A hard rain

The UK government is up to its old tricks: talking good green talk at home, while at the same time trying to water down EU environmental targets. This time the issue is acidic emissions from so called large combustion plants – basically coal-fired power stations. While we hear a lot these days about carbon emissions, it is important to remember that these is not the only cause for concern when it comes to continued coal burning.

Coal-fired power stations, and the older ones in particular, release significant quantities of sulphur and nitrogen compounds. These combine in clouds with water droplets to create acid rain (or snow – or fog for that matter). Certain types of ecosystem, including different kinds of lakes, bogs and forest, accumulate this acidic pollution in ways that lead to quite major damage. When my campaigning career started in the 1980s, this was the big issue. Dead forests in central Europe, lifeless lakes in Scandinavia and diminished bird populations in Wales were among the symptoms. 
Major campaigns were mounted on this subject – Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and others did a great job in raising awareness that in some ways parallels recent efforts on climate change. Public mobilisations and lobbying to convince politicians about the science were used to create new legal instruments – including on large combustion plants – so as to solve the problem. This started a process that continues now.

In many respects these campaigns worked. New technology was fitted to old power stations to cut the worst of the pollution, and targets were set for the phase out of the older plants. But now the UK seems to object to the timetable. This is surprising, for the direction of travel has been clear for decades, most recently in the Large Combustion Plant Directive of 2001: namely to protect nature from acid rain through the continued phase out of the most polluting power stations.

The concerns now expressed by the UK in relation to meeting a 2015 deadline for the phasing out of the most polluting power sources have less to do with the ambition of EU targets and much more with the failure of the UK government to face the many different challenges posed by our reliance on outdated coal-fired power generation technology. Since the late 1980s we have known about this, but still kept old coal technology at the heart of our power mix.

The fact is that coal is an environmentally disastrous energy source – at least with the technology being used today. This is not only from a climate change point of view, but also more immediately because of what coal does to ecosystems through acid pollution. But the UK seems hell-bent on keeping coal as a major part of the energy mix.

This has more to do with politics than technology. Various interest groups want to keep the coal fires burning. The anti-wind NIMBYS would much rather we destroy nature and undermine future security with coal than build a renewable power economy in part based on the wind. The industrial and labour interests linked with coal are far more powerful than those on the cutting edge of green energy. As ever, ministers want to protect jobs now, and worry less about new ones in the future – in clean and sustainable energy. And then there is our present culture, based on the illusion of endless cheap energy – perhaps the toughest nut of all to crack: far easier to cut bills with environmentally disastrous power sources than to change behaviour (even if it could save money, create jobs and protect peoples' interests in the future). And so it goes on.

But having been in office for nearly 12 years, surely these challenges should have been addressed by now by New Labour: for example through making the case for green jobs, public education on energy efficiency and a national programme to end fuel poverty. Unfortunately, however, because this has not be done, the familiar arguments for business-as-usual based on energy security and price challenges are once more trotted out as reasons why we must delay the inevitable. Once more, the fabric of life, the very foundation of our wellbeing – the natural environment – comes a distant second to political convenience.

On the back of the Heathrow decision, the ongoing debate about the new Kingsnorth coal station and the proposed increase in our motorway capacity, I think it is clear how deep the green agenda runs in our present government: not very.

Originally published by The Guardian.