Sunday, 26 April 2009

Catch Me If You Can

Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear.

The Government want to build new coal plants. They're justifying this by saying that they're also going to build four "carbon capture demonstration units" that will be tagged onto the new power stations, try to catch some of the emissions from them, and squirrel the nasty carbon away underground for ever and ever. This somehow makes the whole plan wonderful for the climate and a big victory for green campaigners.

This is, of course, complete and utter bilge.

The mainstream media seem to have fallen for it hook, line and sinker, with this fawning piece in the Guardian being a typical example (it didn't help that Greenpeace gave a "cautious welcome" to the ludicrous plans). With some honourable exceptions (like the Omnibot), journalists have been cheerfully parroting the Government's "clean coal" nonsense without spotting some very obvious logical chasms:

1) The Government are suggesting that researching carbon capture requires the building of new coal power stations. This is like saying: "We need to beat this malaria epidemic by developing new ways of catching mosquitos, so let's build some huge mosquito farms and release millions of them into the air, so we've got more of them to practice on". Have the Government forgotten about the 70-odd fossil fueled power stations that already exist in the UK? Perhaps we should try shutting some of them down and see if they notice (oh, wait, I shouldn't write that, I might be arrested for thoughtcrime).

2) The proposed demonstration units would only capture, at most, 25% of the emissions of these super bonus coal power stations. That will still leave them significantly more polluting than gas power stations, let alone the wind, tidal, wave, solar, or stop-using-so-much-pointless-bloody-energy-to-make-useless-crap options. So these whizzy new "clean" power plants would actually be dirtier than power plants we were building last century. Woo hoo.

3) The Government have no plans to scale up the technology for 15 years - which is hardly surprising, as even the coal industry have admitted that it'll take at least that long to find out if carbon capture can work on a large scale. Meanwhile, global emissions need to peak in 2015 (6 years away) and then start to fall if we have any chance of avoiding global disaster. Large-scale carbon capture will arrive far, far too late to help with that. The only technologies that can help us to avoid climate catastrophe are the ones that already exist.

4) All of the above assumes that carbon capture will ever work at all. We still don't have any sure-fire method for the long-term storage of nuclear waste - and that only needs to be kept safe for tens of thousands of years. Carbon dioxide would need to stay underground forever - or at least for as long as the human race exists, a time span that would be considerably reduced if there was ever any major leakage from a carbon store...

Putting our faith in carbon capture is a bit like being in a car speeding towards a cliff. Rather than changing direction, we're desperately trying to develop "magic flying car technology" before we reach the edge.

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