecessary and economically unjustifiable. That’s official.

According to the International Energy Authority’s 2012 annual assessment, simple, economically-useful, energy efficiency measures could cut the growth in global energy demand by half and as a result, the demand for oil would peak before 2020.

The reduction in demand would be equivalent to the current combined production of Russia and Norway.

There would be greater energy security for countries worried about having to import their fuel and there would be huge economic growth as buildings and infrastructure were made more energy efficient. Hundreds of thousands could be employed and fuel bills cut by 20% on average.

But the direction of travel of global capitalism is the exact opposite. Subsidies are instead being poured into fossil fuel production – six times more than those available to renewables, amounting to $523 billion in 2011, up almost 30% on 2010.

As a result emissions of greenhouse gases reached their highest-ever level in 2011. Current energy plans of governments across the world will lock in a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 °C, not the 2.0°C governments claim they are committed to.

Renewables are the fastest growing form of energy, but that is starting from a very low level. Coal, which is responsible for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions from fuel, is going through a massive global expansion. Production is up 6% on 2010.

The rejection of nuclear by some governments in the wake of the Fukushima disaster did not lead to an expansion of renewables but to an expansion in coal burning. For example Germany announced it would get out of nuclear within ten years, but this year it increased the amount of electricity generated from coal by 12% over 2011.

China is investing hugely in renewables, but coal-fired output grew as much there in the last decade as nuclear, wind and hydro combined.

In the US rapid expansion of ‘fracking’, plus new offshore finds have fuelled a dash for gas. But coal production is on the increase, licensed by the Obama administration and so the US is now exporting cheap coal all over the world.

The IEA’s model shows that “the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path” and despite an increase in low-carbon sources of energy “fossil fuels remain dominant in the global energy mix”.

The big question is why? Why are we pouring tax subsidies into fossil fuels, instead of renewables or energy efficiency? Why is a country like South Africa, an ideal test bed for solar power, pouring government funding into coal. In its post-crash-printing-money phase, the Obama administration funded excellent solar projects, which have brought major advances. Why is that not the US’s new export, instead of dirty old coal?

The “whys” are endless and exhausting but the answer is quite straightforward – it’s the profit that counts. Corporations use their power over governments to keep their priorities sweet. Six of the richest 100 mining billionaires are Chinese, 5 are Indian. The richest of them all is Brazilian Eike Batista whose personal net worth is $32 billion. And at number 42 is Patrice Motsepe, South Africa’s first black billionaire, who bought up failing mineral businesses and made them profitable by cutting costs and increasing exploitation. You can be sure he is not pressing his friends in the ANC government to shift funding into renewables.

There’s a lot of money to be made from destroying the planet’s climate and eco-system. Only a transfer of political power to popular democracies acting in the interests of the majority and not the oligarchs and corporations, can halt the process.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
22 November 2012

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