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Whether by accident or design, the government has drastically improved the economics of keeping our outdated coal fleet open.

Whether by accident or design, the government has drastically improved the economics of keeping our outdated coal fleet open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