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Why there’s no such thing as ‘clean coal’

This article is over 14 years, 2 months old
In the final column of this series Sadie Robinson looks at why ‘carbon capture’ has no answers
Issue 2182

Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel there is. Burning coal to generate energy is responsible for around 40 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions and is the single biggest contributor to man-made carbon emissions.

In Britain, coal-fired power stations are the largest and fastest growing source of power generation emissions. Yet the government says that we can build new coal-fired power stations without damaging the planet.

It claims that carbon capture and storage technology (CCS), also known as carbon sequestration, can make coal “clean”.

But the technology is not green – and does not even exist on the scale we would need.

CCS separates the carbon in coal, captures it and stores it to stop its release into the atmosphere. There are different ways of doing this.

One is to turn the coal into a gas prior to burning it, and combine this with steam to release – and remove – the carbon.

Another is to burn coal in 95 percent pure oxygen instead of air, which produces a gas higher in carbon dioxide (over 80 percent). This gas can then be compressed and stored.

A final method is to use chemicals to absorb the carbon dioxide from the flue (chimney) gas in a power station after burning coal.

Yet there has been no application of CCS technology to a large-scale power station anywhere in the world. It does not exist on a commercial scale – there are only a few small demonstration plants.

Business is reluctant to invest in developing it because of the high costs and risk involved.

And even businesses and governments accept that it will not be operational on a commercial scale until after 2030, if at all.

We need to cut carbon emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050. Clean coal technology, even if it works, will arrive too late to combat climate change.

And even if it did work now, it would not be the most efficient or green way to produce energy.

A CCS-fitted plant would burn more coal to produce the same amount of energy as a traditional power station, as it needs a huge amount of energy to power the technology.

Once carbon is captured it needs to be transported to a storage site. The most feasible way is via large pipelines – which we don’t have. Building them would add both environmental and financial costs to CCS.

If the carbon was transported as a gas it would have to be pressurised – requiring yet more energy.

And pipelines could corrode, leaking carbon back into the atmosphere.

Finally there is storage, which would be under the ground or the sea.

Storage sites would require regular monitoring because of the risk of leakage. Constructing storage facilities would emit carbon and add costs to CCS.

Carbon capture technology is unproven, dangerous, expensive and energy-intensive. It does not make burning coal green.

As one major study by Mark Jacobson, professor of engineering at Stanford University, concluded, “Coal with carbon sequestration emits 60 to 110 times more carbon and air pollution than wind energy.”

He pointed out that CCS technology did not capture the carbon produced when mining and transporting the coal.

Some see arguments against clean coal as arguments against jobs.

But thousands of jobs could be created immediately in industries that don’t threaten the environment – such as renewable energy, investment in energy efficiency and expanding public transport.

Clean coal jobs don’t exist now – they are a possibility that may never materialise.

Coal doesn’t just harm the environment. The pollutants released from burning coal are linked to a host of health problems, including lung and heart problems, and strokes.

We should fight for more than a “choice” between dangerous jobs or no jobs at all.

The big polluters at the heart of capitalism would like ordinary people to think that saving the planet means they have to make sacrifices.

But a real fight against climate change would create thousands of jobs and benefit the poorest – who suffer the most from environmental destruction.

The people who would lose out are the bosses – so they use the propaganda of “clean coal” to divide us while they keep on polluting the planet.

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