Can coal live up to its clean promise?
By Fred Pearce COAL is our cheapest and most abundant source of fossil-fuel energy. We probably have enough to keep the world powered for hundreds of years. Trouble is, the carbon emissions from burning it all would make the planet uninhabitable long before then. Is there a way to get the energy without the emissions? There certainly is, say coal technologists. Capture the carbon dioxide produced when coal burns and bury it underground, back where the coal came from. Most of the technology to do this is proven, and there are enough places underground to store the CO2 and keep it secure for thousands of years. That at least is the pitch for carbon capture and storage (CCS). If it lives up to the claims, the vast coal reserves in the US, China, India and elsewhere could fuel the post-industrial era just as European coal fuelled the industrial revolution two centuries ago. Forget renewables, coal can be a zero-carbon energy source too. So what are we waiting for? CCS has no shortage of fans. Last October, the British government’s senior minister for business, John Hutton, predicted that by 2030 wide use of CCS “could see up to a third of British electricity generated in this way”. In Germany, only CCS can make sense of an energy policy that combines a large number of new coal-fired power stations with plans for a 40 per cent cut in CO2 emissions by 2020. Unfortunately, few in the energy industry believe these deadlines are remotely achievable. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called The Future of Coal,