'Clean' coal scam undermines climate action

By Shua Garfield

On April 23, the Senate select committee on climate policy heard what should have been taken as a striking ultimatum: To avoid catastrophic climate change, there must be an immediate moratorium on the construction of coal-fired power plants, and existing coal-fired plants need to be shut within 20 years. Yet less than two weeks after CSIRO climatologist James Risbey explained this to the Senate committee, the government announced more than $2 billion extra assistance to the coal industry. Most of this money was directed towards trying to achieve “clean coal”.

This announcement followed billions in handouts to the coal industry already committed to by the government in the past year, mostly as part of its supposed “fight” against climate change. As part of the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), coal mining companies will receive $750 million to help them buy pollution permits. The government has also committed to handing out $3.9 billion to coal-fired power generators. The reason for this, as explained in the CPRS white paper released in December, is: “Some coal-fired electricity generators are unlikely to be able to pass on their full carbon costs, because they are constrained by competing generators with a lower emissions intensity … [T]he competitive position of the most emissions intensive coal-fired generators is reduced, resulting in … lower generation volumes, reducing profits. This is likely to lead to significant impacts on the asset values of some coal-fired electricity generators.”

From an environmental standpoint, “lower generation volumes” from “the most emissions intensive coal-fired generators” and their replacement by “generators with a lower emissions intensity” is a good thing. And from the standpoint of social justice, reduced profits for the coal bosses — who have made billions out of environmental vandalism — or a write-down of their “asset values” is hardly something to shed tears over. But these are not the standpoints from which capitalist politicians — Liberal or Labor — make their policy decisions. Their aim is to defend and advance the profitability of the biggest, wealthiest corporate monopolies. The coal corporations are definitely among those: Coal is Australia’s largest export, and Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coking coal (used in making steel) and the second largest exporter of thermal coal (used in power stations).

Carbon capture and storage

The government’s main tactic to give coal bosses’ profiteering some environmental respectability is to promise “clean coal” technologies — the main one being carbon capture and storage (CCS). This is supposed to capture and liquefy CO2 emissions from power plants and other major greenhouse gas emitters and permanently bury this liquified CO2 in deep underground cavities or convert CO2 into other chemicals. To further the development of CCS, the government launched the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI) on April 16 and has committed to providing it with $100 million in annual funding. Sixteen other national governments and more than 40 major companies in the coal, oil, gas, electricity, technology, finance and research sectors have signed on to this Australian government initiative, which will become a separate legal entity on July 1.

The government also announced new funding for “clean coal” in the budget, as part of its $4.5 billion “clean energy initiative”. This involves $3.5 billion in spending commitments not announced prior to the budget. While some of this is directed towards developing and implementing solar and other renewable forms of power generation, the majority — $2.4 billion of the total, including $2 billion of the new budget commitments — is directed towards developing “low emissions coal technologies”. This money is intended to fund up to a third of the cost of industrial-scale demonstration projects by polluting companies.

However, reduction of emissions from coal burning to an environmentally safe level by these technologies is still completely hypothetical. As Prime Minister Kevin Rudd acknowledged at the launch of the GCCSI, “There are no integrated industrial-scale carbon capture and storage projects anywhere in the world”. And the progress is not promising. As reported on ABC TV’s April 16 Lateline program, two of the largest CCS pilot projects in Australia — one run by Santos and another run jointly by Rio Tinto and BP — have been suspended in the last year.

The billions in handouts to polluting industries are supposed to breathe new life into this floundering effort. But the goals the government intends to achieve with this additional cash are underwhelming. The target of the GCCSI is to support “the G8 target for 20 industrial-scale CCS projects to be operating around the world by 2020”, according to a May 12 joint media statement by government ministers Kim Carr, Martin Ferguson, Peter Garrett and Penny Wong. With the additional $2 billion expenditure, the government is publicly expressing hope that broader deployment of CCS will be possible by this time.

However, according to Guy Pearse, author of High & Dry: John Howard, climate change and the selling of Australia’s future and an expert on the influence of the “carbon lobby” on government policy, the government is privately not confident that even these distant deadlines can be met. Pearse told the April 16 Lateline program: “If you look at Treasury’s modelling, they’re telling us this technology won’t be commercially viable until 2033. And yet we’ve got scientists like James Hansen from NASA’s Goddard Institute telling us the world simply cannot afford to burn coal the way we are for another ten years.”

Potential of renewables

It is not only desirable but feasible to replace coal-fired power generation with renewable energy sources. According to a 2005 report to the Cooperative Research Centre for Coal in Sustainable Development (CCSD) by five CSIRO Energy Technology Division scientists, a 35 sq km area with high levels of sunlight and low cloud cover could produce sufficient power to satisfy Australia’s current demand with solar thermal technology. The report — which was never published, but later leaked to the Canberra Times — also asserts that if solar radiation were “harnessed by existing technology, approximately 1.5 per cent of the world’s desert area could generate the world’s entire electricity demand”.

While the failure to publish a report by qualified scientists with such striking conclusions may seem odd, the reasons become clear when one considers who was involved in the now defunct CCSD — which, according to the May 26, 2006 Canberra Times, then included BHP Billiton, Wesfarmers Coal, Xstrata Coal and Rio Tinto. These companies have much to lose if the world replaces coal with renewable energy. So research showing how we could replace polluting forms of energy production is hidden. This is a classic example of how, despite rhetoric about the need for capitalist competition to fuel “development”, the big monopolies that dominate the key industries actually hold back socially useful development and innovation.

“Clean coal” is more of an ideological tool than a reality, used to further distract from the potential of renewable technologies and maintain the public legitimacy of a destructive but profitable commodity. As economist and Australia Institute director Richard Denniss told Lateline on April 16: “As long as we keep telling ourselves that we’re just about to invent clean coal, we keep coming up with excuses for failing to invest in R&D for renewables, failing to invest in the rapid roll-out of renewables and also failing to recognise what an urgent challenge we face; the promise of the potential of clean coal captures the political imagination. Unfortunately, the engineers and the scientists just don’t seem to be able to follow through.”

The engineers and scientists have been able to follow through with a range of renewable energy technologies, however. But neither private capitalists nor the government have been willing to implement them on a significant scale. This is not due to a lack of resources. At the current cost of constructing solar thermal power stations, it would cost roughly $60 billion to install enough solar thermal generating capacity to replace all the coal-fired power stations operating in Australia today.

This may seem like a large sum of money. However, the Australian government spends more than this in three years on its military. At the rate that it was subsidising the fossil fuel-burning energy and transport industries in 2005-06, six years’ subsidies could pay this cost. At its 2008 profit rate, BHP Billiton makes more than this every four years; the same can be said of the combined profits of Australia’s “big four” banks. In this light, the government’s current target of having 20% of Australia’s electricity come from renewables by 2020 is remarkably unambitious. Renewables are not implemented, not because of financial or technical impossibility, but because they are not a priority for wealthy and powerful corporations which want to defend their production and use of more profitable fossil fuels. The immense resources held by these corporations could be used to save the environment but are instead wielded against it.

To justify the ongoing use of coal, Rudd’s speech at the launch of the GCCSI fell back on the typical tactic of blaming poorer countries that have much lower per capita greenhouse gas emissions than Australia: “In the years to 2025 — a mere 16 years — the world’s urban population is forecast to grow by 1.4 billion people. More than 60 percent of that population growth will occur in Asia alone. That means 840 million more people in Asia consuming electricity and fuel, as they move towards living standards that we in the developed world take for granted … Of course, the two emerging giants are China and India, giants that are hungry for cheap energy to power their growth. Giants, therefore, hungry for coal and that between them, hold around one-fifth of the world’s coal reserves … By 2030 around one quarter of global electricity production will be from coal-fired power stations in China and India.”

Rudd probably quietly hopes this is true. It would guarantee Australia’s giant coal corporations’ profits for decades to come. But it would be a death sentence for a significant proportion of the world’s plant and animal species, many of its river and glacial systems, coral reefs, forests, farmlands and coastal areas.

The countries that have grown wealthy through several centuries of development fuelled by the burning of fossil fuels and exploitation of colonial empires have a responsibility to the countries that have been left impoverished and economically distorted by this world order — not to get even richer selling more coal, but to share the technologies that can help these countries develop without destroying the environment. The main obstacle to this is the political domination of the wealthy countries by a tiny capitalist minority ready to defend their wealth and power even at the expense of the Earth.