Leading article: Coal is the past, not the future

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Hard on the heels of the Bali conference comes a new warning from one of the world's leading authorities on climate change, and it is addressed directly to this country. James Hansen, director of the Nasa Goddard institute for Space Studies in New York, says in a letter to the Prime Minister that plans to build new coal-fired power stations will confound all his good intentions to cut carbon emissions.

Dr Hansen's warning is two-fold. First, he says, coal-fired power stations produce much more CO2 than oil-fired ones. Any increase in the proportion of coal-fired relative to oil-fired as the Government is considering would produce an escalation in carbon emissions. Instead, all existing coal-fired stations should be dismantled before the middle of the century.

Second, he argues that any plans by an industrialised country to build more coal-fired power stations would send precisely the wrong message to the giant emerging economies of India and China. Rather than wait until they renounce coal, we as a rich country should be setting an example. To those who see a solution in the development of so-called "clean coal", Dr Hansen responds that the technology is still decades away.

In the final hours of the Bali conference, we witnessed the enormous clout that a united European Union and the emerging economies are capable of wielding when they act in concert. It would be the height of irresponsibility if we allowed our national reliance on an outdated fossil fuel to frustrate those collective good intentions. For, as Dr Hansen sees it, without phasing out coal, we have "no viable strategy for stabilising climate".

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