Rudd's 'clean coal': a folly of the highest order

There they all were at the recent G8/G20 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, nodding their approval as Kevin Rudd once again announced his global carbon capture and storage institute. But in truth, the L'Aquila photo-op only highlighted the chasm between the emission cuts demanded by the climate science and the steps political leaders are willing to take.

We're all tempted to grasp at straws and, as straws go, "clean coal" is a doozy. After all, which world leader wouldn't seize on a promise to tackle global warming and save the coal industry at the same time?

So reluctant have governments been to restructure their economies to cut greenhouse gas emissions that we've reached a point where the future of the world now rests on the widespread and rapid deployment of a technology that's still on the drawing board.

In the words of the Economist, "the idea that clean coal ... will save the world from global warming has become something of an article of faith among policymakers".

So can "clean coal" – what the industry calls carbon capture and storage (CCS) – save us? Despite its relentless hyping, the private sector is reluctant to invest much in a technology that is fearsomely expensive and unproven.

There are no coal-fired power plants capturing their carbon today, only a handful of demonstration projects, and a lot of research, mainly publicly funded.

In Australia, the rich nation with the most to lose economically from ending coal, industry funding for CCS research is one tenth of 1% of its revenue, compared to woolgrowers who allocate 2% of sales to fund innovation.

A few basic facts reveal "clean coal" to be a grand delusion kept alive by politicians. While climate scientists say we must radically reduce emissions in rich countries inside a decade, the best estimates for clean coal indicate it will not be ready for widespread adoption for two decades or more.

Rudd's carbon institute won the backing of 22 developed and developing countries at the world summit in Italy.

So based on the best-case scenarios when it comes to the full implementation of this technology, let's look at what these leaders are applauding:

• Independent analysis suggests that full-scale commercial implementation of CCS will not occur until 2030.

• In Australia, economic modelling by the Treasury assumes that CCS technology will not begin reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants until 2026 at the earliest and more likely 2033.

• The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that by 2030 the world will need more than 200 power plants fully equipped with CCS if warming is to be limited to 3°C. Yes, three degrees! That's into runaway climate change territory.

• The scale of the proposed carbon capture enterprise is vast. By 2050 some 6000 underground carbon dioxide repositories, each receiving a million tones of CO2 a year, will need to be in operation to account for just 20% of the necessary emission cuts.

• Energy expert Vaclav Smil has calculated that in order to capture just a quarter of the emissions from the worlds coal-fired power plants we would need a system of pipelines that would transport a volume of fluid twice the size of the global crude-oil industry.

• The processes of capture, compression, transport and injection of carbon dioxide are energy-intensive. So to generate the same amount of electricity a power plant would need to be around a third bigger and use a third more coal. So if it were adopted, CCS would not only lock in the coal economy but also require its expansion.

Each year around the world 100 new, large-scale, coal-fired power plants are built, a trend not expected to change. Governments, industry and the Stern and Garnaut reports accept this as an unchangeable fact, a fait accompli.

Yet to give free rein to the construction of new coal-fired power plants in the hope that their emissions will eventually be neutralised in perpetuity by successful development of a highly speculative technology is folly of the highest order.

This is recognised by President Obama's energy secretary Steven Chu. After referring to coal as "my worst nightmare" he had to toe the party line on the myth of "clean coal". There is no sign of reality breaking through in the Rudd government, which clings to the myth for dear life.

The most damning assessment of the prospects for CCS is provided by a March 5 article in the Economist, the world's most hard-headed and respected business magazine: "CCS is not just a potential waste of money. It might also create a false sense of security about climate change, while depriving potentially cheaper methods of cutting emissions of cash and attention — all for the sake of placating the coal lobby."

If the coal industry, through its own research and development efforts, could develop and apply a technology that proved safe, effective, competitive and ready for widespread adoption in a carbon-constrained world, few would have any objection to it.

But the coal industry knows that by the time it got to that point – 2025 at the earliest – other, much safer forms of energy will be available at a cheaper cost. It's unwilling to make its way in a free market and governments around the world have decided to tilt the playing field in a bid to turn the cause of the problem into its solution.

[This article first appeared on Crikey.com.]