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UK drags feet yet dares to lecture

UK drags feet yet dares to lecture
More than 40% of electricity generated in the world comes from coal-fired power stations. That is doubtless a matter for regret, but it is a statistic that is not going to change greatly for decades to come.

More than 40% of electricity generated in the world comes from coal-fired power stations. That is doubtless a matter for regret, but it is a statistic that is not going to change greatly for decades to come.

That is why the current drive for clean-coal technology is both urgent and necessary – and also why the latest indications that the UK Government is dragging its heels on implementation for fear of a collision course with environmental groups is so misguided.

The UK talks big about leading the world in carbon capture and storage technology, and there is no doubt that we have superb companies which can make a huge contribution not only to domestic carbon reduction, but also on a global scale.

But our world-leadership position looks pretty hollow if we cannot get on with it at home and Britain is again in danger of throwing away a technological lead.

Globally, it is a fantasy to suppose that coal is going to disappear from our power-generation mix, so the crucial question is not whether it will be burned, but how it will be burned.

That is the reality which should underpin this debate.

It applies in varying degrees to the UK and other western countries. The US, in particular, is hugely dependent on indigenous coal in an age when it has become a massive importer of oil. But it is even truer in China and most of its neighbours, where coal is plentiful and cheap, unlike any other form of generation.

Within the European Union, Poland is 90% dependent on coal for its power generation, and the Czech Republic is not far behind. That degree of dependency may decline over the next few decades, but the absolute certainty is that any significant move towards cleaning up their acts will be through the way they burn coal rather than any expectation that they will not burn it at all.

That is why I have always maintained that more can be obtained in carbon-reduction terms through developing clean-coal technology than by any other strategy. If China alone could be persuaded to adopt (and pay for) the most modern technologies to reduce coal emissions, the impact would probably be greater than the global contributions of renewables.

This is the perspective that opponents of coal-fired generation seem to miss. Nobody is advocating coal-fired generation as virtuous in itself. But if one’s starting point is that coal is with us and is going to remain with us for generations to come, then the most environmentally responsible thing one can do is drive forward the technology which can make it as benign as it is possible for it to be.

In the UK, coal still accounts for 30% of power generation, though gas is gaining fast. The operators of coal-fired power stations already know they have to clean up their act by 2015 or else close them down. But both the EU and national governments are, rightly, looking for much more.

There are numerous clean-coal technologies, but it is generally agreed that the big prize would be to make carbon capture and storage both technically and economically feasible over the next decade or so. The capture technology is not far away, though the issues of storage, whether in disused coal mines or oil wells that are nearing exhaustion, are still substantial. But by far the biggest issue is cost and how it is going to be met.

For several years past, the EU has been promoting a competitive approach to carbon capture and storage schemes. But progress in the UK has been terribly slow. Supposedly, the lucky winners will be up and running by 2014, but that date becomes more doubtful with every month that passes. Meanwhile, the only industry that seems to flourish is consultation.

As well as running the CCS competition, the Department of Energy and Climate Change is due to conclude a wider consultation called “Towards Carbon Capture and Storage”.

Now, to the horror of everyone involved in the industry, Energy Minister Mike O’Brien has indicated that there will be yet another consultation on “what further regulation is required for us to keep coal as an option in our long-term future energy mix”.

O’Brien surely gave the game away when, in providing that information in a House of Commons debate, he added that only after the outcome of that consultation is known will a decision be issued on the replacement of Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent, which is being opposed noisily by environmental groups. The idea clearly is to kick that decision into touch until after a general election.

This is a foolish piece of procrastination which will put everything else on hold and ignores the wider arguments. It also guarantees that Britain will continue to become more dependent on imported gas which, by lip service at least, everyone agrees is a bad idea because of security-of-supply considerations.

And I know that if I was a Pole or Chinese being lectured by the UK Government about the need to spend vast sums on cleaning up their own coal-fired generation, I would be tempted to reply in the appropriate language: “We hear what you say, but we are also watching what you do. And we are not in the least impressed”.

Neither am I.

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