Coal is easily the most carbon-intensive and polluting form of energy generation available. As a society, we ought to be moving in the very opposite direction for ourenergy needs, towards conservation and renewables. It is inconceivable that a government serious about cutting carbon emissions would give the go-ahead for a new generation of coal-fired power stations to be built. Yet this is precisely what the Business Secretary, John Hutton, will come perilously close to doing in a speech today. Mr Hutton isexpected to hint strongly that government approval is to be granted for a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, Kent.
The Business Secretary appears to have bought into the arguments of the electricity companies that coal can, in fact, be "clean". E.ON, which owns the existing Kingsnorth coal plant, claims that preserving the environment is at the top of its agenda. The company's lobbyists argue that the new plant will be "carbon capture ready" and 20 per cent more efficient than the existing factory. We need to be very wary of such "greenwash".
It is true that carbon capture, though presently an unproven and prohibitively expensive technology, merits investment. As is often pointed out, China is investing heavily in coal power stations. Nothing we in the developed world do is going to stop Beijing using coal overnight, so we need to encourage China to weanitself off fossil fuels gradually, and in the meantime persuade it to adopt cleaner coal-burning technologies such as carbon capture through the power of example.
Yet carbon capture is not what this lobbying over Kingsnorth is really about. It would only require a single plant to develop such technology. But the plans of E.ON and the other energy companies are much more extensive. Kingsnorth is merely the first stage in a push by the energy companies to build a new generation of coal power stations.
The question is why ministers are getting into bed with coal so unquestioningly. Mr Hutton and the Government are said to be worried about fluctuations in energy supply resulting in "the lights going out" in Britain, and regard coal as a reliable, domestically available fuel source. But this simply demonstrates how tenuously they grasp the true scale of the climate change threat. Unless we take serious action to cut emissions (and soon) we are likely to face a catastrophic breakdown in the global economy over the coming century. Fear of that, rather than the odd power cut, is what should be animating ministers. If Mr Hutton is concerned about an energy supply gap, the solution is to accelerate Britain's deployment of renewable energy schemes and conservation measures, not to rush back into the arms of the dirtiest fossil fuel of them all.
Depressingly, it is not simply over coal that ministers are backsliding from their environmental commitments. Last week, we saw a retreat from road pricing by the Transport Secretary, Ruth Kelly. And the Government seem to be gearing up to give the go-ahead to a new runway at Heathrow. Meanwhile the share of environmental levies of overall taxation is falling. Even if the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, takes action to reverse this trend in the Budget this week, it will be difficult to recover the ground that has been lost in recent years.
Of course, ministers can argue that none of these decisions alone is going to tip the planet into irreversible climate change. And they can argue that anything Britain does unilaterally will not matter a jot unless the superpowers of the US and China follow. But what they cannot do is build coal power stations, expand airports and allow the roads to fill up and then attempt to pose as leaders in the fight against climate change.