It's certainly far from everything we've been asking for, but when Ed Miliband announced his new consultation on coal policy in the House of Commons this lunchtime it was clear that something had changed. For starters, E.ON isn’t going to get its way over Kingsnorth, at least not with its current plan.
Showing admirable signs of climate leadership in the face of resistance from Whitehall officials and his cabinet colleagues, the Energy and Climate Change secretary told MPs that no new coal-fired power stations would be built in Britain unless equipped with at least some carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. In a key departure from previous policy, he said that from now on power companies planning to build new coal plants will be required to fit full CCS by 2025 at the latest, provided that the Environment Agency is convinced that the technology works.
This still isn't in-line with the recommendation made by Lord Turner's Climate Change Committee, because he advised the prime minister last year that no coal station (existing or newly built) should still be operating without full CCS beyond the early 2020s - including old stations like Drax.
So huge questions remain. Indeed, leading climate scientist Professor Hansen has made it clear that no coal station should go ahead without full CCS from day one, which puts today’s announcement into perspective.
More broadly, a genuinely progressive energy policy capable of meeting the challenge of climate change (and also energy security) has to combine clean, immediately available renewable energy with energy efficiency technologies at the heart of the UK's future energy mix. Which, let's face it, hardly descibes coal. Despite this, the government seems intent on pursuing plans for new coal fired power stations on the promise that they will eventually capture and store their carbon emissions.
"no coal station should go ahead without full CCS from day one"
Prof James Hansen
Dirctor, NASA Goddard Institute
Still, in taking today's step Ed Miliband became the first Labour minister in twelve years to acknowledge that business as usual is not an option, and to throw down the gauntlet to the energy companies - demanding that they start taking climate change seriously. Greenpeace Director John Sauven hailed the move, but added a note of caution:
"Finally a cabinet minister has faced up to the massive threat coal poses to the climate, but we're not there yet. Very significant questions remain unanswered, with environmentalists concerned that emissions from coal could still be undermining Britain’s climate efforts for years to come. For every tonne of carbon captured and buried from new coal plants before the 2020s, the Government seems happy to see three tonnes released into the atmosphere. Until there is a cast iron guarantee that new coal plants won't be allowed to pump out massive amounts of CO2 from day one, our campaign continues."
Mr Miliband now proposes to run three CCS demonstration projects using both so-called 'pre-combustion' and 'post-combustion' methods (ie capturing the CO2 eithet before or after the fuel is burned). But the key questions which the consultation now needs to answer are:
- Will new coal plants be allowed to operate for a decade while still pumping 75 per cent of their emissions into the atmosphere? Unless tough regulations are enacted to prevent energy companies building highly-polluting coal plants with the odd small CCS experiment bolted onto the side, this isn't going to work. A new Kingsnorth which emits marginally less than it otherwise would have is still utterly inconsistent with claims that Britain leads the world on climate change.
- What if CCS technology doesn’t work? How can we ensure the UK won't be left with a legacy of new coal plants emitting huge amounts of CO2 at a time when we must be slashing emissions?
- Will existing coal plants like Drax, which are slated to continue operation into the 2020s, be allowed to continue operating unabated despite their massive emissions?
Mr Miliband made a welcome reference to the possibility of adopting an Emissions Performance Standard for power stations which will limit the amount of CO2 produced per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. The question is, will this reflect the science, and how will it bew enforced?
Greenpeace advocates an initial EPS of 350 grammes (per Kwh) - which would rule out new unabated coal plants. This EPS would need to tighten over time to reflect what the science demands.
Despite Mr Miliband's positive moves today we shouldn't forget that we are still pumping out millions of tonnes of CO2 every year, and that nobody thinks that CCS will be viable for years.
Which brings us back to the wise words of Professor Hansen - we'd all do well to remember them.