The latest strategy for mitigating climate change to be adopted by the Government is also, in principle, the most elegant. It consists quite simply of taking the chief by-product of burning fossil fuels and pumping it back underground.
Would that this strategy had proved so simple in practice. On a growing scale and with a mounting sense of urgency, from California's Great Central Valley to the overpopulated suburbs of the Netherlands, industry is trying to make a commercial reality of carbon capture and storage (CCS). It has not done so yet. So when Ed Miliband presented CCS to Parliament on Thursday, he presented it half-formed.
Before a thinly attended House of Commons, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change made the most audacious but also the flimsiest set of pledges this Government has yet ventured in its efforts to craft a coherent energy policy for the 21st century. The challenge, admittedly, is monumental. Mr Miliband must simultaneously control energy costs, keep Britain's lights on, prevent the country being held to ransom by foreign energy suppliers and set an example to the world by meeting the country's tough self-imposed carbon emissions targets.
His statement made only passing mention of nuclear power or renewables. It focused instead on a competition to create a world-beating British CCS pilot project, and an edict that no new coal-fired stations will be licensed unless they prove they can strip the carbon dioxide out of their fumes and store it out of harm's way, probably under the North Sea.
The proposal is at least ambitious. It addresses the great, immovable ingredient in the global energy equation: cheap, abundant, dirty coal. For all the headlong conversion of Britain's energy generators to natural gas and Whitehall's dreams of wind farms ringing the coast, this country relies on coal for a third of its power. Coal supplies 70 per cent of India's power needs and 80 per cent of China's, where it will also have to meet most of the coming decade's surging demand. As the director of the Earth Institute put it this week: "If it turns out there is no such thing as clean coal, we are in a world of massive crisis.
" So is there such a thing as clean coal? Critics say the science is unproven. This is true only in that its component parts have not yet been linked together. But "scrubbing" carbon from coal fumes - and the more auspicious extraction of carbon from coking coal before combustion to produce clean hydrogen - are both proven technologies, and pumping carbon dioxide into depleted oil and gas deposits has long since been used by the energy industry as a way of boosting production. There is little doubt that, given enough investment, the full-fledged pilot project Mr Miliband envisages is feasible.
His tougher challenge is to persuade industry to invest in CCS for the long term. The technology will add an estimated [pounds sterling]1 billion to the cost of each new power plant. The Government hopes to surmount this obstacle with incentives funded ultimately by consumers. What form those incentives will take remains unclear, and if consumers or industry mutiny in favour of gas, Britain's climate change plans will go up, literally, in smoke.
Mr Miliband has taken a courageous stand, but ultimately he will have to persuade voters that clean energy costs more than dirty.
"Coal Comfort; The dirtiest energy source is irreplaceable. So it must be cleaned up.(Features)." Times [London, England] 25 Apr. 2009: 2. Academic OneFile. Web. 1 Nov. 2009.
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