Ed Miliband today announced the details of his new coal consultation. While recognising the need to reduce emissions from coal-fired power stations, as promised, it places equal emphasis on maintaining a "diverse, secure energy mix".
In April the Energy and Climate Change Secretary initiated a significant U-turn in government policy when he told Parliament that "the era of new unabated coal is over." Compared with the "business as usual" approach of predecessors like John Hutton, this is a big step forward.
But though Ed's definitely moving in the right direction, much of what he is proposing remains unclear. Take the three proposals at the core of this new consultation, for instance:
- Requiring Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) demonstration: no new coal power stations will be built unless they use technology to capture at least 25% of their carbon emissions right from day one. At least four demonstration plants will be built to test CCS, and these will include a combination of pre and post-combustion carbon removal methods. So he seems to be saying that for every tonne of CO2 he wants to capture, he’d be happy for three quarters to enter the atmosphere?
- Requiring CCS retrofit: All new coal fired power stations should be required to 'retrofit' CCS (ie incorporate the new technology into their production process) to their full capacity within five years of CCS being proven. It's anticipated that this point will be reached by 2020. Whether such retrofitting would apply to previous generation of coal-fired power stations is again, presumably intentionally, left unclear. Who decides when it’s "proven" and what happens if it doesn’t work or if its thought to be unfeasible?
- Contingency: if CCS is not a proven technology by 2020, then other measures would kick in to keep down carbon emissions from coal. Such measures could include an annual cap on individual power stations’ emissions, a limit on their running hours or an emissions performance standard (which would limit the amount of CO2 that could be emitted per unit of electricity generated). Power companies are lobbying strongly to weaken this so-called safety net as The Guardian reported last month.
It all sounds promising, and certainly represents a sizable step forward in government thinking - but of course, as ever, the devil will be in the detail. There is still plenty of potential in these proposals for loopholes to be exploited, and even in the best case scenario any new coal plants would still be pumping out 75% unabated emissions until 2020 (6 million tonnes of CO2 annually in the case of Kingsnorth, for example), making them far more polluting than an equivalent size gas fired power station (and of course, as our Poyry research showed, we can meet Britain’s energy security needs using renewables and efficiency.)
The truth is that the government still needs to go much further. Britain could and should be a global leader on climate change and Ed Miliband has the power to make that happen, but first he has to rule out all emissions from new coal-fired power stations, and set a deadline for closing the existing coal plants like Drax.”
Once this is achieved Ed Miliband will be able to go to the vital Copenhagen climate conference in December with the credibility to demand a strong global treaty. And, as the country most culpable for initiating the first coal age, which is largely responsible for the global warming we are currently experiencing, Britain undoubtedly has a responsibility to take a lead in developing practical solutions to solve the climate crisis.