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Decision time for the planet

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Decision time for the planet

As global coal use spirals, governments must decide whether to embrace a controversial new technology that some say is our only hope of tackling climate change 

John Vidal
The Guardian

Last year China built around 100 large coal-fired power stations, India 30 and Europe more than 20. More than 150 plants were planned for the US, 20 for Germany, and eight for Britain. Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and South Africa all said they needed more.They won’t all get built, but just the ones commissioned in the last year will need at least an extra 600m tonnes of coal to be dug. Billed as dead in Britain just a generation ago, coal is now on its greatest roll since the start of the industrial revolution.

It is the cheapest and most plentiful fossil fuel, and the world mines nearly twice as much of it as it did 25 years ago. Oil demand grows about 1-3% a year. Nearly 10% more coal was burned last year. Moreover, says the World Coal Institute, it’s not going to peak soon like oil, it’s comparatively easy to extract and, without it, few countries would be lit or warm.

One quarter of all the world’s energy and 40% of all its electricity comes from coal, it says, and as oil prices soar, so coal looks even more secure as the fuel of the future. According to the International Energy Agency, coal could eclipse oil as the single most important fuel somewhere after 2030.

But the great science lesson of the last 25 years has been that coal is the world’s potential killer. Scientists are increasingly alarmed at the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the finger points more at coal than any other fossil fuel.

Put simply, there is a choice. The world can continue to burn coal as it does now, or it can hold carbon emissions in check. But it cannot do both. Carry on as we are and climate change will ensure that life as we know it will become untenable.

But according to governments and the coal industry, backed by oil and gas companies, there is a way out of the problem. They are quite confident that the circle can be squared with carbon capture and storage (CCS), a set of technologies that can be employed to collect carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants and industrial processes. The greenhouse gas is purified and compressed , transported and stored deep under the land or sea in old gas fields or salt caverns where, it is hoped, it will remain indefinitely.

It sounds like a spectacular technology for the 21st century and is the first genuinely new industry to be driven entirely by climate change. Its powerful political and corporate backers believe that it will allow us to carry on burning coal and meet our long-term goals for cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

The prize is huge. Applied to a conventional power plant, CCS technology is expected to reduce CO2 emissions by 80-90%. Instead of producing 400m tonnes of CO2 in its 50-year life, one plant might produce less than 40m tonnes with CCS.

What is more, the backers say the technology is proven in all its parts, and the political will is there at international and national levels. But CCS is stuck at a crossroads, with scepticism mounting and a new awareness growing that this is a technology that requires vast amounts of energy to run it, a massive new infrastructure to make it work, and serious government support to get going.

And there is still no full-scale demonstration plant anywhere in the world. The CCS debate is fierce. Critics, like Greenpeace, say it cannot possibly be introduced quickly or on as large a scale as the public and politicians think, nor can it deliver emission cuts in time to avoid dangerous climate change.

They argue that it may be 2030 before a fully integrated plant can be running, and that more than half of power plants won’t even be suitable for carbon capture.

Mapped and assessed

Scale is also a major consideration. In the US, if all the CO2 from today’s coal-fired electricity generation were collected and compressed, it would total 50m barrels per day. This amounts to twice the volume of oil handled daily in the US. To accommodate such volumes, potential storage sites need to be mapped and assessed.

The technology wastes energy because it decreases the average efficiency of power plants by more than 20%, and the public are sceptical about the safety of geological storage sites, especially close to home.

Moreover, they say, to fit CCS to even the most polluting plants would cost hundreds of billions of pounds. This would not only dramatically increase electricity prices but would undermine funding for far cheaper and more sustainable solutions.

The industry, accused of using CCS as a way of ensuring new coal plants get built, responds that it is the only pragmatic answer to the global problem. Because most countries are stuck with coal for years to come, it says it is the only politically feasible way to bring down emissions. Costs will fall, efficiency will improve and the first plant could be up and running by 2015, they say, if governments put up money for demonstration projects.

Whether CCS ever takes off will ultimately depend on finance, particularly during the early phase, when the technology is most expensive. Europe sees CCS as an essential part of its CO2 reduction efforts and last year the member states pledged to have 10 demonstration plants up and running by 2015.

But with the possible exception of the UK, which has concrete plans for a small demonstration CCS plant by 2014, little progress has been made, and amid economic downturns and soaring energy prices, governments are so far reluctant to contribute themselves.

Research into the technology goes ahead, but there appears to be stalemate on the ground. In the meantime, a coalition of environment groups and oil companies, including Shell, has formed to press for the technology. A seven-year delay could mean 90-100bn tonnes of avoidable CO2 emissions being released, says environment group Bellona.

CCS, says Bellona, is a pragmatic technology for difficult times. If it is not applied there is no hope at all of preventing runaway climate change that will take place if temperatures increase by more than 2C.

If all the fossil fuel plants in the world that exist in 2050 are fitted with the technology, then there’s at least a chance.,,2287186,00.html and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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