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Dark clouds gather over coal’s future

By David Spratt - posted Friday, 11 September 2009

There's an irony in the rushed construction of a new security fence around the Hazelwood power station, in anticipation of a community protest planned for next weekend.

The government, it seems, is more interested in protecting Hazelwood power station from protestors than protecting our future climate from Hazelwood.

Victoria has been shamed as the least climate-friendly state, running three of Australia's four dirtiest power stations. And Hazelwood is one of the dirtiest in the developed world, originally scheduled to close this year but in 2005 given a lifeline by the State Government to 2031.


The timing is significant, because it reflects the core climate policy stance of the major parties: hang-on with dirty coal till 2030-35 and pray that by then carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will work. For now, pour money into CCS research and stall on serious emission-reduction strategies.

This is reflected in the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Treasury modelling for the defeated legislation assumes than Australia's actual emissions don't drop below the 1990 baseline till 2035, when it hopes CCS will be commercially viable. The "drop" in emissions in the meanwhile is engineered by buying carbon credits at the cheapest price, presumably from Papua New Guinea and Indonesian forest offset schemes which are already showing signs of being scams in the making.

Another indication of the punt on coal is the federal government’s expansion of Australia’s coal export capacity. The two infrastructure projects announced in 2008 will result in destination nation emissions 17 per cent greater than Australia’s total emissions.

If you are going to bet your house on a horse, you would be very foolish not to be assured that it is going to hit the winning post first. But already CCS, badged as "clean coal" technology, is stumbling.

It won't be ready in time. Recent analysis from a team at the Potsdam Institute in Germany, whose work was influential in the emissions reduction work published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is startling.

Assuming a global warming target of 2C - now far too high according to IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri - they find that the carbon budget from 2000 to 2050 has already been one-third consumed. If global emissions can be cut 2 per cent a year in Copenhagen, which is highly unlikely, the carbon budget to 2050 will run out by 2030. If emissions keep growing at the present rate, the carbon emissions budget for the 2C target will run out in 2021!


Coal's technological fix will simply be too late.

A second assumption is that, once available, CCS technology will be able to capture all emissions for all existing power stations or that new power stations will be built to use the technology. The increasingly grim observations of global warming demand that we move to a zero-emissions energy system, and no one is promising that CCS will deliver such an outcome.

Recently the UK government admitted that proposals to require existing plants to fit CCS technology would force their closure on cost grounds. Retrofitting current generators isn't worthwhile, so CCS depends on building a whole new array of coal-fired power stations if and when it works, at which point our carbon budget will already be in planet-threatening deficit. Waiting to see if that is technologically viable at scale, let alone cost competitive in two decades time, defies the principles of sensible risk management.

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First published in The Age on September 10, 2009.

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About the Author

David Spratt is the co-author of Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action published by Scribe in July 2008, and shortlisted for the 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. He is a researcher for CarbonEquity, an activist network advocating carbon rationing and personal carbon allowances as a fair and effective response to global warming. Recent CarbonEquity reports include Avoiding catastrophe: recent science and new data on global warming and The two degree target: how far should carbon emissions be cut?.

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