Robin McKie: Actions speak louder than a lot of government hot air

Robin McKie: Melt our ice-caps and you release forces you cannot control

There was a cleverly staged moment during last week's BBC eco-drama Burn Up, when oil company workers started poking holes in the icy Canadian tundra. To their consternation, flames of burning methane promptly whooshed out of the melting permafrost.

It was a striking moment of television that demonstrated, vividly, how our warming world might soon change in uncontrollable ways. Melt our ice-caps and you release forces you cannot control: in this case, permafrost methane that would further heighten global warming. Yes, it was fiction, but the background science was reasonably sound. I just hope a minister or two caught the programme - for it might kickstart some action from a government that has promised to do so much to halt climate change but has yet failed to act meaningfully.

It is fine to announce plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent of their 1990 levels by 2050, but you look silly when these prove incompatible with so many other plans: to support a third runway for Heathrow, boost air travel, construct new motorways; keep fuel prices at rock-bottom levels and, worst of all, build a new generation of coal power plants, the worst type of carbon dioxide emitter on the planet. Hence the protesters who are gathering at Kingsnorth, the site of the first proposed plant, the warnings that were published by the Commons environment committee last week, and the cries of alarm from the Royal Society and its president, Lord Rees.

They can all see what the government seems blind to: new coal power stations, as currently envisaged, would wreck our ability to tackle climate change. Indeed, according to Greenpeace, if all the coal plants proposed for Britain are built, an extra 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year would end up being pumped into the atmosphere, almost a tenth of the UK's current total emissions. The message sent to India and China, whose rising carbon outputs we are seeking to curtail, would be unfortunate, to say the least.

This is not to say that coal power plants have no role to play in Britain. They do have a future, but only if their carbon dioxide emissions can be captured and stored, a concept that the government has also backed with fine words.

In its 2003 Energy White Paper, it promised an 'urgent detailed implementation plan' for a storage programme that would take advantage of Britain's depleted North Sea oil fields into which we could pump carbon dioxide removed from coal power plants.

We could tackle climate change and build up expertise in a technology that could have an enormous export potential. Thus, at the G8 meeting in Gleneagles in 2005, we promised 'rapid action' on carbon capture and storage (CCS). Three years later, however, nothing has been built or funded and no site has been identified, not for even a pilot project, nor has any pipeline network been planned, a point stressed by the country's leading carbon storage experts in a letter to The Observer this week.

These geologists, engineers and mineralogists have been driven frantic by government procrastination over CCS. Two years ago, BP offered its depleted Miller Field as a test bed for the technology but was turned down. Instead, ministers decided to run a competition to pick a CCS test plant site and invited councils and energy companies to make bids. The winner will be picked next year and a test plant would be built by 2014 at the earliest.

From the lessons learnt, a full CCS system could then be launched - though not until around 2020. Not much evidence of urgency there, I would say. Indeed, by that time, half the western world will have got in on the act and Britain, once more, will have lost a precious industrial lead.

Carbon storage is not a panacea, of course. It will only come into its own when the technology has been perfected. Hence the need to get on with test projects.

And it is worth noting the alacrity shown by the government in backing other climate-friendly energy projects to help combat climate change, in particular the construction of new nuclear plants.

These, of course, will have to be imported from America or France, our own nuclear industry having been left to wither on the vine. In contrast, CCS offers us a chance to develop a strong domestic technology and to tackle global warming. All it requires is investment - and the realisation that time is running out.


Robin McKie, science editor

The GuardianTramp

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