Coalition policy on fossil fuels is a shambles

Whether by accident or design, the government has drastically improved the economics of keeping our outdated coal fleet open.

Whether by accident or design, the government has drastically improved the economics of keeping our outdated coal fleet open

When elections loom, it’s not uncommon for a minister to tout some new policy that is the polar opposite of something the government has approved just the day before.

It’s a lot rarer to hear a secretary of state announce a bold new pledge that could be undermined within months by a decision taken by their own department.

Odd as it may seem, this is exactly what could be about to happen to the latest Lib Dem announcement on coal. The energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, used the platform of this week’s Lib Dem conference to announce that any future coalition government will ban electricity generated from coal by 2025.

The measure is part of a wider package that aims to almost entirely remove carbon pollution from our electricity system within the next fifteen years, as recommended by the government’s climate change advisors.

The move reflects the renewed threat to our efforts to tackle climate change posed by coal power stations. This is a threat partly of the Lib Dem’s own making – the UK’s coal fleet was previously expected to be retired by 2023 due to the costs of complying with air pollution laws, but a drop in the global price of coal combined with a series of government interventions means that they could remain open for the foreseeable future.

One of these interventions came late last Friday, when officials revealed that the UK’s aging coal power stations will be eligible for up to £2.2 billion in public subsidies. Eight of the UK’s most polluting power plants will now be able to compete in an auction for cash payments, which they are likely to win. This policy was developed by the Department for Energy and Climate Change, headed up by Ed Davey.

The proposed hand-outs were announced just days after David Cameron argued at a climate summit in New York that tackling climate change “means fighting against the economically and environmentally perverse fossil-fuel subsidies which distort free markets and rip off taxpayers”.

Just over a week later the government is offering our coal fleet billions of pounds – money that could help fund refurbishments to keep these aging power stations open for years to come.

This is dangerous – if we’re going to tackle climate change the UK’s coal plants need to be phased out fairly rapidly. The government’s climate advisors have warned that if we’re to meet our climate commitments: “there can be no role for conventional coal generation in the UK beyond the early 2020s”.

Last month’s heavy-weight report by the Global Commission on the Economy and the Climate, which was jointly commissioned by the UK government, similarly argued that affluent countries should: “accelerate early retirement of existing unabated [coal] capacity”.

In fact, the prime minister has himself made this point, arguing that “all existing coal-fired power stations should be retro-fitted with CCS… if we don’t do this, we will not meet our carbon emissions targets”. A view that was recently repeated according to his climate envoy, Greg Barker MP, who tweeted on their trip to the UN Climate Summit in New York that the “PM pledges to phase out existing coal”.

Number 10 has since denied there is a new policy to phase out coal, arguing that power stations will simply retire due to the costs of complying with air pollution regulations. At best this is complacent, at worst wilfully misleading.

Whether by accident or design, the government has drastically improved the economics of keeping our outdated coal fleet open, while at the same time failing to put in place any backstop to ensure they do not compromise our carbon reduction targets.

Although a Lib Dem department (DECC) is one of the architects of this renewed threat, the party’s proposal to ban emissions from coal by 2025 is an important one. It is now crucial that the policy detail that follows is strong enough to actually result in an outright ban.

Equally vital is that both the Labour Party and the Conservatives follow suit and commit to phasing out coal pollution once and for all.

Lawrence Carter is a Greenpeace UK energy campaigner

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15 Responses to “Coalition policy on fossil fuels is a shambles”

  1. itdoesntaddup

    So just why has Longannet announced it will not supply power after 2018?

    The coal price in Europe is around 10 $/MWh of gross calorific value – a fuel cost of well under £20/MWh when converted to electricity. Yet you want to impose power from offshore wind at £150/MWh. It’s insane.

    Incidentally, the reason why we’ll be needing to hang on to coal, gas and nuclear power stations is that without them we’ll see grid failures and instability, and blackouts galore. That’s why the Germans are now so busy building new coal fried capacity. Take a look at this analysis of the Scottish situation, and extrapolate it to the UK:

  2. David Lindsay

    On Tuesday, Ed Davey assured the Lib Dem Conference that if their party were in government in the next Parliament, then it would legislate to ban the generation of electricity from coal by 2025.

    Let it be known.

    For we need coal. Of which, thankfully, we have a vast supply just waiting to be extracted.

    And we need nuclear power, which was strongly supported by Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband when David Cameron was calling it “a last resort”.

    Not necessarily in that order.

    All else is ancillary to those two.

    But we need them in British ownership. The only absolute guarantee of that is public ownership.

  3. mememine

    Climate change fear has done to the left what Bush and his false wars did for the neocons.

    Climate blame “believers” claim the reason science can’t say “100% certain” or “proven” is because the scientific method won’t allow them to work in such strict absolutes and certainties but no climate scientist has ever said that. Prove me wrong.

  4. itdoesntaddup

    It’s the best argument for public ownership – but unfortunately regardless of ownership, it seems the state wants to meddle to make power expensive and unreliable. Private industry is not free to make economically efficient choices, or even ones that work in an engineering context. Sir Walter Marshall never let the politicians and civil servants and green lobby groups meddle with CEGB the way they do now via OFGEM and DECC.

  5. Guest

    Your ignorance of probability is…not surprising.

  6. Leon Wolfeson

    You want to replace coal with part-time power, right. With “smart meters” which cut the poor off when there’s insufficient generation. We’ll see business and industry fleeing high cost intermittent power too, of course.

    You won’t consider the real alternatives. Nope, that base-load ban you want…

  7. Guest

    You are arguing for coal and the nuclear part will be forgotten, of course.

  8. Guest

    Ah, the state does not allow unfiltered coal burning. Ask China why that’s a bad idea, “efficient” choices like ignoring worker safety are also off the table, it works fine in engineering to replace workers if it’s cheaper, after all, which is why there are concerns other than that in any decision…

  9. Guest

    “calorific value”

    Ah, ignoring real costings. What a surprise. Then you make up values which are a fraction of the fuel delivery cost, let alone the costs incurred as a result of the polloution, etc.

    You are trying to hang onto coal and gas, right. The Germans are building new coal because they ruled out Nuclear for political reasons. If you have new coal, then the external costs get ignored as they don’t for Nuclear…

    It’s an “either”, at this point.

  10. CB

    The effects of burning coal are going to be a bit more severe than simply endangering a few workers or causing a few cases of lung disease or cancer in the community.

    We’ve added so much CO₂ to the atmosphere, it’s unlikely that polar ice caps will be able to continue to persist to any significant extent, given Earth’s history.

    That means up to 75 meters of sea level rise worldwide and the elimination of the habitat occupied by billions of people.

    Burning coal is suicidal insanity. We need to be slowly decreasing and then reversing our greenhouse gas emissions to preserve an Earth compatible with human habitation.

  11. Guest

    …Which means, practically, either killing several billion of Humans in non-temperate climates slowly with cold and starvation, or nuclear power.

    It’s absolutely shameful that the leaders on this are countries like India and China.

  12. CB

    Nah, nukes aren’t even cost-competitive with things like wind and hydro, and biomass is nipping at its heels:

    Why don’t you flip your little keyboard over and read the word after “Made in” to see who’s paying China to cut those corners…

  13. Guest

    An article in new scientist two years ago outlined several ways to economically store wind , solar and wave generated electricity for quick release when needed to cover gaps in production. So it is possible to reduce reliance on coal and nuclear.

  14. Leon Wolfeson

    Economically? Oh, right, yea, short-term bridging to allow more time for gas plants to spin up, allowing them to be kept a few % lower than the current standard. I remember that article.

    They /theorised/ it’d be cheaper.

  15. Barbarus

    the obsession of middle-class radicals in destroying working class jobs and inflating the profits of global energy companies is depressing. The scientific ignorance and parochialism of the NGOs is worrying not least because they ban other people’s jobs but cling to their high energy lifestyles and international travel. Climate change science like all science is not certain and does not pull together all sources so leaks of methane with 30 times the warning effect of CO2 is always ignored. If you want radical social change argue for it rather than hiding behind science used to justify megasubsidies for BP and Shell’s wind businesses

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