A unique program to capture carbon at coal power stations has been unveiled in Australia. Operators of a demonstration plant say it is the first of its type in the world and involves burning coal in oxygen rather than air, which reduces carbon dioxide emissions. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.
The pilot program in the northern Australian state of Queensland intends to show that existing power stations can be refitted to burn coal in a far cleaner way.
Over the next four years the technology will be developed and officials believe it has the potential to be a gift to the world.
The system burns coal in pure oxygen, making it easier for the capture of carbon dioxide, which many scientists say contributes to a warming planet. The carbon dioxide is then liquefied and buried deep underground in a process known as geo-sequestration.
Queensland's Mines and Energy minister, Geoff Wilson, says the project could have significant environmental benefits.
"In traditional coal-fired power stations, the coal is burnt in air in a big furnace in air and then the carbon is released into the atmosphere," Wilson said. "What is being done different here is that instead of burning the coal in air, it is being burnt in pure oxygen so that the amount of carbon emitted from the coal-fired process is significantly reduced, therefore making it easier to capture with ancillary technology the carbon produced and then to safely store it."
Australian and Japanese companies are backing the project, with partial funding from the government in Canberra.
The International Energy Agency has said that clean coal technology could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by between 25 and 28 percent.
The environmental group Friends of the Earth is not convinced the technology will be a solution to climate change. A spokeswoman says it has "very limited potential" to cut emissions in the short term.
Critics argue the technology is unproven and will not guarantee Australia's coal dependent economy an easy or cheap passage toward a low-emission future.
Australia's hunger for cheap coal makes it one of the world's worst per capita emitters of greenhouse gases. Scientists warn that the Australian continent will be especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change and may suffer more severe droughts, floods and storms as a result.
Australia's Labor government says tackling the causes of global warming are a major policy goal.