Transport, volcano's, CO2 and the planned economy

Ash cloud from Iceland volcano spreads across IrelandLast weekend I went to Birmingham, England for the national conference of the British anarkismo affiliate Liberty & Solidarity. I started to write this blog on then train back from a National Shell to Sea meeting in Galway this Sunday. During the week I updated three of my blogs about my North American speaking tour. This is the week when Ireland is cut off from the world as the ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano drifts overhead, grounding all flights.  Which got me thinking about transport and climate change.

On the train to Galway I happened to be trying to draft some amendments to the WSM position paper on the Environment and included "Public transportation, including long distance transportation, should be free of charge where based on low or 0 carbon release power sources. Workers in transportation should fight for such a transformation. Transportation, including long distance transportation, should not be the preserve of the wealthy alone." That's a rough draft I might rewrite it 20 times or drop all together but it's a concept I've given some thought to in recent months.

Travel is a complex topic when discussion Climate Change as there are enormous variations in fuel consumption per person per kilometer depending on the transport methods used and how they are used. A cyclist for instance doesn't directly use any fossil fuels. Indirectly there is the energy that went into creating and transporting the bike and in turn the energy in extracting, refining and transporting the metal and plastics that make up the bike. But otherwise the 0 gallons to the mile the cyclist uses is a lot less then the 2 gallons to the mile you get out of an M1 Abrahams tank.

More to the point take two BMW salons. Put one in the hands of a commuter travelling every day to work on their own and the other into service as an intercity taxi in Morocco where it will wait until it has got its full complement of 8 passengers before doing the run to a nearby city and then once more wait until its full before doing the return run. Even with two identical machines you end up with nearly a 9 fold difference in fuel consumption and CO2 emmissions per person between these two different methods of use.

If the route is busy then put a coach on it, if it's really busy then a train. Your fuel consumption per passenger plummits. Wih existing technology and a transportation system that fills the same transport needs people have today you could probably reduce fuel use for inter city runs in much of the western world by 80% or more. Do the same within cities in terms of improved and free bus routes, mini buses doing connection runs and trams and trains for the busier routes alongside quality bike corridors and you do the same for urban transport.

The way transport needs are filled at the moment is probably one of the clearest examples of the extreme irrationality of the free market. One person often using the vehicle alone for whatever their transport needs are. The solution we have is probably the worst we could have when you consider the alternatives. And that’s even without taking into account the bigger and heavier arms race that rich parents are liable to play, protecting their whelps in heavy steel boxes that are far more likey to kill or seriously wound whoever they collide with. Incidentally collective systems of transportation are not at all unusual in many parts of the world they rather than individual car ownership are the standard for most of the population.

Now flight is a tricker question, I already blogged about it a bit back in January to make up for my flight to Lanzarote. I'm not entirely insensitive, I did get the boat train from Dublin to London for the first time in twenty years to get to the London anarchist bookfair. It wasn't bad, slower then flying but not as much slower as you might expect until you take into account all the getting to and from airports and hanfing around them that flying involves these days. But I did fly back from and I flew to Birmingham and back mostly because in both cases I was heading straight from work or back late Sunday evening and in work the next morning.  I also flew to Paris for the Anarkismo conference, thinking about it I have done a lot of political air travel over the last few years.

CO2 release from EyjafjallajoekullAn aside-  Democratic underground produced a visual representation of how much CO2 release had dropped as a result of Eyjafjallajoekull (the volcano in iceland) grounding air travel in western Europe for the few days to Sunday April 18th.  Volcano's also pump out CO2 but it turn out there was still a net saving of some 56,000 tons in those days. My Facebook newsfeed has been full of friends stranded in various points across Europe (and in one case Cuba), many reporting that trains, buses and ferries are booked out.  I rather suspect the silver lining to this eruption will be to boost investment in surface based travel.

Flying as the eruption has shown is tricky to substitute for in particular on a small island like Ireland with wide enough seas between us and the next island and indeed the mainland (that's Europe) to make high speed rail on either bridges or tunnels a very major challenge indeed. And a high speed rail link running west is way beyond current technology.  It's not something 'free market' capitalism is much use for as it means investing large amount in infrastructure that pays off rather slowly and where the benefit in envirnomental and comfort terms is not reflected in profits.  So generally the 'private' element of projects is backed up by all sorts of state promises and incentives.

Now China on the other hand is churning out high speed rail and plans apparently to build a link all the way to Northern Europe. It has to be said that the Chinese state is in danger of bringing central planning back into fashion, its quite something to watch the planned construction of cities for a mllion people or more at the moment when the rest of the free market world economy is in crisis brought on by its own substitution of hopefully balanced gambling for planning. Obama has talked of building actually quite slow fast rail across the US, China is building the fastest systems in the world as I type.

The is the core ideological crisis for the neoliberal system of capitalism when it comes to climate change. Do what you may it is impossible to see a 'free market' system that would being CO2 release down at anything like the speed that is needed. Indeed there is almost a direct relationship between the level of state intervention and the progress that has been made in the west in terms of substituting renewable energy for fossil fuels. If it wasn't for the huge oil spike of 2008 and the related approach of peak production in conventional oil we'd be truly shagged. As it is we can only hope that we are at peak and that unconventional oil remains much more expensive then looks likely to.  That might head off the free market sucking it out of the ground and pumping it all into the atmosphere till Earth flips into a slightly more distant Venus.

Which joins the dots once more back to me stitting on the Galway to Dublin train and typing up the minutes fron a national meeting of a decade old struggle against the biggest fossil fuel extraction company in the world, Shell. The collapse of COP 15 has accelerated a pattern where a few within the Shell to Sea campaign are beginning to wonder if we should be opposing extraction of the gas at all rather than looking for a reasonable cut of the profits for the population of Ireland. That however isn't a logical position as long as we have power stations in the midlands burning turf, quite possibly the worst CO2 to power production ratio you can generate. Or indeed coal fired stations in the US or the extraction of the tar sands of Alberta. You can't deal with climate change in your backyard, it has to be a planet wide agreement and a planet wide imposed solution.

This is why the politics of energy production should be the politics of global revolution. The solution can only be a planetry wide one and if we don't have that revolution that solution will be imposed by the powerful imperialist countries who to date have generated most of the CO2 alongside their new partners, the elite classes in China, India and Brazil who are also building immense personal wealth on the back of massive energy guzzling development. As I mentioned in my blog on geoengineering some are already arguing that this gang alone should determine whether or not to turn the planets atmosphere into a giant experiment in balancing over heating with over cooling in the hope of saving a few bucks by getting that balance just right.

Any attempt to get climate change under control will either be a receipe for a totalitarian world government or involve a profound transformation of every relationship of economy and power that we have known on the planet. We've got work to do in determing which outcome arrives.


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