Britain's carbon strategy 'up in smoke'

A A A

Britain's plans to build new coal-fired power stations as part of the country's efforts to address its looming energy crisis will completely undermine the Bali agreement on climate change and discredit Gordon Brown's commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, according to one of the world's leading climate scientists.

The warning will be made directly to the Prime Minister this week in a letter from James Hansen, the director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, who will urge Mr Brown to block plans to build up to eight new coal-fired power stations the first in 30 years.

Dr Hansen, one of the first scientists to warn of climate change 20 years ago, said that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel and that building new power stations that burn it without capturing waste carbon dioxide will tip the planet towards irreversible warming.

He said that coal presents the biggest challenge in the fight against climate change because governments around the world appear to be dead set on using it as a cheap and easy source of energy without thinking about the long-term consequences.

In an interview with The Independent, Dr Hansen said Britain has a special responsibility to lead the world in banning new coal-fired power stations and dismantling those already in operation because of the country's long history of burning the fuel.

He claims that Britain, followed by the United States and Germany, has the highest per capita responsibility for climate change based on the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide since the start of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago.

Dr Hansen warned that if Britain, Germany and the United States go ahead with their plans to build new coal-fired power stations it will undercut attempts to convince India and China to build cleaner, more expensive power plants that capture carbon dioxide emissions.

But the technology of capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide from power stations chimneys where the waste gas is caught and then buried underground for thousands of years is still decades away, Dr Hansen warned. Until it had been shown to work there is could be no justification for burning coal because of its potential contribution to global carbon dioxide levels.

Gordon Brown, who supported the Bali agreement last week, needs to understand that his entire strategy on climate change will unravel if he ignores coal, Dr Hansen said. "If he doesn't understand this, then he doesn't yet get it," he said.

In his letter to the Prime Minister, Dr Hansen says that the energy departments of governments take it as a "God-given fact" that they can sanction the mining of all fossil fuels from the ground before moving on to other sources of energy.

If that is done for existing coal deposits, we would end up creating a different planet to the one that has nurtured the development of human civilisation over the past 10,000 years with a relatively stable climate, he added.

"Frankly, it's difficult to exaggerate the importance of phasing out coal use except where the CO2 is captured and sequestered because there is no viable strategy for stabilising climate without doing that," Dr Hansen said.

"There is much more CO2 in coal than there is in oil, and oil is going to run out. There is enough CO2 in coal to take us far beyond the dangerous level to produce a different planet," he said.

The Prime Minister is considering a call from his own advisers to build up to eight new coal-fired power plants over the coming decade. "The strange thing is that in the countries that talk the greenest, like Germany and Britain, the policymakers just don't yet get it. In Germany, they are replacing nuclear power plants with coal-fired plants that don't capture and sequester CO2. That's a recipe for disaster," Dr Hansen said.

"It makes sense not to build new coal-fired power plants and it also makes sense to bulldoze those that we have already within the next few decades. That's when the science will tell us that we are close to the range of dangerous climate change," he said.

Dr Hansen said that it is wrong to say that a few more coal-fired power stations in Britain, Europe or the United States will not matter when China and India are planning to build hundreds of similar power plants over the next 10 or 20 years.

"We're responsible for most of what's up there already [in terms of atmospheric carbon dioxide] and China and India have every reason to expect us to take the first step. Unless we put a moratorium on our own coal-fired power plants we have no hope to sitting down at the same table as China and India. So I think this is the most important issue.

"[There is] a critical need to shut down coal-fired power plants until we have the technology to capture and sequester the CO2," Dr Hansen added.

A recent study by Dr Hansen and his colleagues suggests that it is possible to keep levels of carbon dioxide which currently have reached about 383 parts per million (ppm) from rising above a "dangerous" 450ppm if there is a moratorium on building new coal-fired power stations and if existing plants are phased out by mid-century. "We argue that a rising price on carbon emissions is needed to discourage conversion of the vast fossil reserves into usable reserves, and to keep CO2 beneath the 450ppm ceiling," he said.

"We show that it is feasible to keep atmospheric CO2 from exceeding about 450ppm by 2100, provided that emissions from coal and unconventional fossil fuels are constrained. Coal-fired power plants without sequestration must be phased out before mid-century to achieve this CO2 limit."

In his letter to the Prime Minister, Dr Hansen warns that we have passed, or are on the verge of passing, several tipping points, when large-scale changes of the climate are inevitable. But if the world abandons coal burning, there is still a chance.

"If we stopped adding CO2 to the atmosphere today we'd still get large climate impacts but we've not yet passed the point of no return," he said.

Extracts of James Hansen's draft letter to Gordon Brown

"You have the potential to influence the future of the planet ... If we continue to build coal-fired power plants without carbon capture, we will lock in future climate disasters associated with passing climate tipping points."

"If Great Britain and Germany halted construction of coal-fired power plants that do not capture and sequester the CO2, it could be a tipping point for the world. There is still time to find that tipping point, but just barely."

"Coal and unconventional fossil fuels such as tar shale contain enough carbon to produce a vastly different planet than the one on which civilisation developed ..."

Have Your Say

Should Mr Brown's strategy be welcomed? Or should we rely more on renewable energy sources? Tell us what you think. Email haveyoursay@independent.co.uk or go to www.independent.co.uk/haveyoursay.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz