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The emerald isle grows greener

The UK government has put clean coal and other environmental initiatives on the country's agenda, reports Derek Brower

SPRING is the time for green shoots in the UK. Still in the deep-freeze of the global recession, the government has proposed a series of initiatives to promote clean energy and avert climate change. The main announcement was a decision to put carbon capture and storage (CCS) at the centre of plans to build a new generation of coal-fired power plants. If it works, it could make the UK a world leader in clean coal. CCS, an emerging technology that could one day capture all power-plant carbon emissions, will now be mandatory for any new coal facility in the UK. The government wants four prototype plants built quickly.

There are caveats. CCS is not proved commercially, although there are small plants operating in continental Europe and in Canada. So the government's proposal is that new plants must capture 25% of emissions now, and all of them by 2025, when it expects the technology to be mainstream. That is a big lead time, but it should still focus minds.

If it works, another stipulation is that all existing plants be retrofitted with CCS "within five years of the technology being independently judged as technically and commercially proved". Ed Miliband, the secretary of state for climate change, says the Environment Agency, a government watchdog, will judge when the standard is met.

Nothing is likely to happen quickly. Proposals for projects will enter a consultation process in the summer. Then planning approval must be secured for any new plants, meaning construction could have to wait for several years. The government's consultation process for its nuclear programme was derailed after challenges from environmental groups, some of which might also oppose the latest coal programme.

A leader in CCS development

But provided the plans get the go ahead – and the UK has already seen proposed CCS facilities fall by the wayside – Miliband claims they will make the UK a leader in CCS development. "The future of coal in our energy mix poses the starkest dilemma we face," he said. "It is a polluting fuel, but is used across the world because it is cheap and it is flexible enough to meet fluctuations in demand for power."

Without CCS, he said, the country would not succeed in its efforts to fight climate change and secure its energy supplies. That is convenient for the government, say critics, because it puts the onus on a technology that does not yet exist in any commercial form, while pushing to the side the kind of policies that politicians are reluctant to advance: stringent tax and other penalties for polluters and measures to force people to use less energy.

Although the rhetoric from many EU governments on climate change has been forceful in the last decade, action has lagged behind. Critics of the EU's stance on climate change – including Vaclav Klaus, the Czech leader, who holds the rotating EU presidency – have claimed that measures to combat climate change now risk derailing economic recovery. But, following the lead of the Barak Obama's new administration in the US, the UK government argues that green initiatives will boost the country's economy. Indeed, Miliband claims green technologies will create another 50,000 jobs by 2030.

Whether that is sufficient to offset future job losses in the UK's North Sea, where terminal decline remains the story, is debatable. But the UK budget, the annual statement from the country's finance minister outlining the country's finance and spending plans, had some good news for that sector, too. Minister Alistair Darling has introduced a series of new tax breaks (see p26) – perhaps remembering that despite falling output, the North Sea still accounted for 28% of corporate tax receipts in 2008-09. An expected halving in the tax take from production looks generous when the government is strapped for finance elsewhere, but it will help keep the sector alive; and an oil price recovery will also yield more income for the exchequer later.

Yet the real focus of the budget, laying the foundation for Miliband's pledges on CCS, was the green economy. The "green route" to economic recovery proposed by Darling sets bold new targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions: a 34% cut by 2020 and an 80% reduction by 2050 – far more than the already-mandated 20% by 2020 the government has committed to as part of EU-wide rules.

Drivers of old vehicles in the UK will have an incentive to replace them with more efficient ones, a measure welcomed by some environmentalists and car makers. Businesses that spend money on more efficient equipment and in other green ways will also receive enhanced capital allowances. Meanwhile, Darling also made £0.525bn ($0.8bn) available for offshore wind projects in the next two years, which he claims will make many new developments viable (see box p17). New duties on air travel and on landfill are designed to raise more money as well as punish excessive flying and careless waste – both problems on an island of heavy-consuming air travellers.

The government described its measures as a "complete rewrite of UK energy policy". Yet there are political hazards ahead. Stopping climate change might be essential, but pre-empting a catastrophe never earns the political kudos that dealing with one does. That means that even if the policies work, voters will have to take the government's and scientists' words that they did.

In the meantime, those voters will be paying for the measures. The four new clean coal plants the government wants to see built are expected to cost around £1bn apiece. A 2% levy is likely to be added to consumers' electricity bills – already hefty – to cover the cost. And energy companies are cautious about the plans' likelihood of success, saying they embrace CCS so long as the plants are "properly funded".

Many green activists welcomed the proposals, although Greenpeace pointed out that the CCS scheme would still allow coal-fired plants to release 75% of their carbon emissions until 2020. The pressure group says four new plants allowed to emit those levels could release 275m tonnes into the air over 15 years – about half of the UK's emissions at present.

There will also be worries about sourcing the coal for a new generation of plants. Much of the UK's domestic production was mothballed during the 1980s and 1990s, and the country now imports 75% of the 39m tonnes of coal it consumes. BP estimates reserves to be 155bn tonnes, although some say the figure could be many times higher. In any case, point out advocates, coal prices are low and global reserves are spread across a host of reliable trading partners.

That will please the energy-security worriers. But the government's main ambition is decarbonisation of the UK. On top of last year's pledge to expand the country's nuclear generating capacity and its EU commitments to boost renewables, the latest plans could reduce power-generation emissions by two-thirds by 2020, says the government.

That would be some achievement. But now the UK must come good on its green proposals. Meeting its targets would not just transform the country's energy sector, it would also show a European public growing weary of its politicians' environmental promises that fine words and intentions are not just hot air.

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