Stop Climate Chaos

It’s coal, not nuclear, that is the important issue today

With Kingsnorth on hold, what future for coal in the UK?

National policy statements sound cool. They sound like they might actually sort stuff out. Instead of scrabbling around doing little bits of policy here and there, like some sort of policy tapas, a NPS means you're going for the policy hog roast - go on, have a big national slab of policy sir, there you go.

Except, to continue the metaphor beyond its useful life, this hog appears to be have a half-life! And three eyes! And it's glowing! Ah, the nuclear jokes. Today isn't really the day for them, because no matter what you might have heard in the news, today's key announcement wasn't about nuclear, it was about coal.

If we're talking about climate change, we're talking about coal. Coal is responsible for over half the human-made carbon emissions in the atmosphere. If we, as a planet, carry on building new coal powered plants, we're all in a lot of trouble. That's why Greenpeace spend so much time campaigning against new dirty coal plants - or ‘unabated' coal plants as they're known.

The centrality of coal to the climate debate is also why the shift we've seen from the government over the past few years - from bullish on new coal and Kingsnorth in particular, to suspicious silence on Kingsnorth and a commitment earlier in the year from Ed Miliband that no new coal plants will be built without carbon capture and storage technology being applied to portion of the emissions from new coal plants, is so welcome.

Today Ed Miliband re-expressed that commitment as a (slightly vague) policy timetable. Here's how it goes: The good news is (still) that completely new unabated coal has been ruled out. If all goes according to Ed's plan, we will never see another completely unabated coal-fired power station built in this country. Definitely very good.

So what will we get? Well, according to the plan, we'll get up to 4 new coal-fired power stations, each with at least 400MW of carbon capture and storage technology. In english, for plants like that proposed for Kingsnorth, that means about a quarter of their emissions will be captured and not emitted into the atmosphere.

If the Government decides in the end to go for the full complement of 4, 2 of these plants will be ‘pre-combustion' CCS, which means the emissions are captured before the gasified coal is burned, and 2 will be ‘post-combustion', which means... well, you get the idea.

Is this good? Well, it's OK. The problem with CCS is that it's pretty experimental at the moment, so we're in the ‘trying to make it work' phase of technology development, and that's what this is - it's a big technology test, and if it works, CCS will be pretty handy.

How does Ed's plan unfold? Assuming they can capture the carbon, store it safely, etc, then the plan is to make those four ‘technology test' plants fully 100% CCS by 2025 - so all of their emissions will be captured. According to Ed's diary, the decision to upgrade them to 100% will be made by 2020, and then there'll be 5 years for them to put in the bigger pipes, or upgrade the flux capacitor, or whatever it is they need to do.

And if that works, then from 2020 onwards any new coal power stations must be 100% emissions-free - entirely carbon-captured. And that's Ed's rosy picture of the future.

Still with me? OK, the crucial question here is: where's the regulation? Who's going to kick arse to make it happen?

Well the answer is... er, the Environment Agency. Now, the EA are not really known as the regulatory attack-dogs of the governmental arse-kicking world. They're more like the avuncular school-teacher. As far as I can tell, they spend most of their time trying to stop rivers flooding, which is great, but have they got the street-fighting skills to mix it with the power companies?

They'd have a better chance if the Government gave them some special regulatory combo moves to fight off the bad guys. At the moment they don't have much more than a very stern letter to wield.

Anyway, in 2018, the Environment Agency have to assess how it's all going on the CCS development front, and make a call on whether the technology is working, and whether it can be scaled up and rolled out. Which brings us neatly to what could go wrong with this plan. What if CCS doesn't work? What if we get to 2018 and the Environment Agency says that they don't see any realistic possibility that 100% CCS is technically possible, or economically viable?

The big question is whether we would then see the four CCS demonstration plants close. Because if the answer is ‘no', then we've just built plants like Kingsnorth that are 75% unabated, 75% dirty, 75% climate destroying. And would we have confidence in the ability of the Environment Agency to shut the down? Probably not, which is why we reckon they're going to need stronger powers to make the power companies be bound by their judgements.

Finally, this says nothing about existing power stations. Drax, for example, which emits 22.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, is probably due to operate until well into the 2030s. Will it close? Will it be entirely CCS retrofitted? By when? Will we get a zero-carbon power sector by the 2030s, along the lines of what the committee on climate change recommended?

There's plenty that we still don't know. And that's why ultimately we think we need some sort of over-arching legislation to control emissions from power stations - what's called an emissions performance standard. That would give us the confidence we need that the climate isn't going to pay the price for a carbon capture experiment that goes wrong.

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