August 5, 2008

Clean coal may not exist in reality, but it is being used to divert climate change action all the same

It is a contradiction in terms to speak of 'clean coal' argue campaigners gathering to try to shut down one of the UK's largest coal-fired power stations, at Kingsnorth in Kent. The aim is to highlight plans to re-build the plant as part of the government's energy strategy.

One of those joining the 'climate camp' protest is George Monbiot, who writing in The Guardian today recalls:

'Last year Al Gore remarked: "I can't understand why there aren't rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants."'

Well, in the UK young and old are doing just that at Kingsnorth.

Also in The Guardian, is an article by David Porter, Chief Executive of the Association of Electricity Producers. He defends 'clean coal' in his article:

---extract begins
Some campaigners criticise the use of the word "clean" in relation to coal. It might be very confident, but it indicates the direction of travel. It stands for highly efficient technologies, so less coal has to be burnt for the same electricity output, causing fewer emissions. In the long term, the industry wants to use carbon capture and storage (CCS) – a technology which would allow 90% of emissions or more to be captured and stored underground. However, CCS is expensive and unproven, and we need the government to support the development and demonstration of CCS.
---extract ends

The industry's claim is that 90% of emissions would be prevented from entering the atmosphere using this unproven technology, that has not yet been developed nor demonstrated. The industry expects the government (ie taxpayers) to foot the bill.

The government, however, is relying on the European Emissions Trading Scheme to solve the problem by making it more attractive to industry to pay for the technology than to have to buy carbon credits. Back to George Monbiot, who looks at the sums:

---extract begins
Last month the House of Commons environmental audit committee examined this proposition and found that it was nonsense. It cited studies by the UK Energy Research Centre and Climate Change Capital which estimate that capturing carbon from existing coal plants will cost €90-155 (£71-£122) per tonne of CO2. Yet the government predicts that the likely price of carbon between 2013 to 2020 will be around €39 (£31) per tonne. Even E.ON believes that it won't rise above €50. "The gap between the carbon price and the cost of CCS," the committee finds, "is enormous." The energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, confessed to MPs: "I hope that the strengthening of carbon markets ... will bring forward a sufficiently good price for carbon that it will provide some of the financial incentive for CCS. Will it be enough? I do not know."
---extract ends

It will be cheaper for companies to pay someone else to cut their emissions than to stop polluting themselves. Indeed, if they paid for people in the Congo to not cut down trees, they would make massive savings, as the offsets are costing just £3 per tonne of CO2:

The industry is being a little disingenuous when it talks of 'clean coal' therefore. Carbon capture does not yet exist, no-one is wanting to pay to develop, let alone install, the technology and the economic mechanism intended to prompt investment actually discourages it. The Cornerhouse has produced a series of briefings and papers looking in depth at emissions trading:

Taxing emissions or otherwise limiting them would actually incentivise cutting output. Taxes could be applied to funds for protecting the great forests all the same, if joined up thinking was demonstrated:

There are different ways to focus the debate. Joining the carbon camp is one way. Sending a message to the Prime Minister calling for an end to coal powered fire stations is another. The iCount website makes this easy. The One Hundred Months campaign has tried to inject urgency with its claim that we are that far from the climate change tipping point when it will be too late. See:

Supporting alternatives to emissions trading (or defending that system if you really think it will work) with the Simultaneous Policy campaign is another approach. You can see the ideas under discussion and find out how to put forward your own in the policy forum. An increasing number of politicians around the world have pledged to implement the Simultaneous Policy alongside other countries. Why not sign up as an Adopter and ask your elected representatives to make the pledge if you have not done so already?

While it is certain time is running out (even if not exactly one hundred months), it is also certain that the industry will use all the arguments, influence and resources it can muster to protect profits. We, the people, need to take the lead, whether through protest or through withdrawing support from politicians who refuse to back the Simultaneous Policy. Or both.

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