Clean coal

Clean coal has become a hot topic lately, touted by the politicians and industry heads as a handy solution to the ever-increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions which are causing so much damage to our planet through global warming.

Clean coal has become a hot topic lately, touted by the politicians and industry heads as a handy solution to the ever-increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions which are causing so much damage to our planet through global warming. Studies from around the world have concluded it is essential to cut carbon emissions significantly through renewable energy initiatives and other technical feats before 2020 to avert severe environmental consequences from climate change.

Because we rely so heavily on coal to supply our energy needs in Australia we are one of the highest per capita polluters in the developed world. 88% of all energy used in this country comes from coal-fired power stations, and those stations and the infrastructure that supports them produce 75% of our total greenhouse gas emissions.

Clean coal is the term used to describe the capture and storage - or "sequestering" - of carbon dioxide emitted from the burning of coal. Those who claim that clean coal can help solve the global climate change crisis are referring to a process called "Carbon Capture and Storage" (CCS), also known as "geosequestration".

This process basically involves collecting CO2 emissions at the point of product and burying them deep underground in abandoned oil wells, ancient aquifers and mine shafts. Another sequestration method is the injecting of captured CO2 directly into the ocean far below the surface, forming vast undersea "carbon lakes". Barring any unforeseen natural disasters, the stored carbon should remain in these locations as it slowly dissipates back into the environment over (it is hoped) many centuries.

Both major political parties in Australia support investment into clean coal initiatives because they recognise the world must lower carbon emissions to head off the adverse effects of climate change. Now if coal cannot shake the tag as one of the most CO2 polluting forms of energy, then the whole export industry for this commodity could be in jeopardy. Imagine for example if every tone of coal destined for export to Europe would be hit with a carbon tax by the European Union, to reflect the true damage that coal is doing to our environment. Well suddenly there would be a level playing field between renewable energy and coal and cost of coal powered electricity would increase significantly.

So the coal industry needs to promote the "clean coal solution" in order to portrait coal as a responsible player in the energy mix. The same industry tells the government that reducing or ending our reliance on coal-fired energy by turning to measures like large scale solar power plants or wind turbine parks is not a viable or realistic alternative to coal power.

The Rudd Labor Government has dedicated $1.2 billion to energy innovation over the next seven years, setting a target of 20% renewable energy use by 2020. $100 million has been spent on establishing a National Solar Institute. Another $50 million will be invested in new technologies such as hydrogen transport fuels. Two major funds have been established to pay for Australia's future energy alternatives: the $500 million Renewable Energy Fund and the $500 million National Clean Coal Fund.

The clean coal fund is designed to pay for pilot CCS schemes within Australia and advancement in clean coal technology. The fund will support the coal industry's national coal initiative, which has pledged $1.5 billion in spending.

Unfortunately clean coal technology is not operational yet, nor do we really know if it will ever work. Even clean coal proponents admit that carbon capture systems will not have any impact on reducing CO2 emissions - and therefore, global warming - until at least 2020. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that "the majority of CCS deployment will occur in the second half of this century". Most studies predict that CCS will reduce the amount of growth in emissions until 2050, not reduce actual emissions levels.

But to have any real chance of offsetting the effects of climate change, the world needs drastically curb greenhouse emissions now. It is simply not enough to keep burning fossil fuels and hope that new technological advancement will provide a silver bullet solution to global warming. We have the technologies available now to make a big dent into the CO2 emission output such as grid connect solar power, wind farms, wave energy and hot rocks.

Clean coal is a promising theory, but is yet to prove itself. Fiddling at the edges of climate change is the worst thing we can do. Real significant changes need to be implemented by our political leaders now if we hope to continue in a world with a diverse biosphere, which will be the secure home for mankind's future generations. It is time to get serious about energy efficiency, economic incentives for renewable power systems like domestic grid connect solar, wind turbines, tidal and geothermal.

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