Miliband’s coal decision is cynical and meaningless
If coal plants go ahead on the condition that their emissions will one day be abated through carbon capture and storage technology, then emissions are a certainty
This is a very different matter from Ed Miliband’s proposal in the House of Commons today that energy companies must “demonstrate CCS on a substantial proportion of any new coal-fired power station.” The figures he has just proposed (400MW of gross capacity) suggest that only around one-quarter to one-fifth of total emissions from a new plant will be captured.
These partly abated coal plants, in other words, would still be much worse than unabated gas plants.
Miliband went on to insist that “when the technology is proven [we will make a] commitment that CCS will be fitted on the entire plant.”
So the big “if” about CCS has magically been turned into a “when”.
If Miliband is sure that full-scale CCS is viable, two questions arise:
1. Why has he just announced four demonstration projects to test whether it is viable or not?
2. Why not go ahead with full CCS right now?
Of course, there is no “when”. As Alastair Darling told the House of Commons in May 2007:
“It is true to say that the technology to capture, transport and store the carbon exists, but it has not actually been joined up on a commercial basis yet … these things might never become available.”
It might work. It might not. As anyone seeking to develop and commercialise a new technology knows, it is likely to be beset by a host of unforeseeable difficulties, which will almost certainly delay it and possibly derail it.
As Miliband says:
“I have had representations that from day one there should be 100% CCS on new coal, but I believe that this does not appreciate the need that still exists to demonstrate the technology before full-scale commercial deployment is possible.”
So here’s the difficulty for the government. It will approve a new generation of coal-burning power stations, starting with Kingsnorth in Kent, on the basis that they will one day reduce their emissions by means of a technology that has not yet been demonstrated. What happens if the CCS demonstrations show that it doesn’t work on the scale Miliband envisages, or not, at least, when he predicts? The only means the government will then have of cutting emissions from the coal-burning plants it approves today is to shut them down, wholly or partially. Two factors mean that this is likely to be politically impossible:
1. The government has to decide now what our future energy mix will be. All large-scale electricity generation – whether from fossil fuel, nuclear or renewables – takes years to plan, develop and bring onstream. If, say, the government decides that in 2020 one-fifth of our power will come from coal, and then discovers in 2020 that coal emissions cannot be abated by CCS, it will not be able to shut those power stations down without massive consequences for electricity supply. The choice will be a stark one: either it will have to abandon its carbon targets or it will have to subject the country to electricity rationing and rolling black-outs. It’s not hard to guess which way it would jump.
2. Both Labour and the Conservatives have long colluded with the power generation industry. The Guardian’s new revelations about this relationship are just the latest in a long line. The power sector is a formidable industrial lobby group, which no government appears prepared to confront.
Miliband can make extravagant promises today about retrofitting 100% CCS to all new coal-burning power stations by 2020 and preventing them from operating without it. But he probably won’t be in office then, and almost certainly won’t be in his current role. Perhaps, as a private citizen, he intends to march into the Kingsnorth power plant and demand that it shuts down, but he can expect to be bludgeoned by the police if he does, just like the rest of us.
The government’s announcement, in other words, is cynical and meaningless. It cannot enforce the decision it has just made, and it knows that no one else will. If coal plants go ahead on the condition that their emissions will one day be abated through CCS, the emissions will be a certainty. The abatement will not.