31 October 2008

Global warming and "clean coal"

After finding evidence of human-caused global warming on every continent except Antarctica, a recent student in Nature Geoscience has now found solid evidence for Antarctica as well.

Writing about the other side of the world, a recent article in Journal of Applied Ecology (2008, Issue 6) talks to experts around the world about the polar bear population. Over half believe that the population will decline by about a third by 2050, with some experts predicting a more dire drop of about 70%. (Another article even reports of polar bears resorting to cannabalism.)

Lastly, Fred Pierce has a good article on the myth of "clean coal." From the body of the article:

Who came up with the term "clean coal"? It is the most toxic phrase in the greenwash lexicon. George W Bush, by promising to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the pursuit of advanced "clean" coal technologies, certainly popularised it. But I'd love to know where it came from. Any thoughts out there?

It is, of course, oxymoronic. Coal is about acid rain and peasouper smogs, asthma and mercury contamination, radioactive waste emissions and ripping apart mountains, killing trees, lung cancer and, of course, global warming.

Coal emits more carbon dioxide for every unit of energy generated than any other fuel. Sure you can clean it up a bit – though the toxins you've taken out of the ground have to go somewhere. But clean coal? Just say no.

But the phrase rolls on. Google offers more than a million web pages. We will hear a lot more of it as the UK government wrestles with whether to approve a new billion-pound "cleaner coal" power station – Britain's first coal plant for three decades – at Kingsnorth in Kent.E.ON, the company that wants to build the station, says Kingsnorth will be "ready" to capture carbon dioxide emissions before they go up the stack. Great, except there is no such technology right now.

This phrase "clean coal" has developed a life of its own thanks to remorseless commercial propagandising. This year a coalition of US coal mining companies and electricity utilities called Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (and recently renamed the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity) is paying the advertising agency R&R Partners $35m (£22m) to promote "clean coal" through advertising and other promotional activity.

This is up there with the safe cigarette and "atoms for peace". The industry is fighting back against growing scientific calls to outlaw coal burning, and the rejection of dozens of coal power plants proposals by communities across the US, with several states effectively banning them.

You may have noticed the campaign's effect. Both John McCain and Barack Obama support clean coal. It's neat. Who could be against clean coal? It allows them to oppose dirty coal without antagonising anyone. You may not have spotted that Americans for Balanced Energy Choices sponsored two early presidential debates, during which – guess what – no questions were asked about global warming.

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