Coal makes a dirty comeback

How can we keep the lights on in an era of mounting concern about global warming?

A few months ago I made the prediction that, thanks to the high level of concern about climate change, no new coal-fired power stations could ever be built in this country. I was wrong. Not only are new coal plants in the planning stages, but CO2 emissions are rising again right across the power generation sector, thanks to a switch back from gas to coal. Most worrying of all, coal still seems to get a much easier ride than other, more greenhouse-friendly technologies, which are increasingly being stymied by opposition groups.

Take the following Reuters report, from this month. "A political storm is looming over one of Britain's first wave power projects," it relates, "which surfers fear will drain energy from the waves they ride along the Atlantic coast." The controversy centres on the Wave Hub, a sort of socket-on-the-seabed, which prototype wave-generation machines will be able to plug into to feed power into the grid. The hub is proposed just ten miles offshore from St Ives in Cornwall; the various devices using it will seek to harvest energy from the same Atlantic swells that bring thousands of surfers each year to the beaches and breaks - hence the opposition.

One surfer posting to the Britsurf bulletin board warns against a "wave shadow" from the project and the eventual creation of a "barrage of energy removal installations all down the coast". He continues: "Come on surfers - wake up. It's your surf they are trying to steal . . . Energy generation from waves is just not on, on any scale." Sound familiar? Here's what one campaigner said about the now-cancelled Whinash windfarm, which would have provided green electricity to 110,000 homes: "We should not be placing an experimental form of electricity production in some of our finest landscapes." More wind projects are cancelled due to campaigns by local objectors than ever get approved.

So if we can't generate renewable power on either land or sea thanks to the efforts of the objectors, how are we going to keep the lights on in an era of mounting concern about global warming? Alas, this question has no easy answer, and in the meantime the electricity generating sector is increasingly turning back to the dirtiest fuel of all: coal. According to the environmental group WWF, emissions from UK power stations have risen by nearly a third in the past eight years, calling the government's entire climate-change strategy into question. All the gains from the "dash for gas" have now been wiped out by the slide back towards coal.

At the end of last year, E.ON UK announced plans to build two new coal-fired units at its plant in Kingsnorth. I often hear complaints about how China is constructing too many coal-fired power stations, but how can we object to Chinese emissions when the same process is going on in Kent? While E.ON insists that the new units will be more efficient, the reality is that they will lock in high UK emissions for decades to come, at just the time when there should be a blanket ban on coal construction. E.ON also suggests, rather weakly, that the new plants "could eventually be fitted with carbon capture kit" for burying CO2 underground, despite this being an unproven technology that has not yet been adopted anywhere in the world.

Although the power sector does come under the umbrella of the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme, the record so far is not good: timid European governments last year handed out more pollution permits than their industries actually ended up using, knocking the bottom out of the emerging carbon market and delivering windfall profits to the biggest polluters on the continent.

Meanwhile, on 6 April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change produced the second of its major reports, this time on the impacts of global warming - including a predicted mass extinction of species and four-fifths disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers. Some scientists remain stubbornly optimistic, however, insisting that the worst-case scenarios will not materialise. Says Harvard University's James McCarthy: "The worst stuff is not going to happen because we can't be that stupid." Can't we?

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 16 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran