Capture unready

The government’s policy over clean coal has come in for criticism, with a report from an influential parliamentary committee casting doubt over the development of carbon capture and storage. The Environmental Audit Committee calls the progress of CCS development ‘extremely poor’, and recommends that the government should set a deadline for coal-fired stations to be fitted with the technology, or face closure.

It’s true that coal-fired technology is highly controversial, and with good reason — of all the fossil fuel-based methods of power generation, it produces by far the largest amount of carbon dioxide per kilowatt of electricity. Without technology to capture the CO2, and a clear route to safe and reliable storage, there can be no doubt that it will contribute massively towards atmospheric CO2 levels.

And equally, there can be no doubt that neither technology exists yet. In our recent look at CCS, leading developers estimated that it could be 20 years before CCS is fully developed at industrial scale, and several of them were discouraged by the government’s action in subsidising only one technology, to capture carbon post-combustion. This has already led to BP abandoning its plans to develop a pre-combustion CCS plant in Scotland; the company has since decided to build the plant in Abu Dhabi.

Meanwhile, the government is delaying approval of the first new coal-fired plant to be planned in the UK for decades, at Kingsnorth in Kent, in the face of environmental protests. And in an ironic development, GE has announced that it plans to build the first carbon capture-ready coal plant in the UK: and it will use a pre-combustion technology from Shell.

The Royal Society’s president, Lord Rees, has supported the Environmental Audit Committee’s conclusion, and has gone further: he recommends that consent should only be awarded for new coal-fired plants if they can capture 90 per cent of their CO2 emissions by 2020. This seems like a sensible goal, as long as permanent storage follows soon after.

But although the caution and scepticism shown by the Committee is understandable, there’s a danger of being too cautious. The Committee says that coal ‘should be seen as an option of last resort, even with the promise of CCS.’ But for many countries around the world, it isn’t the last resort. It’s the only resort. Coal remains a relatively cheap fuel, and in India and China — regions with a huge and growing demand for electricity — it’s in plentiful supply.

It’s often said that solving environmental problems will take an enormous and international effort. While it might be tempting to say that India and China’s problems are not ours, if their power stations emit huge amounts of CO2, it’s everybody’s problem. Although it’s quite right to be cautious about deploying coal technology, it would be quite wrong for this to delay the development of CCS. Leave aside the possibility of lucrative export markets; this is the sort of technology on which lives could depend.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor