Emission reduction totals dragged down by coal-fired power stations


Climate change

Victorian power station

A brown coal fuelled power station in Victoria.

Credit: Marcus Wong/Wikimedia

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Growth in Australia's greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants has negated emission reductions from other sources, new reports suggest.

Research released by environmental organisation The Climate Group describes a general increase in the coal-fired electricity production in our eastern states, with an increased use of carbon-intense brown coal in Victoria particularly alarming.

This has led to a subsequent growth in greenhouse emissions from the industry, meaning the decline in total emissions from last year is less than one per cent across New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. This is despite promising reductions in emissions from other sectors, such as the one million tonne cut in petrol emissions.

Rupert Posner, director of The Climate Group Australia, has expressed concern over the latest figures.

"This report shows that the good news of decreasing emissions from petroleum products has been entirely undone by another big increase in emissions from coal-fired power stations," he said.

"These increases in coal emissions come at a time when we need the exact opposite to be happening...2009 is an incredibly important year for action on climate change [as] we have an ever-decreasing window of opportunity to act [on] climate change."

There is an immediate need to investigate ways to produce electricity while limiting the release of greenhouse emissions, Posner said: "In other words we need to know pretty soon whether carbon capture and storage is a viable solution for Australia."

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a proposed method of reducing or eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from major industrial sources. It involves capturing the gas at its production source and pipelining it underground into geological reservoirs to prevent its release into the atmosphere.

If applied to coal-fired power stations, it would create what is referred to as 'clean coal' technology - but currently the technique remains at an experimental stage, and is surrounded by much controversy.

Many commentators argue that there are no guarantees the experiments will be successful and, if they are, that the technology would not be able to be applied widely enough or quickly enough to be useful.

Former Vice President of the United States, climate change activist Al Gore, has likened clean coal to "healthy cigarettes": unproven and, in all likelihood, impossible.

Matthew Wright, campaign director at Beyond Zero Emissions, a Melbourne-based not-for-profit, agrees.

"There is not a single light bulb anywhere in the world powered by clean coal carbon capture and storage," he said, describing the pursuit of the technology as a
"waste of resources".

Money would be better spent on rolling out tried and proven renewable energy technologies, Wright added.

Others, however, are hesitant to give up on CCS all together.

Lincoln Patterson, from the CSIRO's Petroleum Resources Research Centre, believes that the capture and storage of carbon "could make a significant contribution" to emissions reductions, if implemented together with renewables and attention to energy efficiency.