The decision Gordon Brown makes on whether to proceed with Britain's first new coal power station in two decades will make or break his environmental reputation. It will either confirm the Prime Minister's claims to be a leader in the struggle against climate change, or expose him as an imposter.
The owner of the Kingsnorth power station in Kent, E.on UK, wants to replace the existing plant with two new coal units by 2012. According to the company's chief executive, these units will be more efficient than the existing plant and also more environmentally friendly because they will be ready to "bolt on" carbon capture technology (if it becomes available). Medway Council have voted in favour, but it is the Government which will make the final decision about whether the 1bn project should be allowed to go ahead. And that, ultimately, means Mr Brown must decide.
The answer should be obvious. Coal is the most polluting of all the fossil fuels. The new Kingsnorth plant alone would emit 8.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. A nationwide return to coal would shatter any hopes that Britain harbours of meeting its long-term emission-cutting targets. While the potential of carbon capture technology should not be dismissed out of hand, E.on's environmental arguments are transparently self-serving. It is no stretch for a new power station at Kingsnorth to be cleaner than the existing one, which is so dirty that it is due to be decommissioned under a European Union environmental directive.
Yet the Government seems to be doing little to disrupt the coal-fired ambitions of the power companies. Almost a dozen new coal power stations are currently in planning in the UK. And in last year's energy White Paper, the Government even promised to "secure the future of coal-fired power generation".
It is, of course, no surprise that coal is enjoying a resurgence. With the price of oil pushing past $100 a barrel, North Sea supplies running down and questions over the reliability of the supply of natural gas from Russia, ministers and power companies are casting around for new sources of energy. Npower's announcement yesterday that it is raising electricity prices is the latest symptom of this strain. But allowing a new generation of coal-fired power stations in the UK to be built would be an environmental crime.
Dangerous and polluting nuclear energy is plainly not the answer to the energy gap either. What is required is a massive boost to renewables. The announcement of the Energy Secretary John Hutton last month that Britain plans to generate 25 gigawatts of offshore wind power capacity by 2020 is encouraging. But a great deal more urgency is required if Britain is to meet the EU target it signed up to of producing 20 per cent of energy from such sources by 2020. At present we have one of the lowest shares of renewable energy on the Continent.
The Government is also neglecting the energy conservation and micro-generation front. Mr Brown has promised new environmental regulations for new housing. But much more is needed to encourage conservation in the existing housing stock. Why have government grants for the installation of domestic renewable energy systems been cut? Why is there no right for households to sell domestically-generated power back to the grid, as exists in numerous other countries? This is not the excusable behaviour of a government caught on the horns of a difficult energy dilemma; it is sheer negligence.
It is time for Mr Brown to focus on putting the Government's confused energy and environmental policies in order. And he must start by rejecting the new Kingsnorth coal power station.