Power politics

You can be forgiven if you were unaware that Australia is now part of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, an organisation established last July to promote the development and transfer of clean energy technologies among India, China, Japan, South Korea, the United States and Australia. Together these countries are responsible for more than half the greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and their economies are all heavily dependent on coal, either as producers or users.

The countries have clubbed together to develop technological solutions to the greenhouse problem. In other words, they want to be able to continue to burn fossil fuels with impunity and avoid the consequences. So the partnership is about engineering ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There are some very positive aspects to this. For starters, it signals a complete change of tack by the White House. It’s an admission that the world actually does have a problem and that it is at least partially of human making, which means we can actually do something about it. In addition, the two most important thrusts of the partnership—locking up carbon dioxide in rocks underground or under the ocean and developing clean-burning coal-fired power stations—will be very useful in the fight to limit global warming.

But Archimedes thinks the whole approach misses the point. First, even if it works brilliantly, it’s hardly a permanent solution. It just buys time, until we run out of oil, then gas, then coal. We will still end up having to develop some sort of renewable or infinite source of energy down the track. Why not start now? Second, the partnership supports and rewards the same sort of greedy, exploitative, short-term thinking that got us to this point in the first place. And third, it tends to reinforce the geopolitical status quo, which is why, perhaps, it seems such an attractive solution to George Bush and John Howard. The increasing dependence on technology to stave off the evil consequences of wasteful energy use will exacerbate the economic inequality which favours countries like Australia and the US, but which is also beginning to make the world such a dangerous place today.

Not even all of America is convinced that the kind of approach engendered in the partnership is the best way to go. Nine American states are working towards a Kyoto-style agreement to cap the greenhouse emissions from their power plants. They even want to establish a carbon trading system. This alternative approach—which is also being canvassed by cities and states in Australia—would involve using less energy more efficiently, and boosting the research, development and introduction of renewable forms of energy in increasing amounts. Moving towards such economies based on smaller, more efficient, decentralised power generation seems to be a much more robust form of social organisation.

After observing the performance of the US administration in coping with Hurricane Katrina, Archimedes suspects that many in the rest of the world are no longer so sure that the superpower still has a mortgage on the best ideas of social organisation. As regards climate change, what we need is not a new way of engineering but a new way of living. 

Tim Thwaites is a freelance science writer.


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