climate denialism
Then treasurer Scott Morrison brandishing coal in the House of Representatives in 2017 (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Clean coal” constitutes a process whereby power-generating efficiency is increased by about 30% and CO2 emission is reduced by approximately 30%. For conventional coal-fired power generation, heat from coal burned at a temperature of around 700 degrees Celsius produces steam, which rotates a turbine. A CoolGen’s plant is totally different as it roasts coal at above 1300 degrees while simultaneously blowing oxygen over it in order to convert the solid fuel into a gas. The system can drastically cut the discharge of CO2 because it uses gas from the roasted coal to generate power instead of burning the rock.

The concept of creating commercially viable ways of stopping the carbon emissions from coal-fired electricity plants has been the holy grail of the fossil fuel industry for decades. The cost of building the required infrastructure would be enormous and the time periods involved may be too long to prevent the risk, identified by the consensus of expert scientists, of potentially catastrophic climate change.

The production of “clean coal” is not problem-free. For example, Southern Co’s dream of a fully functional “clean coal” power plant is facing setbacks. The company is trying to build the first power plant of its kind able to burn coal and capture about 65% of the carbon-dioxide emissions. But the project has faced repeated delays and cost overruns. Since last year, as the facility began to test the equipment, it has experienced leaks and other problems that have pushed back when the facility would be fully operational.

Even if the problems associated with “clean coal” are overcome, saving about one third of emissions from coal, this would hardly retard the advent of dangerous climate change. Global reserves of coal, if exploited, would increase emissions by many tens, to more than a hundred, parts per million (see Figure 1), which is enough to lead to catastrophic melting of the Greenland ice sheet, a large part of the Antarctic ice sheet and a rise of sea level on the scale of many metres. There are sufficient coal, oil, gas and unconventional sources of fossil fuel (see Figure 1) to raise global temperature by several degrees Celsius, well above the threshold of the great ice sheets.

Figure 1. Estimates of fossil fuel resources and equivalent atmospheric CO2 levels, including (1) emissions to date; (2) estimated reserves, and (3) recoverable resources (2.12 GtC = ~1 ppm CO2). (Hansen 2012a; Hansen et al. 2012b)

Global CO2 emissions for 2016 were 36.4 GtCO2 (billion ton CO2). Australia’s contribution to such developments is not minor.

Australia’s projected emissions for 2016 are 559 MtCO2 (0.559 GtCO2). So, Australian domestic emission per capita for the Australian population (24 million) is 23.3 ton CO2 per year, or ~67 ton CO2 when combined with carbon export.

Compare with emissions per capita in other major emitting countries:

Figure 2. CO2 emissions per capita from fossil-fuel use and cement production in the top five emitting countries and European Union.

Despite the dire warning of climate scientists, underpinned by the current spate of extreme weather events around the world, the government appears to be bent on promoting coal-fired power generation.

Claims that carbon capture and storage might be able to “cut emissions from fossil fuels by up to 90 per cent” are difficult to support. There are 17 successful projects across the globe, storing about 30 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. This is about 1000 times less than the global emission of CO2 — 36400 MtCO2 (million ton CO2).

It is all reminiscent of the earlier promise of safe storage of nuclear high radiation nuclear waste, RADWASTE, which remained unfulfilled due to high costs and other problems

On August 12, 2010, Malcolm Turnbull, now Prime Minister, stated:

“We are as humans conducting a massive science experiment with this planet. It’s the only planet we’ve got…. We know that the consequences of unchecked global warming would be catastrophic. We know that extreme weather events are occurring with greater and greater frequency and while it is never possible to point to one drought or one storm or one flood and say that particular incident is caused by global warming, we know that these trends are entirely consistent with the climate change forecasts with the climate models that the scientists are relying on…. We as a human species have a deep and abiding obligation to this planet and to the generations that will come after us.”

However, on June 21, 2017, he declared the government was open to using “clean coal” technology to replace existing generators as he emphasised the need to prevent price rises and power outages across the national electricity market: “I’ve said in the past that I think that, as Australia is the largest seaborne exporter of coal, it would be good if we had a state-of-the-art, clean-coal power station in Australia.”

Not that any government in the world is listening to what climate science is saying. Global warming due to human-made gases, mainly CO2, is already higher than 1.0 degree Celsius and 1.5 degrees Celsius over the continents. Deleterious climate impacts and extreme weather events are growing worldwide, including as recent mega-floods and wild fires demonstrate.

More warming is in the pipeline. The Earth is out of energy balance, with absorbed solar energy exceeding planetary heat radiation. Maintaining a climate that resembles that of the last 8000 years (the Holocene), the world of stable shorelines in which civilisation developed, requires rapidly reducing fossil fuel CO2 emissions as well as major CO2 sequestration efforts such as using sea grass plantations, biochar and chemical sequestration methods.

As George Orwell’s Newspeak principles indicate, changing the language alters peoples’ way of thinking. The clever switch from the terms “climate change” and “global warming” to “energy security” and “power blackouts” engenders fear in people regarding the immediate future at the expense of mitigation measures in protection of the planetary biosphere. However, as stated by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, chief climate adviser to the German government: “We’re simply talking about the very life support system of this planet.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey