Leading article: Time to come clean on coal

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It is little wonder that ministers are so attracted by the promise of "clean coal". Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology fitted to a new generation of coal-fired power stations in this country would answer three of their prayers at once.

It would bring down our national greenhouse gas emissions. Clean coal would enhance Britain's energy security, reducing our reliance on gas and oil from abroad. Finally, it would create a strong source of domestic employment. Getting the coal out of the ground would create many jobs; as would the process of safely locking up the emissions underground.

So there is certainly a case for the financial help announced in the Budget this week to develop this technology. And the statement yesterday from the Energy Secretary Ed Miliband warning that no new coal plant will be given planning approval without a commitment to incorporate CCS technology when it becomes commercially viable is welcome too.

Some environmentalists argue that coal is such an inherently "dirty" fuel that the Government should veto any new power plants that burn it, even if they are trialling CCS. But that makes the best the enemy of the good. This critique also misses the huge potential benefits for the world of exporting CCS to countries such as China which are building ever more coal power stations to meet their own energy needs.

Yet we should be under no illusions about the present state of the technology. Though CCS has been shown to work in small scale trials, it has never been tested on a large plant. There are also questions about the safety of the stored emissions. With such uncertainty, clean coal cannot be presented as an easy fix to the world's energy problems.

Furthermore, any suggestion that, even if successful, clean coal will put us on course to meet our emissions reductions targets would be misleading. Clean coal is just one, potential, piece of the low-carbon economy jigsaw. And the reality is that ministers have barely begun to grapple with the other measures that are necessary (putting a market price on carbon for example) to get us to where we so urgently need to go.