British scientists have called on the government to deploy speedily a new technology which will almost completely eliminate carbon emissions from power stations. In a letter published in The Observer today, they say failure to capture emissions from dirty coal plants planned for Britain will have catastrophic environmental consequences.
In addition, the group - which includes scientists from Imperial College London and Cambridge, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Bristol and Nottingham universities - warns that, unless Britain acts with urgency, it risks losing a world lead in carbon capture technology to other nations, including Canada, Germany and the US.
The scientists accuse the government of not living up to its promises that it was considering schemes as a matter of urgency and reveal they are concerned that proposals to build new coal plants without carbon capture facilities would cripple Britain's efforts at cutting its carbon emissions. This last warning follows in the wake of the Commons environment audit committee decision last week to urge that all coal-fired plants be fitted with carbon capture facilities.
The furore over carbon capture reveals how coal power has become a key new target of UK environmentalists. Next Sunday, thousands will descend on Kingsnorth coal plant in Kent and try to shut it down. Eon, the German energy giant, wants to build a new coal plant there while other energy companies have also revealed UK coal plant plans.
This idea horrifies many scientsists, MPs and campaigners who say these plans could spark a coal renaissance at a time when the government should be striving to reduce carbon emissions.
They say a new coal station should only be given approval if it is linked to a carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility which would store its emissions underground. At present, there are no CCS plans for Kingsnorth. Its new plant would vent its carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The Conservative party wants a moratorium on building any new coal plants until carbon capture technology is proven. But, in an interview with The Observer, Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks dismissed the idea as 'stupid', arguing that it would lead to more gas plants being built instead and a greater reliance on Russian gas imports. 'It seems attractive, but after a few moments' thought it's stupid.'
At Kingsnorth, protesters will set up a week-long 'climate camp' outside the site of the proposed plant outside Rochester and planning ways to infiltrate it by digging under fences, or even dropping in by air. One group, dubbing themselves the Great Rebel Raft Regatta, is planning to enter the site, which overlooks the River Medway, using 'pirate ships', Viking boats and other themed rafts.
Eon is so concerned about the protest that it has obtained injunctions to give police more powers to arrest protesters. When coal plants have been targeted in the past, protesters have chained themselves to chimneys and conveyor belts.
A spokesman for the Climate Camp told The Observer: 'We are quite open in our ambition to shut down Kingsnorth. People will go into the site with their own agenda. What they get up to there is up to them.' He added that protesters planned a 'rolling programme' of action to target Kingsnorth and other coal plants after the 'climate camp' had ended.
There was an eerie calm when The Observer visited the Kingsnorth site ahead of the protest. Gallows humour was the order of the day among nervous staff. 'Are you Swampy?' joked an operator in the control room of the Kingsnorth coal power station, when our photographer appeared. After his picture was taken, a colleague standing next to him said with a grin: 'Too late - you're going on a hit list now.'
Adjoining the existing plant, the site of the proposed new plant is just a muddy field dotted with hawthorn bushes and a gate hanging from its hinges. Workmen are inserting pipes into the ground to take soil samples.
Kingsnorth has been targeted by campaigners in the past, but never on this scale. An Eon spokesman said: 'We breathed a sigh of relief when no one from Greenpeace came on 1 April. We had them in October and we don't want them back.' Fellow generating companies, under the auspices of the trade body, the Association of Electricity Producers (AEP), have been meeting to discuss how to tackle the threat.
The scientists writing in The Observer are not opposed in principle to new coal plants like Kingsnorth. But they want the government to act on its promises to be the 'global leader' in developing the as yet unproven carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. This technology, if it works, could reduce emissions from coal plants by up to 90 per cent by storing the gases underground. More than five years after promising an 'urgent detailed implementation plan' for carbon capture, the government intends to help fund one small-scale project which should be operational by 2014. Companies taking part in the competition to build this demonstration plant are not even sure how much money they will receive.
As the scientists' letter shows, there is a much wider ranger of people questioning the construction of new coal plants than the 'Swampy' stereotype of protesters portrayed in the media. Some 228 MPs have signed an early-day motion calling on the government to hold a public inquiry before deciding whether to consent to the Kingsnorth plant. This month actor Robert Redford wrote to the Climate Camp organisers in support of their campaign. Support has come from even more unlikely quarters. Aqqaluk Lynge, who lives in Greenland and is a former president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), has already campaigned against expansion of Stansted airport and argued that plants like Kingsnorth should not be built unless they can be fitted with CCS.
'People in England should take into account what you are doing down there and how industry is affecting the rest of the environment up north, especially the Greenland ice cap. I'm not in favour of doing new coal before we get the proven technology to avoid the problem we have today. The UK is rich enough to develop other technologies which are more environmentally friendly. They are the first ones to create the pollution - and should be the first ones to find solutions for our energy needs.'
As Britain's oldest and least efficient coal stations close and nuclear reactors are decommissioned, experts are warning that around a third of existing power-generating capacity will have to be replaced within a decade. Coal plants are relatively cheap to run and easy to supply. The government has agreed to European targets which could require at least one third of the UK's electricity to come from renewable sources, such as giant wind farms, by 2020.
But Eon's head of generation, Bob Taylor, says such a heavy reliance on renewables may not be practical: 'Some people may say we should let coal plants close. That is an extreme position.' Eon has labelled the proposed plant as 'clean coal'. The company has entered the government's competition to build a carbon capture and storage demonstration plant, proposing to test the CCS technology on one of the new Kingsnorth units.
But there are many uncertainties. Even if Eon wins the competition, there is no guarantee that the technology will work, will be affordable or that the company will use it in the rest of the new plant.
Asked why Eon did not delay its application to build Kingsnorth until CCS had been properly tested, Andy Read, the company's clean coal business development manager, said that the technology needed to be tested on a modern coal plant such as the one that is proposed for Kingsnorth. 'It's chicken or egg,' he said. 'If you held up the whole building of Kingsnorth, you would delay CCS.' But Taylor admitted that Eon would not close down the Kingsnorth plant once it was built, should the CCS technology not work.
Energy minister Wicks also pointed out that in future emissions trading should make coal plants without carbon capture technology too expensive to operate. This is because Europe's emissions trading scheme (ETS) effectively taxes heavy polluters: the more they pollute, the more they must pay.
But as Matthew Lockwood, of the think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), pointed out, this assumes that the ETS, which has an uncertain future, will be tough on heavy polluters. He warned: 'The danger is that, if companies go ahead and build coal plants before CCS is proven, companies will intensify their lobbying to relax the ETS after 2012.'
Many analysts and campaigners expect that the government may decide to approve the Kingsnorth plant later this year. Greenpeace has talked of CCS and 'clean coal' being used by companies as a 'Trojan horse' to push through the construction of dirty new coal plants. Once the plants have been built, they claim, they will continue to be operated, regardless of whether the technology is shown to work.
© 2008 The Guardian