Today, Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull unveils a project designed to reduce the cost of coal and slash greenhouse emissions by 30%, all under the sweet-smelling banner of “clean coal”. Labor leader Kevin Rudd is also set to release his own discussion paper promising to ensure that clean coal will be helping to power Australia’s electricity needs by 2020.

But clean coal is still coal, and according to some experts, there is a danger that the concept is being used to prop up the coal industry and answer the critics in the climate change debate while ignoring better ways to significantly reduce emissions.

“What they’re proposing in Victoria is basically a hope that the CO2 levels will be lowered from your standard coal fired power station. But so what? This doesn’t solve the climate problem in any way,” Dr Iain MacGill, Research Coordinator for UNSW’s Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets, told Crikey.

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane says that the clean-coal technology of La Trobe-based company HRL will help produce power more efficiently, at lower cost, with 30% lower CO2 emissions and half the water consumption of conventional brown-coal power plants.

“Brown coal supplies 20% of Australia’s electricity generation. It’s measures like these which will ensure the long-term security of Australia’s coal industry,” Mr Macfarlane said.

That’s terrific, energy expert Hugh Sadler told Crikey, “but the emissions are still considerably greater than a modern gas-fired station. It all depends which one you’re taking as benchmark.”

So is the initiative about cutting emissions or supporting the coal industry?

MacGill says: “Brown coal power stations are about the highest greenhouse coal generation in the world. Not many other countries use brown coal. This plant will offer a 30%  reduction on brown coal, which gets you to the level of a black coal power station. In a carbon constrained world, should we even be building brown coal power stations?”

And according to Sadler, there’s still a great discrepancy between the definition of exactly what “clean coal” means:

The history of the clean coal debate is a perfect example of the way language is manipulated for political purposes… I know of three different successive meanings of the term ‘clean coal.’

They range from the CSIRO’s use of the term in the 1980s to refer to solvent refined coal, to when it was used in the mid 1990s under Labor to refer to ‘coal washeries’ in India. That referred to removing the ash from Indian coal.

The third manifestation of the term ‘clean coal’ is in relation to carbon capture and sequestration… the benefits are clear in terms of, if it works, it will reduce emissions… but all these technologies need to be assessed in terms of marginal cost of abatement … The incremental cost of that per tonne of CO2 abatement compared to gas fired generation. Is it a very expensive way of reducing emissions?

If they actually started capturing the CO2 then you could “seriously get emissions down, but again, the issue is time,” agrees MacGill. “In my view, clean coal demonstration technologies are important, but they are a second tier policy priority because we need to make things happen now.”