UK admonished by US scientists over new coal plans

Kingsnorth Power Station (photo © 2008 Francis Sedgemore)

British government plans to build new coal-fired power stations have been roundly damned by domestic environmentalists, most recently at the climate camp near Kingsnorth in Kent. They have also been subject to stinging criticism from voices across the developing world who berate the UK for calling on poor nations to cut atmospheric carbon emissions while continuing as normal itself.

Given that American scientists and environmental experts have now joined the chorus of critics, the government’s plans are looking very wobbly indeed. Representatives of the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote last month to David Miliband, and warned the foreign secretary that the proposal for up to eight new coal-fired plants threatens the chances of the US joining a post-Kyoto carbon emissions regime.

As they stand, the plans for new power stations at Kingsnorth and elsewhere do not stipulate so-called “clean coal” technologies. And the reason is that the carbon-sequestration technologies concerned are far from ready, and may never be viable.

From the US scientists’ letter:

“As proposed, these conventional coal plants lack any limits on their emissions of carbon dioxide and would drastically increase the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions and make achievement of your stated pollution reduction goals extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible. Building new conventional plants and setting the UK up to fail and lose its leadership mantle will make our work in the US all the more difficult.”

This is stern stuff, and the response from energy minister Malcolm Wicks shows that the government is rattled by this and other criticism of the new coal plans:

“E.ON have proposed that the decision taking on Kingsnorth be deferred until completion of the Government’s planned consultation on ‘carbon capture readiness’. Deferring it would also mean that we would defer any decision on a public inquiry.”

My interpretation of Wicks’s response is that the government knows it made a mistake in publicly committing to new coal. It is therefore looking for way to shelve the ill-considered plans and save any further embarrassment.

More here from the Observer’s environment editor Julie Jowit.