New coal: why we don’t need it

As we close old coal-fired and nuclear power stations in the next decade we will lose
capacity currently providing around a quarter of our electricity output. But Gordon Brown recently committed to targets which will require us to generate about 40% of our electricity from renewables alone by 2020, and the UK also has fairly ambitious energy efficiency targets.

According to Europe’s leading independent energy experts, Poyry, if the UK hits these existing renewables and efficiency targets, there will be no ‘energy gap.’ We can keep the lights on and cut emissions, and in the long run bring down fuel bills too – all without new coal-fired plants.

New coal is back on the energy agenda simply because it’s become relatively cheap in relation to oil and gas.

But the single greatest threat to the climate comes from burning coal. According to leading climate scientist Dr James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute, coal-fired power generation is historically responsible for most of the fossil-fuel CO2 in the air today, about half of all fossil-fuel carbon dioxide emissions globally. He says that “the only practical way to prevent CO2 levels from going far into the dangerous range,with disastrous effects for humanity and other inhabitants of the planet, is to phase out use of coal except at power plants where the CO2 is captured and sequestered.”

Equally, Sir Martin Rees, President of the prestigious Royal Society, wrote to former Business Secretary John Hutton a few months back to say that “Allowing any new coal-fired power station to go ahead without a clear strategy and incentives for the development and deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology would send the wrong message about the UK’s commitment to address climate change, both globally and to the energy sector.”

The truth is that we don’t need new coal plants to keep the lights on. Energy companies are simply interested in making big profits while coal is cheap regardless of the consequences, even though some of their bigger new coal plants will each emit 8 million tonnes of CO2 every year if built (that’s equivalent to the combined emissions of 30 developing nations, to put things in perspective) and will be disastrous for the climate.

Here in Scotland we can make a start by opposing plans to develop and extend the life of Longannet power station in Fife. At a time when we should be cutting our carbon emissions, such a decision would lock Scotland into a high-carbon economy for another generation. It’s crazy, it’s short-sighted, and it can’t be allowed to happen.

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