Clean coal doesn’t exist, but nuclear power does
Clean coal is in essence, an oxymoron. Much like ``friendly fire’’ or Kevin Rudd’s ``tough and hardline but humane’’ asylum seeker policy dubbed ``compassionate brutality’’ by one wag recently.
Of course, in the case of ``clean coal’‘, the term is used to suggest that it actually exists. Yet it doesn’t - least not yet.
Doubtless, it is a fine aspiration, especially given the world’s heavy reliance on coal, and it’s central part in global warming. But an aspiration is pretty much all it is.
Worse, it is a fig-leaf for inactivity in other areas where tough decisions are called for. As was revealed this week, Kevin Rudd’s own Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute recognises that clean coal is a long way off.
No commercially viable example of it exists anywhere in the world and that, and on numbers, there is no prospect for it even to become viable. Ironically, it is the historically low cost of polluting, one fact that has made coal so cheap to date, that makes this so.
Nick Otter, chief executive of the ``GCCSI’’ (as Kevin Rudd likes to call it) has said that the current low price of emissions makes investment in the emergent technology of coal carbon capture and storage, essentially uneconomic. ``The C02 price now is not capable of taking the technology forward,’’ he said. In other words, there’s no money in it.
Governments must jack up the price of emitting carbon to make doing something else with it economic. The initial fixed price of $10 of a tonne under the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme from July 1, 2011, will be about $50 too low. And even then, assuming that the floating price from July, 1, 2012 gets closer, governments (read you and me) will still need to step in and do most of the heavy lifting.
And they must also carry the risk if the system fails, if the carbon captured, piped and geo-sequestered underground, finds its way back to the surface.
Yet for all this uncertainty, the Rudd Government has ploughed $100 million into the GCCSI and will spend much more - indeed, somewhere in the ball-park of another two and a half billion dollars in the next decade - setting up large and supposedly convincing demonstration projects.
Now, at one level, you might say, this is money well spent - coal is a big export earner and destined to remain so. Thus, if the technology can be developed to make it clean(er) its a win/win.
This is true as far as it goes. But unfortunately, at this late stage in the world’s head-long rush to a warmer, more turbulent climate, that isn’t far. Sage predictions put commercially viable clean coal at about two decades away. The tipping point to irreversible climate change is much closer.
Compare this hypothetical notion of clean coal, to greenhouse-friendly nuclear power - already used safely in more than 40 economies around the world including Britain, France, North America, Scandinavian countries, Russia, China, and so on.
When coming to office, Kevin Rudd often said his new government would be driven by ``evidence based policy’‘. That is, rather than being hide-bound by prejudice, and the assumptions of the past, his would be a progressive, intelligent government, judging issues on their merits. But on the nuclear question, this admirable working principle has ``gone out the back door’‘.
This week, Environment and Arts Minister, Peter Garrett addressed the National Press Club. During the speech, he called on people to ``move beyond ideological fixation presented as policy’‘. ``Life’s too short,’‘’ he said ``and the need too great ... add value, don’t remain stranded in the faux debates of the past’’ he continued. OK, so this was clearly directed at the arts, but these are essentially universal principles and Mr Garrett is after-all, the Rudd Cabinet’s Environment Minister.
So, as the former lead singer of an avowedly anti-nuclear rock band, Midnight Oil, and in 1984, a NSW senate candidate for the religiously anti-uranium Nuclear Disarmament Party - narrowly defeated as it happens by ALP preferences directed to the National Party - does he revisit and re-test his old assumptions. Maybe but then, maybe not.
Mr Garrett’s high-profile and extremely partisan background combined with his current responsibilities, make him the perfect litmus test for the bona fides of Mr Rudd’s commitment to evidence based policy and to his own entreaty to look at issues afresh.
The question is, faced with the environmental crisis of global warming which was not on the public radar in the 1980s, will the ``ideological fixations’’ of yesterday be ``presented as policy?’’
Unfortunately, the answer seems to be yes. Asked why the Government remained implacably opposed to nuclear power, or even to talking about it, the affable and scrupulously honest Mr Garrett claimed there was a ``vigorous’’ debate at the last election that had settled the matter clearly.
Au contraire! What occurred at the last election, the mother of all scare campaigns claiming that under John Howard, there would be 25 nuclear reactors along the eastern seaboard, might have been a political triumph, but in intellectual and public interest terms, it was a disgrace.
What it actually showed is that the ALP is not as serious about climate change as it is about winning elections.
It’s time for a real debate - one which admits that clean coal is a pipe-dream whereas safe nuclear power is already a reality in many parts of the world.
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