It was probably the most important letter the Prime Minister has received in his time at Number 10. The world’s most eminent climate scientist, a director of NASA and one of the first in the world to warn of global warming, took the unprecedented step of writing to Gordon Brown to tell him his energy policy could be a ‘tipping point for the world’.
Jim Hansen wrote: ‘Your leadership is needed on a matter concerning coal-fired power plants in your country, a matter with ramifications for life on our planet, including all species. Prospects for today’s children, and especially the world’s poor, hinge upon our success in stabilizing the climate.’
His letter to Downing Street also says: ‘You have the potential to influence the future of the planet… If we continue to build coal-fired power plants without carbon capture, we will lock in future climate disasters associated with passing climate tipping points.’
Despite pleas from scientists, the Government is considering approving a whole new generation of unabated coal-fired power stations, beginning with Kingsnorth in Kent. A green light could become the defining climate decision of Brown’s premiership – signalling he is going to surrender the UK’s commitment to 60-80 per cent cuts in emissions by 2050.
The Kingsnorth application sitting on the Prime Minister’s desk asks for permission to build a dinosaur power station so inefficient it will waste almost half the energy it creates. If approved, it will burn the dirtiest fuel available and pollute more each year than 30 entire countries – eight million tonnes of CO². Seven other plants are also in the pipeline in Scotland, Yorkshire, Northumberland and Essex. New British open-cast coal mines are also planned, including the biggest ever at Ffos-y-Fran near Cardiff, which will strip 1,000 acres of biodiverse habitat.
Despite greenwash from the coal industry suggesting the new plants could be ‘cleaner’ with so-called ‘carbon capture technology’ (CCS), this technology is, to quote Chancellor Alistair Darling, ‘still in the foothills’ and ‘may never work’. In fact, there is no commercially operating ‘CCS’ plant anywhere in the world and even on the industry’s own best projections, coal plants could not operate commercially with this equipment until 2020. The UN’s top scientists suggest it could be decades away.
Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks sits on the board of the ‘UK Coal Forum’, which was established to ‘secure the long-term contribution of coal-fired power generation’, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that, when asked on BBC Newsnight if he’d block plans for coal plants that did not have CCS, he answered, ‘We won’t say no, but in the long term we want them to have carbon capture and storage.’
Real climate-friendly solutions for energy security exist. In Denmark, power stations like the one at Avedore run at 94 per cent efficiency using state-of-the-art combined-heat-and-power (CHP) with renewables. In Germany, the government has created 250,000 green-collar jobs in six years, with 300 times more solar and 10 times more wind than the UK. If we had achieved the same level of development then today we would get 18 per cent of our electricity from renewables (as much as we get from all our nuclear power stations combined) and seven per cent of our heat as well. Instead, Britain lingers at the bottom of the European league table for renewable energy – just ahead of Malta. That’s where we’ll stay until coal is over.
Joss Garman is an environmental campaigner and journalist
This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2008