The Government must set a deadline for coal-fired power stations to install technology to massively cut their emissions or be shut down, a committee of MPs urged today.
The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) said "urgent and ambitious" steps were needed to develop measures to capture and store underground the carbon produced by burning fossil fuels. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) can cut emissions by as much as 90%, and power stations should face limits of that order to ensure it is employed.
The Government is "very unlikely" to meet its own greenhouse gas reduction targets unless it sets a deadline after which unabated emissions from power stations are outlawed, the MPs said. The EAC said CCS had the potential to contribute significantly to reducing emissions both domestically and internationally.
But even with the promise of CCS - which is not yet commercially available - coal should be seen as a last resort in the UK, the committee warned. "The possibility of CCS should not be used as a fig leaf to give unabated coal-fired power stations an appearance of environmental respectability," an EAC report on carbon capture and storage published today said. The committee said it was concerned the Government was considering a new era of coal power stations because it was the easy option, warning such an approach was extremely dangerous.
With no certainty over when the technology will be commercially available, plans to develop new coal-fired power stations will lock the country into a high-emissions future, the MPs said. The committee criticised suggestions that coal-fired power stations could be given planning permission if they were "capture ready", meaning the technology could be installed later. Such a measure would be meaningless unless the Government put a requirement on all power generators to fit CCS as soon as it was available and continued investing in the technology.
The committee also said it was "extremely disappointed" with the progress on carbon capture and storage, with the Government backing proposals for just one demonstration plant. Ministers must give the development of the technology much higher priority, they urged. The committee's chairman Tim Yeo said: "Carbon capture and storage has undoubted potential, but there is a real question about when it will become technologically and, equally importantly, commercially viable. "We cannot afford to develop new coal-fired power stations when we have no guarantee about when they will be fitted with CCS, if at all. "It is absolutely crucial for the Government to take a strong line on this. It must tell the industry that carbon capture and storage will be required and that coal-fired power stations will not be permitted to operate unabated.
"By setting a deadline for power stations to meet a certain emissions standard, the development and deployment of CCS will be given a much needed push in the right direction, and the environmental damage caused by these stations will be minimised."
The report's recommendations were welcomed by the World Development Movement, which has been campaigning against the construction of new coal-fired power stations in the UK - such as the one planned for Kingsnorth in Kent. Tim Jones, climate policy officer at WDM, said: "The Government should be closing down dirty coal power stations, not allowing new ones to be built. "And the Government certainly should not be relying on carbon capture and storage - an unproven technology - to justify new coal power stations. New coal power stations must not be allowed to go ahead without carbon capture technology. If even one new coal power station goes ahead without CCS, the UK will almost certainly miss its own carbon reduction targets."
Following the report's publication, Greenpeace executive director John Sauven said: "Gordon Brown must now show he has the courage to tackle the threats of energy security, climate change and high energy prices by introducing tough new standards for power stations that limit global warming emissions. And, in doing so, he must rule out current plans for Kingsnorth. Any rational energy policy must aim to exploit the efficiency benefits of combined heat and power or potentially in the future carbon capture and storage alongside renewables and energy efficiency."
The Royal Society urged the Government to only give the go-ahead for new coal-fired power stations on the condition that they will lose their permit to operate if the plant fails to capture 90% of its CO2 emissions by 2020. The Society's president, Martin Rees, said: "This will give a clear signal to industry and provide the conditions in which the Government and industry can work together to take a lead on developing a very valuable technology."
Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks said he was pleased the committee had recognised the steps the UK was taking towards developing clean coal technology, with the demonstration plant and a strong record on research and development. "We are committed to the development and deployment of CCS technology and we intend to be one of the first countries in the world to demonstrate the technology on a coal-fired station at a commercial scale," he said.
Mr Wicks said coal would remain a vital part of the global energy mix, and its flexibility would play a crucial role in backing up renewable energy capacity and providing a stable electricity supply. The report said the Government should not rely on the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to excuse any increase in emissions that new coal-fired power stations would create.
But Mr Wicks said: "The EU ETS caps the electricity generation industry's emissions across Europe so any new coal fired capacity would not add any thing to total carbon emissions. "The key is to get the level of the cap right. The Government support current proposals for the cap to tighten year on year from 2013 - by 2020, the cap would be 21% below 2005 emission levels."