Johann Hari: The last thing we need is coal-fired power

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In the next month, a decision will land on Gordon Brown's desk that will tell us how seriously he takes the greatest crisis facing us all – the drastic destabilisation of our planet's climate. The harbingers are dark. He has already personally championed the growth of the greenhouse gas factory known as Heathrow Airport, and appointed the airline lobbyist Digby Jones to the Government to further its case.

He has already encouraged more road-building, which every study shows will mean more car journeys and more emissions. But this decision – if he gives the nod – will definitively guarantee that Britain cannot meet its long-term targets to prevent global warming spiralling beyond the point of no return.

The energy company E.on has applied to build Britain's first new coal-powered fire station in 33 years. The decision is currently sitting with the Tory-dominated local council in Kent, but it will shortly be bumped up to the Department for Business and Regulatory Affairs in Whitehall. Like a piping hot piece of coal, it will be quickly handed on with a nervous wince to Number 10 Downing Street.

Behind this application, there are at least three others in the pipeline, waiting nervously to see what Brown decides.

Coal is the one of the dirtiest technologies known to man. If the E.on plan goes ahead, the emissions from this one plant alone will be greater than the those of the 24 least-polluting countries combined. It produces 80 per cent more climate-destabilising gases than natural gas, and 30 per cent more than even burning up oil.

So why its British come-back tour now? Our energy supplies are looking more precarious than ever, with chaos in the oil-rich Middle East, an ever-more-assertive Russia controlling the gas taps, and dwindling supplies in the North Sea. Any British government needs to put in place ways to keep the lights on – and there is Ol' King Coal, blowing black kisses and promising cheap and bountiful supplies.

The coal industry is busily trying to paint their lumps of coal green to make them more palatable to the public. They have created the concept of "clean coal", and at first it sounds enticing. By using filters, coal companies can trap some of the worst waste products – like sulphur dioxide, which causes acid rain – before they leave the smokestacks, and then dump it in landfill or use it for other purposes. And as for the greenhouse gases? Using a process called carbon sequestration, they too can be captured from the atmosphere, pumped to the bottom of the oceans, and stored there forever.

If this could be made to work, it would be great – but the evidence suggests it is a fairytale. Far from safely disposing of the toxins, the pilot project run by the US Department of the Environment in Indiana ended up pumping out cyanide and arsenic in the plant's waste water at illegally dangerous levels. This was described as a "routine" occurrence in the government study.

The global warming effect behind "clean coal", however, turns out to be even worse. Any carbon dioxide that was captured would have to be safely stored not just for decades, not just for centuries, but for millennia – with technology that hasn't be proven to work for even a few years. It was promised in the 1950s that nuclear waste would be stored away "forever", but today, barely a generation later, there have been numerous leaks and accidents.

Once this "stored" carbon dioxide leaks out, it will have the same effect on the environment as if it had just been released from a power plant – and the risk of a CO2 leak is even greater than of nuclear material. CO2 is heavier than air, so it causes suffocation when it rises to the surface. In 1986, a volcanic crater beleched out a large amount of CO2 in Lake Nyos, West Africa. Some 1,700 people choked to death. "Clean" coal is still black at its heart.

For all these ineffective attempts to scrub coal clean, we will end up paying a fortune – stripping away coal's one advantage, its initial cheapness. The demonstration "clean" coal power station built in Minnesota was supposed to cost $800m dollars. Today its price has risen to $2.155bn, and that doesn't even include the bill for the supposed carbon capture, transportation or storage.

The Bush administration has thrown $1.8bn in subsidies at "clean" coal. Of the 13 projects authorised, eight had severe delays or financial problems, six were behind schedule by two to seven years, and two had gone bust and had to be ditched altogether. Even Bush's Department of the Environment – which has censored scientific reports on global warming – admits that geological sequestration "is not a reasonable option because the technology is not sufficiently mature to be implemented at production scale" and it won't be "technically practicable" for at least 15 years.

"Clean" coal is a huge medium-term investment that won't work – so why not go for a huge medium-term investment that will? Britain could lead the world in a new zero-carbon technology: tidal power. Britain has a long coastline, close to the strong currents of the Atlantic. We have the scientists and entrepreneurs itching to go.

This summer, a brilliant Bristol-based company called Marine Current Turbines began constructing twin underwater turbines off the coast of Northern Ireland. It is the world's largest tidal power project, and a vivid demonstration that it can be done. It traps an incoming high tide, passes the water through turbines to generate electricity, then lets it wash out to sea at low tide. Unlike other renewables like wind power, it generates electricity 24/7.

The Carbon Trust's 18-month scientific study discovered that tidal power could meet 20 per cent of Britain's energy needs within a few decades, with no greenhouse gas emissions at all. It would be a model for the world – and put us in a far better position to coax and persuade others to cut their emissions.

But so far the Government has allocated £50m to develop marine energy, spread out over seven years. In government spending terms, this is the equivalent of giving them a pack of crisps and a can of Cherry Coke.

By contrast, the environmentally disastrous airline industry receives £10bn a year in de facto subsidies and tax breaks.

We should be having a sea-change to sea-power, the cleanest of all sources – but instead we may be about to sag back to the dirtiest. So far environmentalists have been disappointed with Brown. If he approves coal-powered stations, they will be disgusted. His only green promise so far is to build a few eco-towns.

If he makes the worst choice this month, they will look increasingly like a Potemkin village, designed to disguise the kerosene from a growing Heathrow and the black smudge of coal.